Cold Call Forensics: purpose; spirit; details.

I probably discuss cold calling more than any other teaching technique. I think this is because I feel it makes a very big difference when it has become the default questioning mode in a class and warrants detailed exploration. However, despite its power, teachers’ habits and inhibitions can often prevent them from deploying the technique effectively or consistently. Here I’m going to look at each of the five steps we use in Walkthrus to define cold calling, exploring the purpose, the spirit and the technical details of each one.

Purpose The core purpose of cold calling is to create a culture, norms, where ALL students engage in thinking about the material in hand. So, we should ask questions in such a way that gives all students the opportunity to think, with the soft accountability that they might be expected to share their answer, thus motivating their brains to engage and do the thinking required.
SpiritIn practice, this is all about maximising the ratio of students thinking, engaging, preparing to respond. It’s not an absolute law – but it’s definitely far superior to the default of hands up or calling out which automatically create the opportunity to opt out, to hang back, to avoid thinking or, conversely, to dominate and prevent others from thinking for themselves.
DetailsThe key to success is firstly to make ‘no hands up, no calling out’ absolutely explicitly part of classroom norms; a solid behaviour management expectation, enforced as with any other.

The next is to form the habit of asking questions in such a way that all students feel the questions are for them:
Let’s have a think, what would 11 x 19 be then?
Ok.. everyone, what does this phrase tell us about the narrator’s perspective?

What do we think will happen next?

This form of question is a habit you can work on, replacing the habit of saying things like ‘Can anyone tell me… Who think’s they can explain…. Who wants to suggest a reason….? ‘ – which all invite volunteers and opting out.

Of course there are lots of situations where this is embedded. For example.. Ok, I’m going to read the passage so be ready to summarise for me; I’ll go through the examples and then check you’ve understood. Here students learn to expect that they could be asked to summarise or to share their understanding -because the teacher always selects someone and it could be me!
Purpose Thinking takes time so if you are asking students to think, you need to give them the time to do that – at a level appropriate to the material and the question you’ve asked. However thinking time also cements the idea that the question is for everyone – rather than waiting to see if you are asked before doing the thinking.
SpiritThinking time shouldn’t be tokenistic and should vary according the question. If you are asking 6 x 9 or ‘the capital of Germany’ then it should be a quick recall. If you are asking students to work out 124 x 11 in their heads, or rank three factors in order of importance, with reasons, then it takes a bit of time. This should be silent thinking time -where you can scan the room and reinforce the idea that, yes, I mean you all; yes I could ask anyone; yes, all of you matter and I want you all involved and included.
DetailsIf thinking time is too short, it undermines the idea that students should think.. but it also creates a feeling amongst students that you just wait to be asked.

Eg. What is 11 x 17 (3 seconds wait)…Sophie? The wait time is so short that really nobody including Sophie has had a chance to think but Sophie has already been picked. If that is the norm, students learn to wait until they are picked. Why bother otherwise? And then Sophie has to do her thinking on the spot under everyone’s gaze.

If you give more thinking time, it’s better on all fronts: Ok, everyone, in your heads, what is 11 x 17? (15-20 seconds wait?).. Right, let’s see…. Sophie.. how did you get on? Sophie has had time to get her answer and everyone else has too; many more students will have done the thinking.

So Cold calling is not ‘directed questioning’. You are explicitly asking everyone first – and then selecting someone. Everyone is being asked the question. The thinking time buys you time to create a strongly inclusive sense that everyone should be getting ready to respond.

Of course, the thinking time can be included in the preceding task: while students are following an explanation or listening to something being read, they are thinking.. and the anticipation of a potential cold call, helps them marshall the mental resources to keep their attention focused on the material. If asked to summarise or share their understanding, they shouldn’t necessarily then need additional thinking time if they’ve been listening and thinking all along. If it’s a routine part of lessons to check for understanding via a cold call during reading and explanatory inputs, then students form stronger habits around keeping focused. (And conversely, if cold calling is not the norm, the habit being formed is to simply bide your time until someone else does the thinking, the summarising, the checking… etc)
Purpose The tone and language used in an invitation to respond should communicate to a student that they matter, should reinforce the expectation that they should be thinking and engaged and must also support creating a culture where error and uncertainty are normal, no-risk and welcome.
SpiritThe way you ask questions in cold calling makes or breaks the technique. It’s a warm invitation to respond, to share thoughts, ideas and answers. It should feel like a natural, low stakes, low intensity moment – not a high stakes high pressure moment of sudden anxiety-inducing public scrutiny. At the same time, it communicates expectations: yes, I’m asking you because I’m expecting you to be able to give an answer because I know you have the ability to do so and should have been making the required effort.
DetailsIt’s important to find a tone that has that warm invitational feel, rather than an intense gotcha moment.
So, Abdi, how did you get on? Michaela – what answer did you come up with? Jonah – let’s hear your thoughts on this issue.

The tone communicates a sense that you want them to give an honest account of where they are in the thinking; it doesn’t have to be perfect; it’s ok to be unsure.

Avoid drama; no big drum-roll build ups.. looking for your next victim, someone to pick on.. someone to spotlight under the interrogation lamp… no rubbing your hands with glee. All of this just makes students want to hide. If students don’t like being asked – maybe examine how it feels to be asked in your lessons.. do you make it safe and low-risk enough?

Be sure to go right into the corners – physically and metaphorically. Over the course of a series of lessons, ask the most confident and least confident, the most and least enthusiastic.. the students near and far.. those looking lively and alert and those looking sullen or zoned out.. Make sure there are no no-go areas in your classroom; don’t humour students’ defence mechanisms erected to put you off asking them. Make them all feel that it is a simple, neutral, no-drama matter of fact that you might ask them to contribute.

(See Cold Call variations for a detailed discussion of how to manage shy students and those with lower confidence etc)

If you do throw in a randomiser (lollipop sticks etc) as a variation on this technique – it’s not strictly cold calling; it’s randomised questioning. You lose the sense that you selected the student because you personally wanted to hear from them. However it can serve as an occasional bias-checker so you ask students you may not have done otherwise. But don’t make the selection a drama.. keep it super low key or even invisible to students. Just pick and then invite the response without theatrics.. low key is the key!
Purpose It’s important to respond to answers in a way the deepens the level of knowledge and understanding in the class discourse whilst also supporting students to build confidence, correcting errors and misconceptions and/or receiving affirmation for their engagement, effort and success in formulating answers.
SpiritThe spirit is to create a flow of short exchanges, seeking depth and completeness from each respondent, rather than creating a series of short, shallow responses or a collective answer that creates an illusion of understanding. This so that you communicate a sense that you care about what they say..that you listened.. and to set standards around depth of response, use of language, pitching higher.. etc. It doesn’t tell us very much if across the whole class we can assemble a good answer – what matters is that each student individually can express a good answer.

It’s also vital to foster a culture and related habits that might make it feel good to be right but definitely make it safe to be wrong or unsure. This means anticipating what you’ll say if a student is wrong, uncertain, says “I don’t know”, feels awkward…. or if they give a good answer.
DetailsIf a student’s first answer is correct or on the right lines.. make it a habit to follow up with the same student, probing further at least once. Ask them to extend their answer, to give further examples, to explain their method, to suggest additional factors or features.. anything in the context of the subject that make them elaborate further.

eg If you asked students the three types of factors to consider, with examples … check the student can give you three types with three matching examples. If they give you one or two, probe to get them to complete the task. Avoid the habit of getting one idea from Peter, one from Mo and one from Sophie. This doesn’t tell you whether each of them could provide all three. Ask Peter for his three.

If the answer is a simple factual response – the answer is 11. 5; the answer is C; the answer is carbon dioxide – make it a natural habitual response to follow up with a process question: Well done, that’s right.. so how did you work it out?

If a student is wrong – build up a set of responses that helps a student to turn things around in a low intensity safe manner. It’s well worth scripting some options with colleagues as a CPD activity:
Nearly, that’s close but not quite. Let’s work through it.
Good effort but that’s not right. The proper term is X… let’s practice that…


Try to avoid making this awkward with a student giving repeated wrong answers or getting flustered in the public space of the class. Intervene early to teach them the answer then get them to repeat it back as a check for understanding. I’m not personally a fan of the approach where teachers say ‘who thinks they can help Alice out?‘.. I don’t think this makes Alice feel good.. Better, in my view, to help Alice directly, supporting her to form a good answer and rehearse it there and then.

If a student is partially right.. but the answer is actually rather mediocre, the Say It Again Better strategy helps them to reframe their answer, having a second go to improve their first effort.
Purpose One purpose of asking the same question again is to provide you with a better read on the class’ grasp of ideas. One student getting it right or wrong tells you absolutely zero about what any other student was thinking. Another purpose is to retain student’s attention and focus whilst you are probing and responding to the previous respondents. If students assume that, once you’ve asked someone, they can switch off, they can lose attention while you are engaging in your first short dialogue. Conversely, if the norm is that you nearly always ask the same question again, they retain their focus, listening to other students’ answers.
SpiritThe spirit of this is to be absolutely explicit with students that we need to check multiple respondents in order to get to the heart of the matter; we don’t assume that one student’s answer has somehow zapped into all their heads. We also create cross-class accountability – students are expected to listen to each other’s answers and be ready to compare their thinking with the responses that preceded them. That can’t be done so well if the questions are different for each student.
DetailsThe flow might be something like this:
Ok.. so which three factors did you select Mo? Interesting choice… and why did you say X was the most important? Are you sure.. not Y? Ok. Well justified. Now…… Jenni – what about you, let’s hear your three. Are they the same as Mo’s? Which one is different? What’s your reason for Y being higher up than X? That’s very good. So… David, do you agree with Jenni and Mo.. or did you have something different?

Or
Right then everyone, what is 17.5% of £120…(thinking time… ).. Melissa, what have you got?
Yes, well done. What was your method? Great, that worked well.
And… (scanning the room….) Ahmed.. how did you get on. What was your answer? Good. Talk us through your method? Ah- is that the same as Melissa’s method? Which one is more efficient would you say? And what if it was 16.5%? (Slight variation to probe).


This habit of asking for more than one student to share their answer allows many more ideas to be flushed out; you are more likely to expose uncertainties and errors and, if students are repeating good answers and explaining them, that’s all good consolidatory stuff – time well spent.

The key is to make sure you explicitly expect the whole class to be the audience, ready to respond, whenever you are talking to one student for any length of time. The dialogue with one student is explictly meant to serve as a learning moment for everyone. The follow-up questions reinforce that accountability – the expectation of sustained attention and engagement.

You have to feel the rhythm and timing of it as you go -deciding how far to continue probing in a dialogue with Peter, before moving to bring in Sophie and then perhaps Alicia over there at the back. Cold calling creates the climate where they are all ready for it.. expecting it… staying with you, following the discourse, focusing their attention, exploring and reformulating or consolidating their thinking as they go.. because they might be asked next – always knowing that, if they’re unsure, you’ll be there to help them. It’ll be ok.




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