The Cold Call

We’ve known for a while that my daughter isn’t liking this year at school as much. Yesterday she revealed one of the things that’s bothering her, which is that in her perception the teacher frequently “cold calls” on her during math work, and that she’s felt humiliated by getting the answer wrong or not being able to calculate the answer quickly. This puts me in a tough spot partly because I really don’t want to be one of those parents who questions the professionalism of a teacher at the drop of a hat (academics being especially prone to this): not only is there an issue of respect involved but also there can be unintended consequences from speaking to a teacher about an issue like this: a child who is very pointedly not called upon after an parental intervention might feel just as singled out or humiliated as otherwise.

What I did want to think about was the pedagogical justification for the “cold call”, for picking a student at random and asking them to produce an answer or comment about the material that the class is working on. It’s really not something I do in my own classroom, but I know colleagues who do it at times or do it a good deal. I can think of two major arguments for this technique. The first is competency-based: that there will be contexts outside the classroom in which students will have to produce relevant answers to direct queries quickly and accurately, so it’s best to give them practice at doing so inside the classroom. The second is the instrumental use of humiliation as a motivational tool, that a student who is not doing the work needs to be publically shamed in some fashion.

The first argument makes some degree of sense to me, but on the other hand, I’m not clear that cold-calling is the best way to practice or learn how to give rapid, accurate answers to public queries. When I’m teaching to a skill that I think is something that is called for in professional or civic contexts where I don’t entirely agree with the manner in which it is called for in some of those contexts, I try to make that clear, so that the skill itself is something open to active questioning or consideration by students. More importantly, whether I’m happy with the instrumental framing of a particular competency or not, I try to make sure that we get to it in stages, that I consciously deconstruct everything that’s involved in a single demonstration or enaction of that skill. I’d try to do some of that explanation whether I was working with elementary school children or college students. This is part of how you persuade students that they need to do something that they may find unpleasant or unfamiliar. A persuaded student sticks with the task a lot longer than a commanded student.

The second argument? I concede that in some cases it might work in some narrow sense of that word. Being humiliated unquestionably motivates a lot of human action and feeling. You don’t forget that experience in a hurry. Neither, however, do you easily forgive it, even when the person doing it to you seemed to genuinely have your best interest in mind. People who’ve been publically shamed or humiliated do not reliably change their behavior so as not to be ashamed: it’s just as common for them to form a more abiding hatred of their tormentor and his or her purposes, or to adopt more tenacious habits of avoidance. If purposefully making a student feel ashamed is ever a legitimate pedagogical tool, I think it’s the equivalent of breaking the glass on a fire alarm: done only when the only alternative is to let a building burn down.

The really tricky thing is the intersection between the first objective and the second. I can’t anticipate every possible emotional reaction to a teaching technique or strategy that I commonly use and see as effective or necessary. I’ve been surprised in the past by hearing from a student that some approach I thought was fairly ordinary made them feel excited or passionate or alienated or unhappy. I can’t try accommodate every possible temperament or background or I will end up teaching to none of them. I do think I can make a good guess when a strategy has a higher chance of disturbing or confusing some relatively common subset of my students, and that’s when I have to make a pretty smart call about whether the upside justifies the risk.

In my own professional vision, I’d put cold calling very high up on the list of “probably not worth it”: skills of rapid, accurate response to public queries can be built up (and put to the test) in other ways. The risks–particularly in this case to elementary-age girls and their engagement with mathematics–seem very high. Most people don’t develop a motivation to do something independently, with passion, that they associate with emotional pain and embarassment.

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19 Responses to The Cold Call

  1. Hmm. Interesting break-down of the pedagogy, Tim. I don’t ever “cold call” students for answers. However, we do “cold readings” quite often in some of my courses–there is material that was assigned to be read for that day, I expect students to bring their material with them to class, and on particular passages that I want us to discuss I will, not infrequently, call on students to read the passage out loud. Cruel, or an important tool for generating attention to a given text? Maybe both.

  2. The first is competency-based: that there will be contexts outside the classroom in which students will have to produce relevant answers to direct queries quickly and accurately, so it?? best to give them practice at doing so inside the classroom. The second is the instrumental use of humiliation as a motivational tool, that a student who is not doing the work needs to be publically shamed in some fashion.

    I think that’s a false choice you offer here: there are many other reasons to cold-call a student, foremost among them a wandering attention span. Granted, I don’t cold-call them in search of a singularly correct answer, but if I see a student whose writing is brilliant but who never participates, I will call on them in class as a means of building their self-confidence. (Obviously, I play a rigged game here: I ask them something I know they have a fine answer for, and then praise them when they produce it.)

  3. Luke Neff says:

    I use cold calling somewhat frequently and with success and minimal humiliation (ok, hopefully none). But, it seems a different kind. What I’ve done is similar to what shows up in this NYT article, “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green:

    In Cold Call, No. 22, stolen from Harvard Business School, which Lemov attended, the students don’t raise their hands — the teacher picks the one who will answer the question. Lemov’s favorite variety has the teacher ask the question first, and then say the student’s name, forcing every single student to do the work of figuring out an answer.

    This method — offering the question first and forcing each student to engage the question ahead of the cold call — works… and yet there are instances when it falls flat or finds a student in a vulnerable moment. And that’s when the teacher’s response — who the teacher is — matters far more than the technique.

  4. Jerry White says:

    I also think a lot about how one of the benefits of courses in the humanities is, essentially, teaching people how to think on their feet, how to hold their own under spontaneous questioning. I also dislike cold calling and actually do it very rarely, but I wonder sometimes if I ought to do it more often. You say that “skills of rapid, accurate response to public queries can be built up (and put to the test) in other ways” and I was wondering what some of those might be, which ones have worked the best for you, etc.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    So I think this is interesting. The idea of calling on a student that you know to be smart who is not paying attention with a question that you know or think they can answer sounds right to me, and I wonder if maybe I’ve done that myself more than I think. But even there, isn’t the point partly that it carries the risk or the threat of humiliation, a sort-of “some day I might do this and you won’t know, so snap to it and pay attention”?

    I do see the point of going around the room and having everyone speak to a prompt or question, which is one of the ways I’d work on responsive skills–spread the challenge around, lower the stakes a little, make it seem less punitive or isolating. I think the other thing I do some is to have us read or examine some kind of material, model how you’d represent or summarize it quickly if you were asked to do so, and then ask students to do the same with the next passage and the next one and so on. Training wheels versions of getting called out to produce an answer.

  6. G. Weaire says:

    Age and maturity is very important here. I had an absolutely brilliant chemistry teacher in my late teens. And a certain fear of embarrassment was certainly part of how he achieved what he achieved. But if he had used the same style even with 13 or 14-year olds, it would not have been appropriate or effective. But for old enough students, the plus was that praise from him really did feel like it was deserved, precisely because one knew that he would not fail to criticize if that was deserved. (I would distinguish here between embarrassment and humiliation.)

    Also, subject-matter. I don’t do anything like this in lecture or discussion of material in translation. But in language instruction, one really does have to call on the students frequently, since they will need to know the material well enough that it becomes immediate and unconscious. Silly mistakes and embarrassment are an inevitable byproduct – all one can do is keep repeating that everyone is going to make a mistake at some point, and that what happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.

  7. David Chudzicki says:

    To me it has often seemed like a way of forcing some kind of participation in a context where people are hesitant to speak up (independent of any fear of humiliation or being wrong or whatever). I’m four years out of college and one year out of grad school and it still happens to me that a professor wants someone to verbally engage, I have something I want to say, but I don’t feel comfortable socially until it’s forced.

    I’m sure there are better solutions to this, though (on the part of teacher AND student).

  8. ivan812 says:

    I think this may play out very differently at a place like Swarthmore as compared to at a big state school. In my classes there are often students who will NEVER, or next to never, volunteer to speak. They would sit silently all semester and let the same 6 students speak (out of 28). As a result, I figure out ways to ‘cold call’ them, but always with some prior warning and only for very open-ended questions that are hard to get wrong. I think often they appreciate it, but once in a while someone complains about it. I figure, you’re a student in a class, you should be prepared to contribute once in a while.

    Sounds like a different kind of cold calling with your daughter, though.

  9. CMarko says:

    When I was in Teach for America, I was encouraged to use cold calling. In theory, it was beneficial: it was supposed to keep the class moving, to keep students engaged, to bring students into the conversation who didn’t normally raise their hands, and to allow the teacher to check for understanding quickly and easily.

    I never got good at cold calling, though, or at least never got comfortable with it, for exactly the reasons you describe. There’s always the threat of humiliation lurking in the background, and some students were visibly uncomfortable with public speaking. (Also, by the time students get to middle school, some of them simply won’t answer questions in front of the class, even if they are called on.)

    I’m in law school now, so I’ve seen a lot of cold calling from the other side. Some professors do it efficiently and kindly; others don’t know when to stop pushing a student who clearly doesn’t know an answer. I’m happy to report that no one is as bad as the Paper Chase.

  10. sschnei1 says:

    I think we’ve already picked up on some really good alternative motivations for the practice. But even if cold-calling were unimpeachable in theory or in general, there would still be a problem with this scenario. Your daughter feels this move as somewhat aggressive or offensive. That’s still not necessarily a problem in itself, but the teacher isn’t presenting a reasonable challenge here – the student hasn’t been given any tools to help deal with this situation. To my mind, this is a whole other subject area of real learning that should be taught as explicitly as math or spelling. The first step is usually to take try and breathe, relax…

    I really like to think about Wittgenstein’s discussions of math in the Philosophical Investigations. He makes a very convincing case that math is not at all rigid and entirely rule-governed, as we often think and always tell our youngsters. It’s a social practice that is not essentially different from any other. At some point we have to stop giving explicit instructions (we run out of them) and trust the student to continue as we would. I think telling students this would very much validate their feelings about math. How can it be true, as we say, that math is clean and simple and rule-governed and still be so hard? If it’s so easy, how can I come to a point where I am hesitant to continue, don’t know how to continue? Doing math – continuing where the teacher left off – is prone to that very familiar social worry we all have: am I doing this right? But in so much as it is, we need to emphasize a whole different skill set for dealing with the anxiety and difficulty of learning math and doing math. We need to be calm, have confidence, be tolerant of error (ours and others). It sounds like the teacher is not only neglecting to teach this, but demonstrating otherwise with his/her actions.

  11. anna h says:

    last quarter i had my first ever experience with this technique. i’m a grad student in computer science, and my first professor of my first course just started asking people questions. it was sort of intimidating at first, but it turned out my prof doesn’t really wait that long, and will usually just answer the question or call on someone else if you think for longer than a certain amount or time, or if you say you don’t know (which is totally allowed and happens not infrequently). also, he is good-humored. in the end i have found it makes for a pretty engaging atmosphere, and builds camaraderie among us students because we’re all trying to rise to this challenge. my only complaint is that he calls on some people more than others. probably this is meant to be nice to people he thinks are more shy, but i sometimes wonder if there is something deeper going on there.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Some kind of glitch in the blog yesterday led to some comments disappearing. I fortunately have an email record of them, so I’m putting them back up.


    Western Dave wrote:
    How accurate is your daughter reading the situation? For example, does the teacher ask for volunteers early but say that all students will answer at least one question and she will call on people if they haven’t said something within a set time period (I do this with upper school girls and co-ed classes with reminders like “we still haven’t heard from so and so yet, I’m going to be calling on you soon if you don’t volunteer). Also, how is the teacher reacting when she gives wrong answers. Is the teacher praising the pieces she got right? Or asking her to explain how she got there? I’ve had some students who felt absolutely humiliated in my class when they’ve answered stuff wrong, but neutral observers (there at my invitation to help me and the kid) said it wasn’t me. The kid had a narrative in her head about what was going on, but it wasn’t an accurate reflection of what was happening in the classroom (lot’s of other people were getting things wrong, she was actually ge
    tting a lot right but focusing on the pieces she got wrong etc.).

    So rather than immediately raising hell with the teacher try this. Tell the teacher that your daughter is experiencing a lot of frustration about math (which she never has before) and that your stumped as to why. You want to be a good supportive parent so what can you do to help your daughter. If you get a response that sounds like the teacher is talking about your girl and has helpful suggestions run with those. If the teacher seems clueless about your daughter as a kid but says she never volunteers, try this: “she has some issues around anxiety and tends to freeze up in cold calling situations is there a way you could cue her that she is going to be the next person called on?” Lots of IEPs have stuff about this in them and the teacher will recognize this language. Ze will probably have an established procedure with this. (Mine is that, because I move around the room a lot, I’ll stand in front of your desk when I’m about to call on you both for the anxiety kids and t
    he distraction kids). Another technique might be for her to ask a question about a problem (even if she already knows the answer) to make it look like she talked. For my students that have really bad anxiety about talking in class, I usually have them script a question for a couple of classes (that is, they’ll have a question about the hw ready for the start of class, one they’ve e-mailed me the night before and I’ve okayed). This helps get them over the talking hump in the first couple of weeks of class.
    You also need to figure out: is she getting bored, getting the concepts, letting her attention wander and then being embarrassed at getting caught and thus getting flustered. Is this only around math? It never happens with other subjects? I think she’s a year older than my girl so it’s not like she’s got a separate teacher for all her subjects. And BTW what math curriculum is being used?

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    North wrote:

    There are a bunch of issues with cold-calling, which I think are best treated separately.

    The first is the sense of being picked on. Very natural. There are a lot of strategies for dealing with this, the simplest being random draw. I don’t trust my own ability to randomly select a student, so if I were doing much cold-calling, I’d try that. Teacher manner also plays a role: if the teacher is friendly and encouraging and emphasize that mistakes are totally cool (if it’s the kind of question where there can be a specific mistake), the students are more likely to be ok with it.

    The second is the pedagogical value. I think there’s real value in insisting on students speaking even when they’re uncomfortable doing so, and making sure that the class isn’t just dominated by the thoughts of the few students who participate. Cold-calling is one way to achieve that. Another is to have a question everyone answers, or a question every other/third person answers if there’s not space, or an opportunity for every one/other/third person to share a comment or thought.

    The third is what questions lend themselves to cold-calling. I think the people who point to the need to develop rapid and immediate fluency are making a compelling case for cold-calling in that sort of class. Extremely open-ended questions also go well, especially if the instructor emphasizes that he or she is looking for people’s thoughts, that they can be experimental, that they can change their minds halfway through, and most especially if the instructor is the kind of good listener and facilitator who can extract an interesting point from some slightly confused thoughts.

    The worst kind of cold-calling is the kind of thing where there’s a definite right answer but it requires some thought.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Jliedi wrote:

    This sounds familiar in that a few years back, Eldest went through some crisis moments in math education that were tied more to confidence than competence. Cold-calling is incredibly difficult to carry off as an educator with very sensitive students but, as you note, pretty much integral to some subjects such as math.

    Eldest is halfway through high school now and has developed the maturity to volunteer in math class and be philosophical about matters if she’s gotten the answer wrong. She certainly didn’t have that comfort level in the middle school years.

    I like Western Dave’s comments to approach the teacher about your daughter’s frustration. That might not be apparent in the classroom but, once informed, a good teacher will understand how to balance out the activities.

    Otherwise, as university educators, we all should be mindful of our own classroom practices. In my survey classes, I include a ‘starter question’ in the syllabus for every day in the classroom. It helps students direct their reading and signals where we’ll begin. If everyone’s had that question beforehand, there’s also a sense that I’m being “fair” by calling upon people (although I always ensure that volunteers have a chance to contribute). It also is an icebreaker — if we start talking from the get-go, it’s easy to keep that participatory momentum going and bring in new questions as the class progresses.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    My previously appearing reply to Western Dave:

    I think there’s a very good chance that my daughter is misunderstanding or misreading the situation in several respects. She’s very sensitive about feeling like she’s wrong about something and equally sensitive about anything that feels like a public rebuke. I do think that the teacher is using some kind of cold call technique, and it’s possible that she’s not aware that my daughter (or potentially others) feel exposed or vulnerable because of it, but it’s also very possible that the teacher is being very careful and doing a lot of the pedagogically careful things that you and others have recommended and it’s my daughter’s oversensitivity that’s really the interesting issue.

    I think she does have what seems to me to be a consistent cognitive style when it comes to math that I recognize because it’s how I felt all through math as well in K-12: readily understanding concepts, never feeling comfortable with calculation (either in terms of speed or accuracy). So I used to get wrong answers, especially in high school, but I could explain to the teacher not only how you were supposed to get the right answer but what the point of the problem was. It would usually just turn out that I’d ended up forgetting to add 3 at one point or something along those lines. I don’t know that I want to tell my daughter too much about that right now as it feels like I’m handing her a ready-made alibi for doing poorly in math. I wish I’d stuck with it longer and devoted more effort to it myself.

  16. mike_t says:

    Maybe the answer is simpler than the lengthy analysis you and so many others have thoughtfully provided. What if your daughter practiced her math a bit more so that she *could* solve problems when called upon? Just saying…

  17. Western Dave says:

    They have this awesome math triangle thingy at target. The daughter’s been loving it and the kindergarten boy likes it to. Especially good if she’s getting everyday math or a variant thereof that does triangles. And amazingly, we didn’t force it on her, she saw it and wanted it and it was like three bucks so Lori said sure (since we had demolished or lost all the paper math triangles). I finally got the hand of partial sums addition, but the partial sums subtraction is a bitch.

  18. joe o says:

    In law school, this was called the “socratic method”. In its ideal form the teacher doesn’t even lecture. It doesn’t help the students learn very well. It leads to people missing the forest for the trees. You are better off just studying an outline and taking some pain when the teacher calls on you and you are unprepared to discuss the details of a case. Nobody learns this till the end of first year when everybody learns this.

    The actual socratic method is even more insane. Socrates asks an ignorant person a series of questions to bring out knowledge that each of has access to prior to any experience of the world.

  19. Rex says:

    For a (to me) convincing justification for cold calling in the k-12 setting you might want to take a look at “Teach Like a Champion” by Doug Lemov.

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