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.