The context of online learning presents a litany of challenges for teachers and learners: driving engagement, building investment, lesson delivery, maintaining focus, distributing materials, and on and on.
One implication of this generally agreed upon reality—that remote learning is hard for everyone involved—can be a heightened reluctance to “put students on the spot.” After all, there are even more reasons than usual for why a student might not be in a position to readily offer an answer.
For many teachers, the practice of cold calling—choosing a student to answer a question without asking for a volunteer—can register as overly zealous, or even minorly confrontational.
There’s the question: “What is the length of the hypotenuse, Alexa?” But then, lurking just below the surface, is the feeling of an implied accusation: “You don’t know the length of the hypotenuse, do you, Alexa?”
But why do these feelings of anxiety accompany cold calling for some teachers and students?
A big part of it might be attributable to the fact that both teachers and students have experience cold calling in exactly this punitive or accusatory way. I’m personally guilty! I can remember a specific instance where, in a flash of frustration, I cold called a student who had been repeatedly turning to talk with their neighbor. The question was asked in bad faith, and it subtly reinforced for the entire class that cold calling could be wielded as a sort of “gotcha” tool.
And in any case, it feels bad when a knowledge gap or an inability to respond is publicly laid bare! Even in classrooms where the teacher has done significant legwork in reinforcing the inherent value in making mistakes (or in trying and failing).
But despite all this baggage, there’s a strong case to be made for cold calling.
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In a remote learning environment, it might seem like cold calling is a tool to be avoided. After all, cold calling and soliciting an extended silence or a wrong answer that needs to be addressed can feel like a demoralizing setback for a teacher doing their utmost to deliver an engaging, effective lesson to a screenful of learners.
But we think that a tool like cold calling—if implemented consistently and interspersed with modifications—is exactly the sort of teaching strategy that can move the needle on participation and rigor in a remote learning environment. And in the end, it’s all about norm-setting and execution.
Consider the online classroom where cold calling is de rigueur, and where students are comfortable offering wrong answers because their teacher has consistently made them feel brave and good for trying and being wrong.
When class begins, each student is attuned to the reality that their teacher might ask them a question at any time. So when the first cold call comes, and Alexa doesn’t know the answer right away, a few key things happen:
- Alexa feels empowered and comfortable in taking her time to process the question and formulate an answer.
- The teacher, while they are in an online environment that offers them few of the cues that productive thought is happening—the scratch of pencils, the tilt of heads, the sound of pages turning for notes to be checked—feels relaxed and confident in letting several moments of silence elapse.
- The other students, while they’re looking at Alexa’s inset screen, are also thinking about how they would answer the question. They fully expect the teacher to eventually cold call one of them to ask them to evaluate Alexa’s answer, or to supply details Alexa omitted, etc.
- While Alexa thinks, the teacher is sending a private message to Henry: “Heads-up, Henry: I’m going to ask you to evaluate Alexa’s answer in a minute. Get ready!”
This last step is a “warm calling” variation, and in an in-person classroom might occur as a whispered aside while Alexa thinks. And it’s even easier in a remote classroom, when the teacher could execute a couple or three warm call notices in quick succession!
Of course, it’s important to underline how much of this sequence relies on the legwork of creating the conditions necessary to implement cold calling effectively. It takes time to set down norms around celebrating effort rather than attainment, as well as establishing trust with students to help them interpret cold calling as a good faith tool.
Ultimately, we think “cold calling” is due for a rebrand. Consider “cool calling,” the question-asking tool for the teacher who does their utmost to support their students, build an environment of trust and warmth, and maintain high standards for each of their students.
Ross Trudeau writes, films, produces, and manages all of Fishtank's digital media content. Prior to his current position, he joined Match Corps III in 2006 and served for three years as Director of Match Corps Recruiting. A graduate of the Match Teacher Residency, he taught English and Creative Writing for three years at KIPP: King Collegiate in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mr. Trudeau holds a degree in English Literature from Brown University.