Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

10.26.16Cold Call is Inclusive

Image result for cold call classroom

Waiting to be Engaged?

Cold Call is a technique that instantly brings accountability to the classroom. That’s pretty obvious. But at its best it brings a distinctly positive form of accountability. We’ve been focusing on this idea in our trainings–emphasizing that moments of accountability are often ideal for warmth and positivity.


Put another way, the Cold Call has already done the hard work—it’s established that students should always be ready to share their thoughts and participate, that to be in class is to be a part of the conversation.  Given that, part of the teacher’s job is to add a smile and some warmth, to message, ‘Yes, I expect you to participate when I call on you, but I am doing that because I want to hear what you are thinking, I care about what you are thinking.’ Really, a Cold Call is a good thing. To say, I care what you are thinking is to remind a student that they matter.

But Cold Call is more than just making accountable engagement a warm and positive thing. Cold Call is inclusive. That may sound surprising. Let me explain.

Wanting to be called on and being willing to raise your hand are different things. So, too, having worthwhile thoughts and offering to share them are different things, and this is relevant in a wide variety of classroom instances.

I witnessed such an instance on a recent visit to Swindon Academy in the U.K. In a year 11 (tenth grade) English lesson, pupils were reading the wartime diaries of Nella Last . Their teacher, Krisha Hendra, asked them to focus deeply on the language last used in a particular phrase: “they are trained and trained and trained … to endure, to go kill other women’s lads, to wipe all the light from other mothers’ faces.” What did that phrase communicate beyond the literal? How did it communicate Last’s feelings? What were her feelings?

Hendra gave students a minute to write out their thoughts and then brought them back. She hadn’t asked for hands but you could have been excused for being sure that if she had asked there wouldn’t have been a hand in the air. There wasn’t much bright-eyed looking at you and waiting to raise my hand, miss going on. Their faces were inscrutable. Their eyes averted. Their shoulders a bit hunched. But Hendra was not cowed. She Cold Called a boy. ‘What did you see in the lines?’ she asked.

He ahem-ed. Maybe he glanced around quickly. And then he observed that taking all the light meant engulfing the mothers in darkness, it reminded you of the emptiness they would feel on the deaths of their sons. His classmates shifted in their chairs—what did that collective re-positioning mean?– and Hendra Cold Called again. “Images of light and darkness evoke ideas of good and evil,” the girl she’d chosen observed.  Hendra expressed her appreciation for the depth of their thinking—both verbally and through her affect—and she Cold Called another boy.

You could feel the culture shifting how. The ice was broken and it was suddenly permissible to share your deepest thoughts, to show that you in fact were thinking deep thoughts. And it was clear no one would think that odd. Perhaps it was easier to do that because of the Cold Call. You weren’t the kind of kid who went around announcing to everyone that she’d been thinking about light and darkness but if someone caused you to share it, well, there it was. It was turning out that an intellectual life was not the sole provenance of the prolific hand-raisers.

“It connects you specifically to their faces,” the next boy said. “Which is the place we express emotion.” Hands were going up now, “You wipe tears,” a girl was saying, “wiping light evokes that too,” but now my note taking could not keep up. They were drawing out every aspect of the passage. The discussion was brilliant, a breathless moment that quite possibly emerged only because the Cold Call broke down the barrier between “I am thinking” and “I volunteer to share.”

The Cold Call worked for at least two reasons.  It worked because it was a part of the fabric at Swindon Academy.  In every class I saw teachers asked students what they were thinking- to share their thoughts whether they thought they were ready or not. And when they did this they smiled and showed that they were interested to hear. And the students, having grown used to being engaged by the adults around them, were used to the Cold Calls. They understood them and when asked they revealed their true thinking- which was often impressive.

But as I have noted, the second reason the Cold Call worked so well was that it in fact might have made it easier for some kids to take part. In some ways, the more risky the thought, the safer it is to share when you have not volunteered.

I was thinking about that moment from Krisha’s class this morning. Specifically I tried to list the reasons a student might have something very worthy to share, might even want to share it to some degree, but still not raise their hand.

She might be thinking, is this idea might be worth sharing? for example. Even more likely so if the idea was truly challenging and powerful.

Often kids want to be called on but are aware as you that there are types of kids who are hand raisers. They don’t want to appear too overeager.

Maybe the idea feels risky and they wonder should I say this out loud? Or is it stupid?

Often, in other words, a kid with an idea will not raise their hand even though part of them wants to share the idea. Sometimes there is that look–that moment of eye contact that says, “I have an idea brewing. Maybe call on me if you want.” But sometimes there is no signal at all.

Anyway I asked a few members of the TLaC team* to help me brainstorm why a student might have something to say in class but NOT raise their hand.  Here’s their list, generated in about five minutes via email:

  • I’m often worried about over-talking, so I’ll intentionally keep my hand down until I’ve heard from my peers. It’s easy to overcorrect from there and under-share as a result.
  • If a student has heard someone in the class already articulate her viewpoint then she may feel like her comment wouldn’t add anything new, (e.g. “she took mine.”) even if she actually had a more nuanced view that might enhance the discussion.
  • Student is afraid to show you what they know because they’re afraid of how they’ll be perceived socially
  • Student is a perfectionist and afraid of not communicating their answer exactly right…or they think they still need to develop their idea to get it just how they want it before sharing with peers
  • Generally shy/reserved/self-conscious
  • If a second language learner, might be less confident about having the right words or self-conscious about an accent depending on what the rest of class mix is
  • A student might not see an obvious entry point into discussion with their thought/question
  • A student might have only a partially formulated thought, that they think may not be worthy of class discussion
  • Raised their hand before and wasn’t called on so thinks there’s “no point”
  • Might seem too simple but: student is not feeling well


As you can see the reasons they came up are diverse and incisive and legit. So legit, in fact, that I think it goes a long way to explaining something fascinating about Cold Call that we’ve often noticed in our trainings with adults: We often find that once we’ve Cold Called someone who has not been a hand-raiser, they then become a hand-raiser. Perhaps sometimes it’s just being reminded that you can do it–in a room full of 100 other adults or in a classroom of your year 11 peers.

Anyway, it’s made me believe even more strongly that Cold Call is deeply inclusive—perversely inclusive, you might say. It allows students to participate without having to go through an additional step–hand-raising–that is influenced by a score of other variables and fraught by its sending a dozen social signals.

*Insights shared by John Costello, Dan Cotton, Joaquin Hernandez, Maggie Johnson, and Hilary Lewis

, , ,

4 Responses to “Cold Call is Inclusive”

  1. Dylan Wiliam
    October 26, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    This is exactly what we found in “The classroom experiment” ( Everyone hated Cold Call at first (we called it “No hands up, except to ask a question”). Teachers hated it because it disrupted their routines. The students who had their hands up all the time hated it because they couldn’t show off that they knew the answer. The students who never raised their hands hated it because now they couldn’t stay “below the radar” and instead had to pay attention. But over time, the class became more cohesive. One high achieving student, William, said, “I never knew my classmates were so smart.” When students were allowed to raise their hands, the classroom dialogue was dominated by the quickest students, not necessarily the ones with the most important or interesting things to say. And the students who used to have their hands up all the time (actually, just most of the time, not all the time) said they always seemed to get called on when they didn’t know. The result was that students saw that everyone got things wrong at times, which made the class more supportive of each other as learners. Cold call may look scary, but as Doug says, it’s actually not. It helps create an atmosphere where students understand that “Mistakes are evidence that the work the teacher gave you is tough enough to get you smarter.”

  2. Leanne Riordan
    November 12, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    I think sometimes a student realizes that they misunderstood the question or interpreted if differently after hearing the first couple of responses from their peers. Could be a language issue for English learner, or could just be a different perspective. Either way, including these responses is helpful feedback for the teacher, and could add a layer of discussion that the teacher didn’t even think about when planning the lesson. Cold call helps bring out a range of ideas, and creates a safe culture of error.

Leave a Reply