“Classroom practice that supports the notion of “cultural democracy” honors students’ individual perceptions of content and concept as valid, educative, and fluid. What is more, instructional environments emphasizing openness of discourse embody the tolerance and civic understanding that we need more of in our communities. However, far too often, in our classrooms and our communities, discussion is adversarial, polemic, and insular. It does not have to be that way. Engaging students in discussion encourages perspective taking and a dialogue of civility and tolerance grounded in mutual understanding, respect, and empathy.”  Salas Fitchett, and Mercado, 2013

One of the things I am most curious about these days is the way in which questions and answers play out in a classroom. What does this look like in your classroom or the classrooms that you are privileged to visit? I would like to suggest that you become curious and notice what is currently happening.

I am definitely dating myself, but I am probably not alone in remembering the iconic hand raising and shouting out of Arnold Horshack from the 1970s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter (worth a 12 second watch for a laugh!) 

Here we have a room full of disengaged students except for Horshack who is jumping out of his skin and shouting “Oh, Oh, Oh!” in order to be called on.

Just about any classroom you walk into we will see a teacher asking a question.

Some students will then raise their hands, and others will not. The teacher now has an on the spot decision to make. Who should they call on? What if only some students raised their hands? What if no students raised their hands? Posing a question and asking for hands up for a correct response places the teacher in a position to make multiple in the moment decisions. I believe we have some alternatives to this age-old practice that may better serve learning.

Let’s continue to play out the scenario:

With a call for an answer and hands raised, ultimately, the teacher has to call on one student to answer what was asked. In this type of interaction, two people are participating - the teacher and the student called on. The rest of the class may or may not be listening. The student selected for that moment in time holds significant status in the classroom. They are the person being validated. For the rest of the students, they are observers in this interaction. Often with this practice, over time, certain students grow to be perceived as the experts in the room. These are the students that a teacher may rely on as “go to” students to call on when they are hoping someone will provide a particular insight. Teachers know who these students are, as do the rest of the students in the classroom. If the goal of asking a question is to provide an opportunity for everyone to learn from what is being asked, this protocol is problematic as this creates issues with access and equity.

When only one person is chosen to respond to a question, the learning opportunities for the other students in the room are compromised.

Carrie Cole of Side by Side Consulting warns that “the overused classroom practice of hand-raising contributes significantly to the achievement gap in our schools. Essentially, when we tell students to raise their hands to answer, we are sending the message that they can choose whether they want to participate in the lesson. Further, of those students who are raising their hands, only 25% are participating consistently. Additionally, when we think about the students who often raise their hands the most—who are they? Clearly, they are the students who most often know the answers.

Now, let’s think about this from the perspective of practice opportunities.

We know if students are struggling with a concept, they need additional opportunities to practice in order to be successful. The crux of this is that these are often not the students raising their hands and answering.

Because of this, the students in most need of additional practice are often receiving fewer practice opportunities than the other students.”

As a solution to lack of full participation, or in an attempt to keep students accountable for listening, many classrooms use a cold-call procedure, where they don’t ask for volunteers, but rather call on a student to answer a question on the spot. For example, cold calling happens when we draw sticks with names on them or when we call on a student who looks like they are not paying attention.

Author Alfie Kohn writes about cold calling:
“I believe a student’s choice not to talk should be respected. The fact that there are problems with raising hands doesn’t entitle us to turn to the equally flawed option of cold-calling — or vice versa. There’s something deeply objectionable about saying “You have to talk when I say you should” The primary reason to reject this is that the classroom remains entirely too teacher-centered. What we need to develop — with students, not just for them — is a model of discussion that encourages everyone to speak up when they’re ready without forcing anyone to do so, and that supports the community in becoming self-governing rather than giving one person in the room (the teacher) the sole authority to decide who talks when. Alongside the strong moral argument to abandoning raising hands and cold-calling, the process of fashioning an alternative helps students to acquire an enormously useful social skill. Giving them the chance to do so is also a powerful signal of the teacher’s trust in them.”

One such alternative approach from the article talking to learn is called creating principled discussions.

The authors explain that “When discussion focuses on promoting empathetic, genuine interchange, talking to learn can transform traditional classrooms into communities of accomplished learners who interact and respect each other as equals.”

Another strategy to shift instructional practice to make questioning and answering more equitable is this 5 step protocol by Side by Side Consulting. 

The protocol is explained in detail HERE.

I have modified the final step of this strategy to share (rather than cold call). After students have had time to think, to share, and to formulate an answer, it is important to gather the ideas from around the room. One way to share is to have every student write their idea on a whiteboard and then the teacher scans the room looking for common solutions. This strategy allows the teacher to assess how each and every student has chosen to answer the question.

Another share strategy is to ask for 3 volunteers. While hands may be raised at this point, this is not cold calling as everyone has had an opportunity to think, talk, listen, and maybe even write about their solution. This final stage is simply a gathering of ideas versus fishing for correct answers.

A suggestion to end the back-and-forth of traditional question asked / students raise hands / teachers calls on students until a correct answer is given may be a significant change in practice. Ending the practice of cold calling where any student can be called on at any time may feel like an overwhelming shift. The experts above have made their case for change.

A couple of alternative strategies have been presented. What do you think?

Is it time to let these age-old practices go?
Is there an alternative that is working for you?
These are all individual decisions. What I advocate for us that we remain curious about the impact of all of our decisions in the classroom. And that we relentlessly seek out ways to bring about powerful opportunities for each and every learner in our classrooms.

Calls to Action:

  1. Read: Click on any of the articles and links presented and read further about these ideas.
  2. Observe and note: Think about the instructional practice and the back and forth that is in place when questions are being asked in classrooms. Who asks the questions? Who answers them? How are questions asked? How are questions answered? Who is or is not participating? What types of questions are being asked and answered? And, most importantly, what is the impact on learning as a result?
  3. Reflect and write: What questioning and answering strategies can you either continue or put in place to support an equitable classroom?
  4. Plan with a colleague How can you invite more students into the conversation?
  5. Share with me on Twitter @looneymath - Which ideas from this blog resonate most with you?

Share your thoughts with me at @LooneyMath

View More Musings on Teaching Mathematics

Keep in Touch and Learn More:

connect with us on twitter         linkedin_logo_grey      math teacher resources       receive articles on mathematics education in your inbox        sign up for our newsletters