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Cold Calling in the Classroom

A key focus of the teaching and learning team at Telford Park School has been whole class questioning techniques. After a research period and several discussions, we agreed our advice should be that teachers use Cold Calling as their main questioning strategy. Cold calling is a process where a question is posed to the entire class with waiting time given before calling on individuals by name for their responses. The important point here is that students are chosen by the teacher, not volunteering – either by hands up or calling out. This technique is advocated by both Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion and Tom Sherrington in Walk-Thrus and his blog Teacherhead. A great video explanation of the technique can be found here.

A starting point for our discussions had been an analysis of why we question pupils after a teaching episode. Obviously, there are more reasons than I could list here, however the main aim that came up again and again was checking for pupil understanding – and here Cold Calling is king. Hands up questioning only lets pupils who understand the content be part of the conversation, not allowing key misconceptions from pupils with a misunderstanding to be vocalised and corrected. I have also found that having a hands up culture in my room has allowed struggling pupils to wilfully disengage, hiding in the sea of hands, and avoiding answering. A useful exercise I have recommended to those wanting to focus on improving their questioning is to laminate a seating plan and mark with a whiteboard pen every time you ask a question to a pupil. Very quickly it will become apparent how often pupils are allowed to become “passengers” to the learning environment rather than engaging in the process, and how often certain pupils are dominating the room – even if they are demonstrating the desired outcomes. Cold Calling solves all of these problems. Teachers can strategically target their questions to make sure that each pupil has grasped the material, as well as making sure that every child has a voice in their classroom.

A word of warning. When first implementing Cold Calling there may be a temptation to use the technique as a form of behaviour management but this must be avoided at all costs. A key goal of this technique is to foster a culture in the classroom where all voices have an equal right to be heard and the teacher is excited to hear each of them. I make a point of thanking pupils, regardless of whether they have answered correctly, for their input. This has environment has two benefits – allowing teachers to effectively deal with shy pupils and deal with wrong answers. Shy pupils can be bolstered up by targeted questioning. By noticing a shy pupil has the correct answer, whether through mini white board questioning or by walking around the room, they can be slowly brought into the conversation. This is not a silver bullet that will immediately turn every child into an extrovert, but by building up a culture of honest interest hopefully even the shyest pupils will be convinced to get involved. Wrong answers are almost more important the right ones when using cold calling. Additional probing questions allow the misconception to be thoroughly uprooted and addressed. This does not have to all come from the pupil that gave the wrong answer. Other pupils can be used to support addressing the misconception; having a very teacher led discussion on how to demonstrate peer support can help train pupils to have those important conversations with each other when there is less structure.

Thinking back to our “+1s” training, both Lemov and Sherrington praise Cold Calling for being the best technique to allow teachers to add those easy improvements to their practice. Once properly embedded Cold Calling can then be adapted in several ways. Two of my favourites are “Break It Down” (Lemov) and “Rehearse and Reaffirm” (Sherrington). Break it down is the strategy of breaking up one question into several and sharing them out around the room. This allows for even more questions, meaning even more pupils having a voice in the classroom and gives teachers the opportunity to diagnose exactly which part of the knowledge is causing a misconception. Rehearse and reaffirm is the technique of first allowing pupils to share their answers with you non-verbally (I usually use mini whiteboards) and then asking pupils with answers that would add something to the learning process. This can be the correct answer, a common misconception, or simply something that will generate discussion.

Hopefully this whistle-stop tour of Cold Calling has been helpful and will enable you to embed it in your own practice. If you’d like any more support in this (or just discuss anything T&L!) feel free to reach out at

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Great post Oliver, so important to set the climate for learning so that all pupils grow towards feeling confident enough to answer questions. So good to allow pupils to have that practise time and thinking time to rehearse their answers. Looking forward to seeing how it pans out over the next few weeks and months!

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