Monday, October 14, 2013

Not Calling on Those Who Know

I've been thinking about this topic for about a week now, and one question has stuck with me: Why do teachers not call on students who know? I know I'm guilty of it, but seeing it from another role in the classroom has really given me cause to stop and consider the philosophy behind this practice.

From my own experience teaching, I used to not call on students who I believed knew the answer because I thought that it would stifle class discussions, or because I thought that somehow I would reach more students by refusing to call on those who I knew were with me. Instead, I would pick on those who I thought would be *close* to being right but who needed a little push.  Or, even worse, I would call on a student who I thought wouldn't know the right answer.  That'd show 'em, right?

Wrong.  Thinking back more carefully now, all that philosophy promoted was the thing I was hoping to avoid, to an even worse degree: by not calling on those who knew, I stifled their contributions to the class discussions I was longing for!

The solution is so simple, it's amazing I taught for so long without ever really implementing it.  It's a strategy I was just reading about on Ben Blum-Smith's blog.  It's something I tried bringing into a classroom last week, and it's something that I know can be extremely effective:

Have students summarize, revise, or add-on to others.

Simple, right?  Why did that take me so long to discover??

Last week, I was teaching a lesson about absolute value and found opportunities ripe for this technique.  Students were trying to create an equation that would reveal how close everyone's guess was from the actual number of candy corns (ew) there were in a large jar.  The discussion began as it logically would; students proposed subtracting the actual number from the guess, or the guess from the actual depending on which was bigger.  I pushed students to think further, though, since I wanted to use a formula in Excel and could only use one equation for all guesses.  I gave students a few seconds to discuss in their table groups, then called on a student to share.  It helped that I don't really know these kids, so I could not make any form of informed pick.

The first kid I picked on proposed an idea that was close, but no cigar.  Instead of saying, "No, not quite.  Who else?" I asked, "Can anyone paraphrase what Johnny just said, or revise or add on to what he said?"  I then cold-called a student, and I really made them sit and think.  Normally, after an awkward moment of dead silence, I'll move on; this time, however, I reminded the students that they could, if necessary, simply repeat what the previous student said.  This eased tension a little bit, since even if I called on someone who had no freakin' clue what equation to use, they could just paraphrase what the previous student said.

I did notice, however, just how little students listen to each other.  I thought they just didn't listen to me!

I'm sure that with regular implementation and lots of practice, this technique could be used to ignite some serious class discussions.  It's also a focus area for my school, so that teachers become more of a facilitator than a "sage on the stage."  I can't wait to try it out more and encourage others to adopt the practice!
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