No Cold-Calling Please!

No one likes cold callers do they?

Cold-calling is a teaching technique used by many teachers as a way of drawing learners into conversations, discussions and activities. It refers to any instance in which a teacher calls on a learrner whose hand is not raised.

Lots of teachers like it as an active learning strategy and it has celebrity backing too with some saying it is “deeply inclusive – perversely inclusive, you might say“.

I’m not convinced. In fact, I’d say that cold calling is definitely not inclusive because it is intimidating, potentially humiliating and could it even be described as abusive.

There is the idea that teachers cold-call learners who are less inclined to participate voluntarily because they are concerned that if they are not involved in the discussion they might have lower quality learning experiences. This is nonsense. You can still be actively involved even if you are speaking or straining your arm and waving it every five seconds.

Although some research findings show that cold-calling can be done fairly extensively without making learners uncomfortable there are always going to be learners who won’t find cold-calling anything other than excruciating and deeply uncomfortable.

Many studies of cold-calling have noted student fear and anxiety in response to being randomly called and this may be a distraction from the learning process.

Not all learners are equally likely to participate voluntarily and they shouldn’t be under pressure to do so. If you want to say something say it, if you don’t, don’t.  Leave them alone! Shouldn’t we respect their autonomy by allowing learners to choose?

Of course we need to encourage participation and help children to be more confident but classrooms don’t need to be pressure-cookers. Besides, it isn’t always the underconfident or shy learners who don’t like being put on the spot – some confident students hate it too.

Instead we need to be alert and sensitive to individual personalities, group dynamics and class psychology. Children don’t need to be made to feel self-conscious because of ill-guided cold-calling.

Do Good

In particular, we should not cause avoidable or intentional harm. Is cold-calling in the child’s best interest? No, I don’t think it is.

The ethical principle of nonmaleficence derives from the Latin phrase “primum non nocere”, which means “first, do no harm”. This principle is often considered to be a corollary to the principle of beneficence referring to a duty to help others.

The “beneficence” principle refers to actions that promote the wellbeing and health of others. Cold calling isn’t always in the best interests of children and it can harm their wellbeing.

At all times a doctor must be conscious of the dictum: aegroti salus suprema lex (that is, the good of the patient is the highest law) so let’s apply this to pupils too.

Nonmaleficence does translate to education because educational materials and methods should avoid unnecessary risks, injury, or harm to the students engaging those materials and methods. Cold-calling is clearly something that does harm.

“Do Good” (beneficence) stresses directly helping others, acting in their best interests, and being a benefit to them. It requires positive action. How can cold-calling be a positive action?

Cold-calling may be a useful strategy for creating an equitable and inclusive classroom if we avoid targeting individuals but random calling by group instead as this is far less intimidating to students and still generates student engagement.

The pupil-teacher relationship is fiduciary. If we are dedicated to the well-being of children then why would we put them in a position of distress? Their dignity and identity is at stake and cold-calling can be hurtful. We must always aim to ‘do good’.

One thought on “No Cold-Calling Please!

  • March 30, 2023 at 9:55 am

    Thank you for writing this article. Few seem to be willing to question this technique in the way that you have. I agree with everything he suggested about what to do instead — thank you so much.

    I also wish you well in your fight for health.


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