Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.31.17Popsicle Sticks and ’Hands Down’ are not Cold Call: Key Differences & Why They Matter

Lovely. But just not the same.



Cold Call, as you probably know if you read this blog regularly, is one of my favorite techniques– meaning that it’s one of the techniques that has the greatest potential to increase the rigor and engagement in a classroom. I also love that it can be used by almost any teacher, and in concert with almost any other approach. You don’t have to change everything about your class to enjoy the benefits of it. You can do what you do and add Cold Call to it tomorrow.

That said, the details matter. Without them, Cold Call can go wrong. Keeping it positive is one of the biggest keys to execution. I’ve written about it here.  Managing the pause is another key point worth reading about (here).

But there’s a particular point of confusion about Cold Call that’s common both in the US and in the UK that I’d like to address. Teachers sometimes conflate Cold Call with something known as “Popsicle Sticks” (in the US) or as ‘Hands Down’ (or “lolly Sticks” in the UK). This involves telling students to lower their hands and calling on them while using a random generator—names on sticks, say.  Many teachers find it easier psychologically than Cold Calling and they often tell me, “Oh, I love Cold Call,” and then they describe popsicle or lolly sticks.

I love a classroom where the expectation is that students may be called on at any time and expected to participate positively, and I think Hands Down can do that, so I don’t think that it’s necessarily wrong. But it’s not Cold Call, and I think the differences matter, so I want to take a moment to explain why.

Key Differences:

  • In TLaC I describe the use of random generators (e.g. lolly/popsicle) sticks, but I include it in Pepper and not Cold Call. I did this because Pepper emphasizes game-ish-ness and energy, but it’s not strategic. And sticks aren’t strategic. Intentionality—who you call on and when—matters a LOT.  So does signaling this intentionality to students. For example, Matthew has been struggling to add fractions and just got one right. I want to Cold Call him to see how he’s doing and or let him succeed in public. Or maybe he just struggles, and I think he needs more practice. So, I route questions to him. Or I assign a bit of writing, and Sabina has something very interesting that I want to use to start discussion. So, I call on her even though her hand isn’t up.  Or maybe I want to Check for Understanding and take a statistical sample of my class—deliberately asking kids that I think represent where the class is generally.  There are a million reasons why who I Cold Call and when is important. If I use popsicle sticks instead, I lose my opportunity for strategy.
  • Even if I don’t have a reason to Cold Call a specific student in a specific situation, using a random generator makes it explicit that I am not making intentional decisions about who to call on. It says: “I am not choosing intentionally,” and this too is a loss.  For example, one of Cold Call’s biggest benefits is its inclusiveness—it says, implicitly, “I care about your ideas and would be interested to know what you are thinking right now.”  To say: “David, what are you thinking?” tells David that you value his opinion and are thinking about his perspective at that moment. To use sticks is to say: ‘It’s all about the same to me.’ It means there is nothing special or personal about being asked your opinion. “You’ve been picked from the pile,” is very different from “I want to hear your thoughts”—as one teacher (Ellie Ryall of the UK) put it in reacting to an earlier version of this post. That to me is a HUGE difference.
  • Additionally, one of the primary purposes of Cold Call is to build student engagement, to involve students in class and to have them want to be involved. Interestingly, we see this all the time in our workshops for teachers.  If one of us Cold Calls someone—positively, thoughtfully, genuinely asking what they think—we invariably see them start to raise their hand more frequently.  People are often a bit shy to speak up in a room of 120 or so adults, but once they do it and feel success, they are in. We’ve made a hand raiser of them.  It’s similar in the classroom. Kids find they can do it and then they start to raise their hands. This is a key point about Cold Call. I don’t want to ONLY use it. I want to balance it with taking hands because I want students to want to raise their hand. To raise your hand is to CHOOSE to participate, to want to speak. While Cold Call is immensely valuable, this too is valuable. So while it’s sometimes fine to say “hands down,” I also think there are times to: 1) just take hands or 2) let kids raise their hands and call on some kids who are raising their hands and some who aren’t.   I can Cold Call to build accountability and inclusiveness, but then also reward passion and enthusiasm.  I have seen video of classrooms where students respond to chronic use of hands down with anger.  “Why does it have to be random? Darla doesn’t even want to speak, and I am burning with an idea.”  As a teacher, I don’t want to lose the ability to balance accordingly.
  • One other key difference is efficiency. Getting out the popsicle or lolly sticks takes time.  Each time you pull one (“Oh, boy! Let’s see who it is! Whoops, Jaden’s not here….”) takes time.  And it interrupts the flow of normal conversation. It’s hard for Amari to build off and elaborate on Janet’s point if there’s a circus of stick-pulling in between.
  • As a bonus, I thought I’d share a recent clip of ace teacher Jamila Davis Cold Calling. Interestingly, she’s just focusing on making sure her kiddos understand the task.  But look how efficient and positive it is, how she can Cold Call while she’s doing something else, and how the energy it creates sets her students up to read on their own with energy and engagement.

Jamila Cold Call from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

  • By the way, one other benefit of letting students raise their hands is that it is an outstanding source of data. If I ask a question and just two or three students raise their hands, that tells me something—especially if I’ve built a culture of students wanting to raise hands. Now I have important data that much of my class is stumped. Similarly, if I ask a question and everybody raises their hands, I think: hooray everyone in engaged but maybe if everyone thinks they can get it I need to start adding to the challenge of my questions, etc.

So….can Hands Down or popsicle sticks be entertaining to use ocassionally?  Yes. Can these approaches bring a bit of “game show” to your classroom from time to time? Yes. Should you stop using them altogether? No.  My point is that, from a learning perspective, they are not nearly as valuable as Cold Call. What’s more, teachers often assume they are a form of Cold Call or achieve the same ends and value as Cold Call, which they don’t.

[Update: 2.1.17]: Thought I’d share this useful comment which a reader on the TLaC Facebook site (Mary Catherine Lees) posted:

I ask pupils who don’t have their hands up, and I’ve seen a big difference with one boy this year who was too shy to answer. But because I made him a few times and praised him when he got them right, he is no longer afraid and is keen to answer when I ask for hands up. That was Cold Calling. No popsicle sticks or randomness. I targeted him to boost his confidence.

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7 Responses to “Popsicle Sticks and ’Hands Down’ are not Cold Call: Key Differences & Why They Matter”

  1. safety gate stairs
    June 27, 2017 at 12:09 am

    The kids are kids and need to have some fun too.

  2. toatl helath information30
    July 20, 2017 at 6:46 am

    After I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from
    now on every time a comment is added I get four emails with the exact same comment.
    There has to be a way you are able to remove me from that service?

    Thank you!

    • Doug Lemov
      August 7, 2017 at 7:25 pm

      hmmm. not sure. will try to look into it. sorry for the clutter.

  3. Hannah
    November 8, 2017 at 6:33 am

    This is a great reminder of why cold calling is useful. Thank you. I’ve got a quick question. I sometimes find when I do this with shy students, they often say ‘I don’t know’, even when I’m pretty sure they do, they just want to say as few words as possible. How do you get around this?

    • Doug Lemov
      November 13, 2017 at 7:07 pm

      a few quick thoughts. 1) start with language that’s hard to say no so: “Sarah can you start to speak to us about the causes of the America Revolution” “start to” implies it wont be perfect. makes it easy to say something. if sarah still won’t say anything i might go to either no opt out (take an answer from another student but then ask sarah to repeat it) or ask students to write answers first and then cold call by saying “sarah, what did you write about?”

  4. Liz
    July 31, 2018 at 5:12 pm

    Say “That’s ok that you don’t know. What would you say if you did know?”

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