Monday, April 4, 2011

How Socrates helped me beat my aversion to cold calling

Some of you may recall that my pedagogical New Year's resolution was to 'cold call' on students consistently.

Yeah, I broke it. About two weeks into the winter quarter, actually. Old habits die hard, and though I made an effort, I just couldn't feel comfortable about cold calling.

Tim Burke's post got me rethinking the issue though. I see a number of justifications for cold calling: engaging a larger number of students, getting students comfortable with academic settings, signaling that students are expected to be prepared, creating a broader sense of classroom community, etc. But Tim also highlights what's tough about cold calling: I don't want to use the prospect of humiliation to motivate students. But students who feel 'on the spot,' who think they have to provide precisely the right answer, are likely to fear cold calling for just that reason. (My guess is that part of student wariness comes from previous academic experiences with cold calling, in math or language courses, say, where cold calling can be closer to 'drilling and grilling'.) And I must admit that it's uncomfortable on my end when a student has no response to a cold call.

The challenge, then, is to make cold calling into something else: warm inviting, let's call it — cold calling less as impromptu testing and more as extending students a friendly opportunity to participate in the class.

But I think I've hit upon a solution: Socrates.

No, not Socrates-Socrates. This Socrates:

I got this little Socrates doll from the Unemployed Philosophers Guild. And when I cold call on students, I toss them Socrates, and whoever has Socrates has the floor.

I have to say that this is working well so far. For one, I've been sticking to the cold calling. But more than that, little Socrates seems to put the cold-called-upon a bit more at ease. The cold call is delivered more with a wink and a nudge instead of an interrogative stare. And since students have to try to catch Socrates, they pay a bit more attention. (You never know when Socrates might be headed your way!)

Gimmick-y, yes, but I'm not above cheap gimmicks. Anybody do anything similar — or have other techniques they use to softpedal the anxieties associated with cold calling?


  1. Tossing a doll at unassuming students...sounds like an aggravated assault charge waiting to happen!

    I don't cold call myself, except that when I see students give certain cues (e.g. certain facial expressions) that they have a reaction to what I'm saying, I will invite them to share. But if they shake it off, I normally won't press it.

    (That said, I don't have any objections to cold-calling, and doing it in a way that is "warm and inviting" certainly seems preferable.)

  2. Michael,

    Great post! And I love the graphic. I think this is a great idea. The Socrates doll. AND the cold calling.

    If students come prepared, and if calling on them has been eased in, and practiced from the beginning, I think this practice becomes an essential and highly effective pedagogical tool, especially in a philosophy class.

    A couple more reasons to "cold call": Someday a boss or colleague will probably put them on the spot, and ask a difficult question or two. Why not prepare them for this now? Plus, it sometimes feels like can't ask anyone a question these days, without the individual getting defensive, feeling attacked, insulted. Question asking--not loaded questions, mind you--is almost seen as impolite in some circles.

    I tell students flat out that question asking sometimes gets a bad rap, and that one of my goals is to get them much more used to giving, and receiving questions. For critical thinking's sake.

    Be careful with that doll, though. :) Look what just came out today:

    Anyway, really though. I think we should "cold call" on students. Perhaps if we do it often, and right from the beginning of the semester, it won't scare them anymore because they'll be used to it.

    I often randomly call on students in my classes, and there doesn't seem to be a problem. In fact, not once have I ever received a comment on an anonymous evaluation that addressed the practice, for better or worse. This leads me to believe it's a non-issue for them by the end of the term, if it ever was one.

    I'll often call out, "I need a number from 1 - 20". Or however many individuals are on the roll. Then I count down, and that's who gets to answer my question.

    Sometimes they'll tease, "We're scared of you! You call us out! You put us on the spot!"

    And I'll grin back, and offer one of my most favorite "Socrates" questions (more about that below), "What's another way of looking at it?"

    They'll answer something like, "You're NOT trying to make us look bad. You're trying to get us to come to class prepared. You want to see what we know."

    "Yes," I respond, "And why might I want to do that?"

    "Because you want us to learn."

    "Yup. Now, I need a number from 1- 20, but not 15 because that was called already..."

    Just because something might make students uncomfortable at first, doesn't mean it should not be done. Other factors have to be considered. It depends in part on the goal of the practice, and how well the practice achieves the goal. And maybe some other things play in.

    Another key ingredient for a successful "cold call classroom", I think, is this:

    ...and it's also related to Socrates.

    Give them a handout that lists a bunch of "Socrates" questions. Require them to ask YOU questions, to ask each other questions in discussions, to use some in essays at the end, in a "questions raised for further analysis" section. And so on.

    I've created a handout based on this list; I've added "Questions that uncover values", and so on. Soon I'll be updating it, for a presentation I have this week, in fact.

    Anyway, I think it would be cool to supplement the doll with these. Encouraging them, even requiring them, to *ask* questions might also help them better receive questions. Even on the spot questions.

    :) Karla

  3. Ooops, here's the list:

  4. That is hilarious! And effective, it seems. I love the idea of using a physical object like that -- sort of a grown up, down to business version of that Talking Stick notion some profs like to use (and sometimes even gets inflicted on us in meetings).

    That's a great list, Karla, which is going into my Evernote, and I'll use in future classes myslf. Those would be great for supplying to students to ask each other questions -- something they often seem intensely uncomfortable doing.

  5. Jeepers, I need to double check my posts before I submit them! Sorry!

    Anyway, what I meant to note above was that the "Changing Minds" list (linked above) is a resource I have used to inspire my own list of "Socratic Prompts". I added a "Uncovering values" section to mine.

    @ G.B. ... I'm glad you liked the list / Socratic prompts idea! It's been an incredible asset in my classrooms, and workshops.

    I'm looking to submit a more expanded post soon, on this blog, about putting Socratic prompts into the hands of students...I'll link to the lists I've created from the resource linked to above, and more. :) Karla


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