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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Why Call on Just One When We Can Call on Everyone?

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Why Call on Just One When We Can Call on Everyone? San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring 2011. www.KaganOnline.com

This year, when I finished my trainings in Morocco, I took count. Morocco is the thirtieth country in which I have worked with educators. My focus is sharing instructional strategies that engage all learners. What amazes me is that in every country, the most common instructional strategies engage some learners while leaving a large subset of students disengaged. It is an enormous waste of potential. Inadvertently, teachers worldwide call on high achieving students to respond while allowing the low achieving students to hide, to slip through the cracks. This inequitable engagement creates a progressive achievement gap: Each year, low achieving students fall further behind. In the early years of schooling the low achieving students disengage within class; in the later years, within-class dropout becomes school dropout. If we analyze the dominant instructional strategies used in classrooms, the drop out phenomenon is no mystery. Because teachers are teaching to and engaging only the high achieving students, it is predictable that low achieving students become bored, disengaged, discipline problems, and drop-outs.

This dismal picture can be remedied rather easily. Teachers can abandon traditional, inequitable instructional strategies, adopting instead simple, proven strategies that engage all learners equally.

Let’s ask ourselves four simple questions:

  1. Do we want to teach students to hope for and delight in the failure of their peers?
  2. Are we satisfied creating classrooms in which students can do nothing, hide?
  3. Do we want to call most on those who least need the practice and call least on those who most need the practice?
  4. When we ask a question of our class, do we prefer to call on one student to respond when we could call on all students to respond?

The answer to each of these questions is clearly “No!” Yet in every country I visit, teachers overwhelmingly favor instructional strategies that predictably set students against each other and produce disengagement and failure among low achieving students. In every country, after asking a question, teachers choose among the high achieving students to respond, leaving the low achieving students to daydream. In the same amount of time, if those teachers adopted simple engagement strategies, they could have every student respond. Why engage one student when just as easily we could engage all students? Neuroscience reveals a fundamental principle of brain development: You use it or lose it. Dendrite connections that are not used are pruned. By failing to engage the brains of large segments of our student populations, rather than promoting brain development, we are actually allowing brain atrophy! Further, without intending and without realizing it, teachers worldwide are structuring the interaction in their classrooms so students actually hope for and take delight in the failure of their peers.

What creates anguish in me is that the remedy is so simple. It is within the grasp of any teacher to transform their classroom so:

  1. Students take delight in and help create the success of others.
  2. No student can hide.
  3. All students participate equally.
  4. Not one, but all students respond to each question.

Traditional Strategies Vs. Engagement Strategies

Let’s contrast two teachers, one that uses traditional instructional strategies and one that uses structures for engagement. Structures for engagement are instructional strategies carefully designed to maximize engagement among all students. Here they are simply called engagement strategies. We will examine these two teachers in three scenarios as they attempt to reach different educational objectives using traditional vs. engagement strategies.

Objective 1: Oral Review

Regardless of grade level, often we have students review content that has been covered. We know from brain research that neurons that fire together, wire together. We know the more times a student reviews the content, the stronger the dendrite connections become and the greater becomes the probability of those neurons firing together in the future, increasing the probability of recall. Recall is improved dramatically by oral review: students remember far better that which they say than that which they are told.

The content for oral review is as varied as is the range of our curriculum. Young children may be naming letters; middle grade students may be asked to name rainforest animals; older students may be naming prime numbers. Young students may be recalling events in a story; older students naming events from the history chapter or facts from a science article.

Oral review may include more than simple recall; it may involve different types of thinking as when students are asked to name possible causes or consequences of an event, alternative hypotheses to explain a phenomena, or things we can do to protect and preserve our environment.

Traditional Strategy: Teacher Question; Student Answer

The most common instructional strategy used for oral review is Teacher Question; Student Answer. The teacher asks a question such as, Who can name a rainforest animal? Students wishing to respond raise their hands. The teacher calls on one. That student answers. The teacher then responds to the answer, praising or correcting. The teacher may then call on another student to respond, repeating the sequence.

Structuring the interaction in the classroom this way has predictable, negative consequences:

  1. The high achieving students raise their hands to be called on while the low achieving students avert the teachers eyes and hide.
  2. The teacher thus ends up calling most on those who least need the practice and least on those who most need the practice.
  3. Because a number of the high achieving students are vying to be called on, and only one receives the opportunity to respond, a number of students are disappointed when the teacher calls on one. Students register their disappointment with dejected sighs as they lower their hands.
  4. If a student misses the question, the others who wanted to be called on are happy; only if the chosen student misses can they shine, so they begin to hope for and delight in the failure of their peers.
  5. If a student always has the right answer that student gets labeled, “nerd,” “teacher’s pet,” “brainiac,” or “brown-noser.” Someone who achieves too high makes others look bad by comparison. The labels are peer pressure to conform to the norm of mediocrity, not to make others look bad by comparison. To enforce this norm, the class does what any group does when an individual violates the norms of the group — they punish offenders. The nerd labels are a way of communicating and enforcing the norm: “If you continue to make us look bad by comparison, you will pay the penalty of being ostracized.” Given the choice of being the best they can be or being liked, some high achievers are afraid to come out, to be their best. (For articles on this topic, web search “Nerd penalty.”)
  6. The meta-communication in the class is that some students are smart and others are not, that some students have something of value to contribute whereas others do not. This lowers the self-esteem and identity of lower achieving students: “I am not one of the smart ones.”
  7. A great many of the low achieving or less motivated students are “off task,” that is, while the high achieving students and teacher play question and answer, the minds of the other students are wandering.
  8. Teachers using Teacher Question; Student Answer hear only from the high achieving students. They are taking an unrepresentative sample of the class. This creates for the teacher an illusion that the class understands the content better than they actually do. This is inauthentic assessment.
  9. The most important negative consequence of the traditional structure is lack of engagement among many students: Only a few students have the opportunity to respond. The teacher calls on and responds to one student at a time, leaving the other students semi- or fully disengaged. Because the teacher talks twice for each time a student talks (first asking the question and then responding to the answer), the teacher talks about 60% of the time. Thus in six minutes of Teacher Question; Student Answer, the teacher has time to call on no more than three students, each giving one answer. How do the other students spend their time?
    —Looking at the back of the head of the student who is answering the teacher!

Engagement Strategy: RallyRobin

One engagement strategy that is an alternative to Teacher Question; Student Answer is RallyRobin. In RallyRobin, students are in pairs. They take turns stating answers. For example, given the task of stating rainforest animals, in each pair Student A would name one rainforest animal; Student B would name a second animal; Student A would name a third, and so on. For higher level review, students might take turns stating possible alternative hypotheses to explain a character’s behavior.

Structuring the interaction in the classroom this way has predictable, positive consequences:

  1. Most importantly, in the same amount of time that the teacher using Teacher Question; Student Answer can call on and respond to only three students in the class, the teacher using RallyRobin can have every student respond.
  2. Students responding in Teacher Question; Student Answer state one answer each. Students responding in RallyRobin verbalize many answers.
  3. When Teacher Question; Student Answer is used, students think of one answer and stop thinking; when RallyRobin is used after thinking of one response, students are pushed to think of another and another, promoting thinking skills.
  4. Students learn to take turns.
  5. Because students cannot repeat the answer of their partner, the structure demands listening skills.
  6. Students are fully engaged in face-to-face interaction, not isolated from each other, talking only to the teacher.
  7. A higher percentage of students are “on task.” After their partner gives a response, their partner waits for them to give a response. The structure requires full participation of all students so no one can hide.
  8. High- and Low-Achieving students participate equally.
  9. Walking around and listening to the responses of students, the teacher hears from high, middle, and low achieving students, taking a representative sample of the class. There is more authentic assessment.
  10. The meta-communication in the class is that all students have something of value to contribute.
  11. Equal participation creates equal status.
  12. There is no competition for teacher’s attention and no disappointment when one student is called on.
  13. Students are not hoping for the failure of their peers; they actually appreciate the contributions of their peers  — peer norms shift toward achievement. Students feel they are on the same side.
  14. The full engagement of the lower achieving students decreases the achievement gap between low and high achieving students, in contrast to the increased achievement gap created by the high percent of low achieving students who do not participate during Teacher Question; Student Answer. 

Objective 2: Elaborated Thinking

At all grade levels teachers sometimes want students to elaborate their thinking on a topic. For examples, younger students may be asked express and defend their opinion of a character in a story; middle grade students might be asked to evaluate the pros and cons of a law and/or and how they might modify the law to improve it; older students might be asked how they would go about testing a hypothesis or solving the problem of world hunger.

Traditional Strategy: Teacher Question; Student Answer

Teachers not trained in engagement strategies most often use the same Teacher Question; Student Answer approach for elaborated thinking as they do for oral review. They simply call on one student at a time to verbalize their thinking.

Structuring the interaction in the classroom this way has the same predictable, negative consequences as when Teacher Question; Student Answer is used for oral review: Only a few students have the opportunity to respond, leaving others disengaged. The teacher gets a biased sample of the class, hearing only from the high achievers. In addition, if a long, elaborated response is called for, the teacher usually can permit only one or two students to respond, knowing that during long responses from one student the rest of the class becomes bored and restless. This puts pressure on the teacher to curtail very long responses, short circuiting the very goal of elaborated thinking.

Engagement Strategy: Timed Pair Share

An excellent engagement strategy for elaborated thinking is Timed Pair Share. Students are in pairs. In response to the teacher's question, first Student A responds for a predetermined amount of time, say one minute. Student B is asked to appreciate Student A's response. Then Student B responds to the question. Finally, Student A appreciates Student B's response.

Structuring the interaction in the classroom this way has predictable, positive consequences:

  1. In the same amount of time that a teacher using Teacher Question; Student Answer can call on and respond to two or three students, a teacher using Timed Pair Share can have every student respond.
  2. Because not just the high achieving students are responding, all students are engaged, with positive consequences for thinking skills, self-esteem, identity, and achievement.
  3. Students acquire listening skills.
  4. Students learn to appreciate and compliment the contributions of others.
  5. Because all students are engaged, the teacher can allow long, elaborated responses without running the risk of boring the rest of the class.