Call & Response and ‘I Dunno’

Resources, ideas and prompts for discussion related to Questioning.

What is it and how does it work?

Call and Response involves asking your lass to answer questions in unison. It is a technique to use time to time to build energetic, positive engagement.

Call and Response is a relatively simple technique but can accomplish a lot in terms of:

  • Reviewing and reinforcing content
  • High-energy and ‘bringing students in’
  • Reinforcing behaviours – everyone responds, the expectation is that everyone gets involved.

Five Scenarios for Call and Response

The five main types of Call and Response situation are summarised below, and are arguably listed in a hierarchy, listed in ascending order of academic challenge and rigour:

  • Repeat: Straight-forward, the class either repeat exactly what the teacher said, or complete a very familiar phrase used in the class/learning sequence.
  • Report: Students who have been working on questions are asked to say/report what their answer was to a given question, “On three, everyone tell me your answer to number 2!”…obviously aimed at short, snappy answers.
  • Reinforce: Get a student(s) to repeat a key term of answer given by a peer. It provides opportunity to hear something deemed ‘excellent’ again and encourages more voices to say it and hear it in their heads (encouraging learning).
  • Review: Students spend some time working on multiple questions related to the topic covered and the class are then questioned to review the content (with notes is fine). For example, “OK, let’s review cell structure, you can use your notes and diagrams if you need to…tell me what this is – they make proteins and can be found in the cytoplasm? After three, one, two, three…” [RIBOSOMES!]. “Great! OK, sometimes referred to as the power house of the cell but more accurately the site of respiration? One, two, three…” [MITOCHONDRIA!]. This encourages quick recall and promotes linking and connections. If not many got it you can revert to Reinforce and get some to repeat the strong correct answers.
  • Solve: Pose a problem and ask the class to solve it, then request the answer in unison. This is the most demanding of the five as it requires working out a problem, creating new knowledge and being ready within a time limit. To make this successful don’t use questions that have multiple correct answers, so it lends itself to calculations in particular, “Find 40% of 80, take ten seconds to get the answer in your head…and answers in three, two, one…!”

If Call and Response becomes a habitual approach with your class it is worth establishing what the cue is, and really making this clear. You want everyone to respond in unison so it is not fair on the class if they don’t know when these sorts of questions are taking place. Something as simple as starting Call and Response questions with “Whole class answer…” or “Everybody answers…”. As was discussed in the Modelling section of this site, we need to teach and model every behaviour we wish to see in our rooms, don’t get disheartened if new approaches fall flat the first couple of times!

Call and Response 2.0

In ‘Teach Like A Champion’, Lemov summarises adapted approaches to Call and Response that he has observed over many years, this includes how it can be used to support:

  • Vocabulary Development: You could use Call and Response to drill pronunciation, you could Call a word and expect a unison Response of a definition and vice versa.
  • Class Reading: This came from an observation of a teacher using Call and Response to keep a class on track with following class reading, a teacher would read a portion of the class text, and at times stop through a routinely used hand signal (as the Call) that the class was well aware of they would then Respond with the next word in the sentence in unison. This was to overcome the assumption that the class were ‘reading along’. They got used to this and knew they had to try their best to remain attentive and follow the reading.

What can I do about constant “I don’t know”?

Despite our best questioning efforts, our energising techniques, we will all sometimes get the shoulder shrugs and the “I don’t know” delivered without a momentary hesitation. Teachers everywhere have probably found themselves passing the answer baton on to someone else in the room. However letting a student ‘off the hook’ too easily could be a grave error for the participation culture of the class moving forward. It can also happen too if we receive an answer, rather than “I don’t know”, but it is not correct or not the answer we had hoped for but we move on to someone else immediately (that student will probably be an ‘I don’t know-er’ in future).

As ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ brilliantly summarises in a section called ‘Rouse the Dead’, there are options available in the teaching and learning toolkit to at least try to overcome this, to guide students toward success in the scenarios described:

  • Give them the answer!: No, really do! However, once you have ask them to suggest an explanation for how you got there. For example…
    • Teacher: Which word in this sentence is an adjective?
    • Student: Don’t know
    • Teacher: The answer is ‘uncompromising’. But why is that correct?
    • Student: An adjective describes a noun, uncompromising is describing the man in that sentence.
  • Provide two/multiple options and ask them to explain which they agree with.
  • Remind them of the facts: Try to provide cues or links to the question without the answer itself.
  • Rephrase the question into a comparison: This can sometimes unlock the thinking as the student will know the difference between two things, which sets off the reminder that they know what the focus of the question actually is.
    • Teacher: What is a cubed number?
    • Student: Don’t know
    • Teacher: OK, what is the difference between a cubed number and a squared number?
    • Student: Oh a squared number is when you times it by itself…so a cubed number is when you times it by itself twice!
  • Think, Pair, Share (TPS): Well known as a technique, and particularly helpful when the whole/majority of the class appear to be having one of those days and are not forthcoming! Ask them to think about the question posed on their own (maybe noting down some points), then discuss it quickly in pairs, finally share answers with class. Make it clear that you will be selecting a few individuals at random to provide their contributions as part of the TPS.
  • No opt out!: This could be a real last resort to try your very best to have include the student, as you would move on and ask another class member for the answer and once you have the good answer needed you go back to the original student and Call on them to respond with it repeated (as per Call and Response, above).

Finally, don’t forget that there are occasions when individuals have a legitimate reason to not respond, or may struggle to do so (sometimes simply down to the fact we choose to question on topics before we have really developed the surface knowledge needed in students). This is not about causing conflict for conflict sake, the aim is to foster a culture of positive participation in the classroom with questioning as the vehicle, and sometimes if things are are an impasse, just move on and teach.

Associated further reading and references:

  • ‘Chapter 6: Questioning’, in Allison, S. and Tharby, A., 2017. Making Every Lesson Count. Carmarthen: Crown House.
  • Lemov, D., 2015. Teach Like A Champion 2.0. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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