Last weekend I delivered a talk at researchED Norwich on Ratio. It was basically a more developed version of a blog I wrote here and I’m really grateful to a few people who got in touch with additional questions which I’ve tried to answer below. In truth any of these questions could be a blog in itself so I’ve also tried to be as concise as possible – this is far from the last word, it’s just a hazy attempt at the answer that would suit most teachers and most students most of the time.


When is Cold Call appropriate and when is it not?

A good rule of thumb is that if it is something you expect students to know the answer to, Cold Call is the right thing to do. If not, then it isn’t. So if you are pushing new knowledge further and you want to see if someone has figured something out, or if you are asking something based on their daily lives that you haven’t taught the class about yet, it’s unfair to pick on a student who may not know the answer. But if it’s something they should know, cold call away.

What do I do with a student who just says “dunno” to everything I ask?

One classic Lemov technique is called “no opt-out” and it involves not allowing any student to…well…opt-out of learning. This is something I’ve been working really hard on this year and don’t think I quite have it yet, but normally would involve scripts like:

“Come on, this is something you are supposed to know. I’m going to ask somebody else and then come back to you – I’ll be disappointed if you don’t get it after that”

Then do exactly what you said you would do, but make sure to return to them again later on in the lesson too. Also make sure to bring the class back and repeat the question “ok I want everyone paying attention I’m going to ask that question again…”

If that doesn’t work try:

“Actually now it’s getting annoying. It’s one thing that you can’t be bothered to do the work at home that would help you answer the question but quite another if you can’t show your friends respect by listening to them. I’m going to try this one more time…”

Then ask it to somebody else again, go back to the first student and if they still don’t know it:

“Not good enough. See me in break. It is unacceptable for any student in my class to choose not to learn”

And then move on sharply. Of course, there may be some students who genuinely were listening and paying attention but cannot say it back to you, in this case you obviously need to go a bit easier.

With some of my classes (especially small ones) I have a mini-whiteboard on my desk where I might jot down names and key words referring me back to a question, so “Clare photosynthesis” tells me at some point I need to ask Clare a question about photosynthesis.

Finally, I don’t feel bad about keeping students behind if I’ve tried all this stuff and they haven’t engaged. The discussion afterwards is always framed around how I want to help them and how good they will feel about themselves if they start getting stuff right in class etc etc.

What do you do with reluctant MWB revealers or kids who write on them in their teeny tiniest handwriting?

Similar to No Opt-Out above, every student has to write something on their MWB even if it is just a question mark. If a student writes on it too small then I tell them “rub it out and rewrite it right now bigger so I can see it” and immediately move my gaze on to what I was doing before (i.e. scanning the answers in the room). I then go back to them and if they haven’t done it, at this point I will escalate further as they aren’t following instructions “how am I supposed to help you learn if I can’t see your work? How are others in the class supposed to benefit from your answers if they can’t see it? Make sure it’s big enough in the next question or you can come back in break and we can do it all over again.”

For student doodlers I pull them back in break to clean all the mini-whiteboards. Weirdly, it doesn’t seem to happen that often any more.

How do you navigate cold call in such a way that it doesn’t temper more open discussion and debate? I can imagine for instance the following scenario: teacher uses cold call and the class become used to it as the norm. As it’s the norm when a question is posed to the class that maybe warrants more open ended discussion, the class remain silent on the assumption one will be cold called and so there’s no open sharing of ideas.

This is an interesting question and something I haven’t really thought too much about. Looking back on the kinds of things I do and maybe could do more often, I think perhaps here if we are explicit with students about why and how we ask certain questions that could help, for example:

“you can put your hands down for this one as it’s something I expect everyone to know”

“I’ll take a hand on this one because it’s not something I’ve really taught you so I’d love to know what you think…”

“I need to check how well you all understand this before we move on so please get your mini-whiteboards out…”

Students don’t magically forget how to express themselves or talk in a Cold Call classroom (in fact for many students – especially the introverts – the opposite is often true). By specifying to students how you want them to respond and why you should be able to foster a climate of openness and debate. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing.

How can using factsheets or similar ‘marketplace’ activities be done most effectively to support learning?

In the video (and blog), one of the scenarios I mentioned was of a marketplace style activity where students were getting information themselves from factsheets and the like. Participation ratio was really high, but think ratio was really low: all students were actively engaged, but they were thinking about how to copy and paste sentences or turn them into their own words or match sentences to titles or arrange them around bubble writing or whatever. The reason for this is because the task quantity is too high: there are too many new ideas and concepts for your students to actually process. There’s no teacher chunking those bits and directing student attention to the salient parts.


As I’ve written before, this isn’t a universal rule. Sometimes you want task quantity to be high. It all depends on the class that is in front of you and the content you are looking to deliver. If I were to do a marketplace activity (and I don’t), it would be for a topic which is conceptually undemanding which my students already know a lot about and I would be providing them with a very high level of support. See here for more.

Is ratio an appropriate focus for learning walks?

Participation ratio is without a doubt an appropriate focus for learning walks. It’s fairly straightforward to see if a teacher is or isn’t using techniques like Cold Call and No Opt-Out. Of course you would want to have a conversation about it afterwards as the teacher may have a strong conscious justification for not having used them, but it’s totally reasonable to ask about and expect to see. Of course though, having seen a teacher using Cold Call in no way tells you if the content of the question is appropriate. I could Cold Call crappy questions all day long and trick a checkbox-ticking and clipboard brandishing non-science member of SLT with ease into thinking I was outstanding, but my students wouldn’t be learning much. Even if the observer was a science specialist, there will be decisions that I make whose justifications depend on intimate knowledge of this particular class – knowledge that an observer wouldn’t have.

As a department, we have discussed extensively techniques that sit under the umbrella of ratio and have a shared language around ones which work and ones which don’t. When coupled with sensible observations and positive culture of reflection and continual improvement that can be extremely valuable. Sadly, if you have a rubbish observation culture and teachers living in fear of the next “drop in,” then focussing on ratio isn’t really going to help anybody.

What category does Ratio sit in? Is it a principle? Approach? Can it count as a t&l focus or should I zoom in on specific techniques FOR Ratio?

I think of it as a conceptual framework – a question that sits at the front of your mind before you start teaching: how am I going to ensure my students are engaged and thinking hard?

Techniques like Cold Call are answers to that question, and there are – as discussed – many such answers. Whether you use it as a t&l focus depends on your school culture of CPD and teacher improvement. Having “improve student think and participation ratio” isn’t a good focus, but:

Improve student think and participation ratio by

  • Using Cold Call for recall questions
  • Making use of mini-whiteboards for checks for understanding
  • Ensuring that no student can opt out of learning
  • etc….

is a good focus in my opinion. It gives you specific actions to carry out that are easy to implement and can be seen in the majority of lessons. Again, if your school culture around this stuff is that you just wheel it out three times a year for your official observation then it’s probably not going to help all that much. But then, in a school like that, nothing will.