Democratizing Learning through Randomization

by Dr. Stephen Fleenor

As teachers, we love to ask questions. In fact, one of the easiest ways to identify a teacher is to hear him or her asking questions. Take, for example, when a student asks to go to the bathroom. Whereas a normal person would simply say “yes” or “no,” we have to ask them about it. “Do you really need to go to the bathroom? You didn’t go at lunch? Can’t you hold it? What’s our rule about when to go to the bathroom?” Four questions in the span of about ten seconds, released as naturally as our own breaths. It would probably be more cognitively demanding for us to just say “yes” or “no.”

I think the reason we ask so many questions is because we see them as thinking opportunities for our students. That’s our real drive as teachers, right? To get our students’ gears turning, to see them make connections and to light up, and to watch them grow in their ability to think critically. 

But while we love to ask our students a whole lot of questions, I sometimes hear mixed reviews about the practice of using a system of randomization for calling on students. In the whole-class setting, randomizing is neither a novel approach nor a complicated strategy. It is also a long-celebrated best practice for promoting accountability and participation in lessons. However, the practice of randomization also at times elicits a full spectrum of emotions from teachers and learners alike, from inclusion and alertness on one end of the spectrum to concern, trepidation, and even outright disdain on the other end.

For us, this range has everything to do with our desire to make our kids feel successful. We want our kids to be accountable and feel included, but we very much do not want our kids to feel on-the-spot, anxious, or embarrassed. When randomization is used routinely and intentionally, however, students’ anxieties are actually minimized, because they feel included and valued.

Let’s take a look at two possible ways a teacher could ask students to respond to a question. In the first scenario, the teacher asks the question, then chooses a specific student to answer. By choosing this student, what is often communicated to the rest of the students in the room (even on a subconscious level) is that the teacher thinks that this one specific student is more qualified to answer the question than any other student in the room. Of course that is not at all what we would ever want to communicate, but kids (especially adolescent kids) are naturally insecure and more likely to err toward “I can’t” than “I can” without support from their teachers, parents, and mentors. 

Now imagine the second scenario, in which the teacher asks a question and then uses a randomization system to call on a student.  The subtle communication in this scenario is that the teacher believes that every student in the room is completely qualified to answer the question, so much so that he or she is willing to put it into the hands of chance to decide who will share a response.

Stephen Post

When using randomization, it is important to consider:

  1.   Randomization is most effective when used regularly

Teachers know how easily classroom culture can erode when norms are not regularly revisited and followed throughout the year. When randomization is used sporadically, students may see it as a tool of punishment for being off task. When randomization is used regularly, however, students see it as a pillar of the classroom culture of inclusion. Regular use of randomization is also helpful for us as teachers. If we know that even the lowest-performing student might be called on, we will be reminded to take every action to ensure success for all students: providing think time, having students look at visuals or the text, structuring responses with sentence stems, and giving students the opportunity to share with their partners or tablemates. These actions are essential for struggling learners, but they also empower all learners to think critically about the content.

  1.   Open-ended questions set students up for success

Open-ended questions are unique in that there is no one right answer. They also allow students to express their understanding using their voices and their words. When a student provides an answer to an open-ended question, a teacher can highlight the parts of each student’s response that productively contribute to understanding of the academic concepts. This is especially effective when we call on multiple students to construct a whole-class understanding that is rooted in the students’ perspectives and unique experiences.

  1.   The goal of randomizing is for each student to contribute

Above all else, randomization is a tool to give every student a voice in the class discussion. We can communicate this by emphasizing that there are no wrong answers (which is almost always true if we ask open-ended questions) and celebrating each student’s response, regardless of how strongly academic or on-point it may be. Misunderstandings expressed in students’ responses can be addressed throughout the lesson, but let’s not forget to communicate to students that the most important thing they can do is to simply make the contribution to the class discussion.

By communicating a sense of belief and confidence by including each student, we can actually build up students’ self-concept so much so that they’ll want to be part of the classroom discussion. Although randomization leads to only one student being called on, the anticipation of the possibility of being called on combined with a belief in oneself leads all students to actively think about the question being asked. 

I call this phenomenon democratization of learning. In a democratized learning environment, all kids are actively thinking about each question (i.e. each thinking opportunity) and are therefore all fully engaged in the learning. Democracy can be thought of as the universal sharing of power, and power comes from engaging in thinking and learning new things. As Gandhi said, “Democracy is an impossible thing until the power is shared by all.” Randomization, therefore, is an essential tool to engage all students in thinking and promote democratization of learning.


Join Dr. Fleenor in Dallas on October 3 for Teaching Science to English Learners!

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