Lollipop stick gate: you can take away my life, but you'll never take my wee wooden randomisers

1st December 2013 at 16:06


If you want to animate, divide and engage teachers on twitter' don't bother grizzling about Gove, Ofsted or pension amendments- bring up lollipop sticks.


It started with me tweeting, as I do, in the checkout of M&S



Unwittingly, I had toppled a domino. Laura MacInerney, one of the best minds on Twitter (carve that on your tomb) and the edusphere, lobbed back:




So far, so innocent. I think the sticks are daft, she doesn't, and no-one got hurt. Unknown to me, my little domino was racing across the social networks. Proponents and detractors of lollipop sticks were tattooing themselves for battle, wadding muskets, readying canons. The sticks, it seemed, split teachers in two.


(For the uninitiated: some teachers use wooden sticks (hereafter referred to as 'the client' or 'lolly sticks') with pupils' names written on them; whenever they want a pupil to answer a question, they seize a stick and ask the pupil named on it. I know, hi-tech, right? I'm surprised someone hasn't made an app out of this...wait *checks* someone has.)


Why would you use sticks in this way?


Lots of reasons. Many teachers use 'no hands up' policies, on the grounds that the same kids will put their hands up, and the rest will be neglected, encouraging their discouragement. It also keeps all the kids on their toes, because no one knows who will be selected and when, thereby raising engagement/ fear. Here's a selection of reasons sent via @ldnteacher: 



And here are some of Laura's perfectly sensible reasons.



And this is where my lolly beef begins: because as far as I can see none of these things actually need a lolly stick to begin with. The teacher can just pick a student to answer a question.


But what if the teacher is unconsciously biased towards certain children?

Then that teacher needs to think more closely about how he or she asks questions. If you seriously need lolly sticks to avoid picking children based on preference/ gender/ ethnicity/ agreeability etc then you don't need lolly sticks, you need a sabbatical and a career adviser. I'm pretty confident that if you're aware of the problem the. You can deal with it pretty sharp.


But what if the teacher isn't confident about addressing questions to certain members of the class?


Then they need to get used to speaking to any pupil they see fit, and that won't be helped by deferring the decision with a stick. If you need to hide behind a lolly then you also need to build up some assertion muscles.


But what if you need to ask a higher-order question (I remember when we called these 'hard') from a less-able pupil (I remember when we called these...ok, some changes are for the better)?


This goes to the heart of what questions are for, and how versatile, how powerfully they can be used. One suggestion is that you pick your stick, and then simply choose the student you want to answer the question, in this case presumably a more able student. But for a start this appears to me to be duplicitous, or as we used to call it, lying. That's a terrible element to introduce to your pedagogy: 'I will mislead my pupils.' And what if you get found out? Lolly sticks in the bin, along with your relationship of trust.


It also misrepresents what you can do with questions. I can direct a hard question to a less able pupil in at least two ways: I could rephrase it so that I lead them to the answer through several constituent sub-questions, or I could put it to them to see how they tackle it, and then build on that to develop my next question, either to them, or to a student of my choice, based on what I know about their ability.


Good questioning is one of our big guns as teachers. We can use them to encourage the habit of recall, one of the most important ways to drive mastery, as factual recall becomes fluid and automatic; or I can use it to create an atmosphere where praise is always possible, as I match question to student with concomitant levels of difficulty and challenge; I can use it to differentiate throughout the lesson without the need to design leaden sub-activities for the more or less able; I can use it to demonstrate subject mastery in a pupil, modelling what they are capable of; I can make someone feel good about themselves; I can make a lazy kid feel like they're being lazy; I can make an overconfident kid realise he doesn't have all the answers....on and on. And these aren't things I can do unless I choose which kid gets which question. Not only do I not need randomisation, it would be detrimental to what I'm trying to achieve. Unless I lie about whose name I select, but why would I do that when I can do the same without a pot of sticks?


I may not agree with your use of sticks but I will defend to the death your right to use them


One interesting phenomenon in the great Lollipop War that raged accidentally yesterday was how quickly it escalated. Many. Many people were, it seemed married to their lollipop sticks, and by God they weren't prepared to give them up. Which is fine. My point is that adults in charge of a class don't need to use them to get the effect stated;  that they can potentially be duplicitous, and they potentially undermine the authority and professionalism of the teacher. But if you want to use them once in while, knock yourself out. If you're aware of their potential risks as well as benefits, then go right ahead, step ye gaily. Unfortunately, as so often happens people arrive to a debate with their own preconceptions of what the terms of the debate are; many, it seems, were sadly determined to make this a contest of autonomy versus prescriptivism. 'You can take away my life,' they shouted, 'But Ye cannae tak away ma wee lollipop sticks!' Not a bit of it. Go nuts. I just think it's mostly a waste of time and effort when you could be developing your own questioning skills.


How random


Others seemed to value the randomisation of the sticks; I don't, for reasons given above. It's precisely because I don't want randomisation in my classroom that I spurn their woody charms. Some seemed to swear by the depersonalisation it imbued your interrogative technique, avoiding bias, fear or favour. I prefer to make my teaching entirely personal, and intentional.


Does it matter?


Everything matters in teaching. The reason I thought it worthwhile to even write 1000 goddamn words about lollipop sticks is because it's representative of greater issues in education. I know schools where, for example, no-hands-up is the given policy of the school, or the department, and teachers are required to seek alternative ways in which to take the students' temperatures. Voila: wee wooden sticks appear. So for some teachers this is a big issue. In a misguided attempt to promote, I don't know, thinking skills or Satanism or something, down go all those sad hands, which is a shame, because I use hands up all the time...then I pick the ones I want to pick, regardless. Sometimes I return to one of those stalwarts, dislocating their shoulder blades with the effort of attracting my attention, for an alternative answer, because I don't want to discourage that lovely flame that burns within some kids to share what they know. Besides how would I find out if a student has some secret piece of knowledge they want to share?


Theatre of the Lollipop sticks


The one good reason I liked to defend their usage, was by @soarpoints and others, who said that there was a 'theatre of the lollipop stick' created, a kind of dramatic flourish, a game even, that could be used as a decorative, stylistic twist to keep classes lively, and I cannot argue with that. But other than that, no, there are too many other good ways to ask questions in a classroom, without the need to decimate the Magnum forests and Solero fields. Everyone's right to bear wee wooden sticks is unthreatened. Let freedom ring. 


And a last word:



I think we can all take something away from that.