Gimmick, fad or tool: Why do I rely on lollipop sticks?

Gimmick, fad or tool: Why do I rely on lollipop sticks?

Lollipop sticks are so simple: small cards, with every student’s name written upon them, used to nominate respondents.
What makes me believe they’re an invaluable teaching tool?
And why are they so contentious?

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I’d swear by lollipop sticks and hate being without them, but having used them for years I’ve never written about them.  They have been condemned as a faddish excrescence of AfL by David Didau, Joe Kirby and Tom Bennett, whose 1200 words critique I came across recently.  Much as I respect all three, I think this misunderstands their power.  A post explaining how I use them and why I think it matters formed itself in a colleague’s lesson recently – this is it.

How do lollipop sticks work in discussion?

(An idealised case):

1) Students prepare an answer to an open question.  They write ideas on mini-whiteboards and may talk to partners, preparing an answer to a stimulus or question – giving them time to think through what they will say.  I use this time to circulate and look at what students are writing, offering hints or challenges as appropriate.  For example: Would you accept an OBE?  Why might someone refuse one?

2) Questions, directed using lollipop sticks.  I pose a question, pause, and choose a student at random.  (Or if I’ve asked a ‘polarising’ question, like the example above, I may ask students to use traffic light cards so I can switch between argument and counter-argument).

3) Follow-up questions.  I push almost every student with a follow-up question, depending on what they’ve said.  I may ask for:

  • elaboration (But what would the implications have been for the barons?)
  • evidence (Can you give me an example of a benefit Britain brought to India?)
  • reformulation (1) (Try again, giving the point first, then the supporting evidence).
  • reformulation (2) (That evidence doesn’t prove the case – what else would?)
  • responses to contradictory information (Why might parliament have opposed this?)
  • links (Which other monarch found himself in this situation?  What did he do?)

If the initial nominee struggles (given sufficient time and support), I may bounce the question to another peer (using lollipop sticks again) or take hands up if it’s very tricky, often returning to the original student.

4) Questions bounced to other students.  Again, using lollipop sticks to nominate:

  • Do you agree with what Sami said?
  • Why might someone disagree?
  • Are you satisfied with Jay’s response?

(Or we may move on to a fresh point).

5) Increasingly challenging questions.  As we proceed, I adapt my questions to seek missed ideas, syntheses or increasingly complicated responses – still choosing at random.

6) Time for hands up.  Near the discussion’s end, or if we’re reaching the extent of students’ understanding, I’ll ask for hands-up if students have original points.

A couple of tweaks:
a) Recycling cards.  I may replace the sticks already used midway through the discussion – I’ll aim to hear from everybody at least once each lesson (so it’s important to use all of them), but students shouldn’t be content to give up after one contribution.

b) Wildcards.  Each class set has three ‘wildcards:’ I may nominate someone from whom I’ve not heard, or I’ve been known to pencil in the name of a coasting student, doubling their participation for a month to add a little pressure.

Why do I think lollipop sticks matter?

They are democratising…  They signal that every student in the class has an equal part to play.

They are democratising…  They allocate time fairly: confident, loud, shy or bored, everyone has roughly the same opportunity to participate.

They help me balance access and challenge…  Asking a question to which every student can respond while inviting high level responses is tricky – but if I can’t do it, some students’ time is being wasted.  I don’t always succeed, but knowing that aim (and responsibility) helps me phrase my questions carefully.

They help discourage passengers…  There is no magic bullet to ensure all students are thinking all the time, but knowing you may be called upon at any time (alongside techniques like ‘100%‘) helps.  This seems particularly effective when asking students to prepare something as a group but noting that any one of them may be asked to feed back.

They raise my (and my students’ expectations)…   I force myself to expect everyone to be able to answer constructively, thoughtfully and with evidence at any time.  If I don’t provide scaffolding to help every student do so, I’ve let them down (if I must, I can do this individually after the discussion).

They can be finessed…  This is no blunt instrument.  Wildcards, for example, have had a significant impact as students feel and respond to the increased pressure.  No doubt there are more tweaks to suggest.

What about the criticisms?

“Stop picking on people” – why shouldn’t students choose when they participate?

Student reflection sheets invariably include a handful of complaints thus:

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As Dylan Wiliam notes, removing choice over participation radically changes the classroom contract.  It’s universally unpopular: students who consider themselves weak don’t want this publicised; those who consider themselves smart are frustrated they can no longer dominate discussions and that time is being wasted on students who don’t know the answers.

Without lollipop sticks (or something similar), only a few students will consistently participate.  Of the others, some will be listening; some will have great ideas but keep quiet, not realising; some will tune out.  Everyone can offer something to discussions, but a little force is needed to demonstrate this.  Ensuring all students are listening and responding sends a critical message that everyone should be participating in learning.

What about differentiation?

Many would argue that lollipop sticks need not be used to enforce participation.  David Didau has written: “I’m not a fan of randomisers; the power to select who answers our questions should be treasured.”

Perhaps my ‘one question fits all’ approach is a function of teaching history.  There is a single GCSE paper; most schools teach history in mixed ability classes; most enquiry questions would make good PhD theses (consider our current Year 8 topic: Why can’t we agree about the British Empire?)  Asking different students different questions undermines this – all students face the same exam.  And stuff the exam, all questions should be sufficiently clear and challenging that everyone benefits.  I can then differentiate in follow-up questions, as I’ve described above.

Selecting students for our ‘targeted’ questions can, I believe, embed low expectations: I’ll ask X that, because he’ll get it right; I’ll save the hard question for Y.  ‘Weak’ students never cease to surprise me with brilliant answers to hard questions, because they get the chance to answer.  Equally, asking ‘simpler’ questions to ‘smarter’ students offers the chance to hear good answers modelled or, on occasion, highlights surprising gaps in their knowledge.

But what if some students don’t understand the question?

Why would a teacher ask a question they do not expect students to understand?

But they’re a fad.

Like any Assessment for Learning tool, yes – if misunderstood or misused.

It takes time to make them.

About half an hour at the beginning of the year.

In conclusion

I don’t claim to have perfected questioning and I usually try to avoid explicitly evangelising.  I do think lollipop sticks matter, and I believe we should all be using them.

Did I mention – students eventually come around to it:

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* I don’t even like the term ‘lollipop sticks.’  Mine are little cards.