The Inequality of Equity Sticks

April 15, 2015

I’m always saddened when I see children, who are eager to share what they know, but don’t get the chance because their teacher has called on someone else.  I feel equally dejected when teachers ask a question that every student can answer, but not every child raises their hand.  The latter tends to increase with age and while the socialization of growing older might be a contributor, I also think that years of not being called on magnifies the epidemic.

Over the past ten years, pulling Equity Sticks has emerged as a common teaching practice in elementary school classrooms.  Although they’re used differently from school to school and teacher to teacher, their core function is the same.  Teachers write each student’s name on an individual popsicle stick, place them in a container, and then – under certain circumstances – choose one at random to elicit an individual’s participation.

Advocates of this pedagogical method claim that Equity Sticks prevent teachers from always calling on the same children, while improving student focus because the latter never knows whether or not their stick will be drawn.  I don’t dispute either assertion, but I’m happy to have been trained in a high participation teaching method that I find drastically superior to pulling Equity Sticks.

During the summer of 2006, I had the privilege of being trained in elementary math teaching methodology by Dr. Yoram Sagher, professor of mathematics at Florida Atlantic University.  Dr. Sagher created a way to synthesize student engagement and informal assessment into a unified delivery technique.  Although its execution is difficult, the premise is simple.

  • Teachers plan lessons by sequencing questions from simple to complex, always beginning with answers that every student knows.

  • During the lesson, they prompt students to raise their hand if they know the answer, allowing think time for slower processors.

  • When all hands are raised, the teacher signals for a choral response, so that each student has the opportunity to answer.

  • Each time the teacher does not receive the desired response, they know that their question was too hard and their next question should be simpler.

Since 2006, I’ve devoted thousands of hours to mastering Dr. Sagher’s method of direct instruction.  Like any teacher, I struggle to execute lessons, but when it’s going well, I have never found a better method for incubating concentration or eliciting student responses.  When the aforementioned doesn’t occur, I usually find that I’ve done a poor job of planning my questions.

Through much study, practice, and reflection, I’ve concluded that teachers have far more power in cultivating student focus and participation than they often think.  This realization has led me to develop two teaching rules that I always strive to follow:


1.  Every time I ask a question with an exact answer, I signal for a choral response.



  • 5 + 3 =

  • What is the capital of North Dakota?

  • Name the author of The Hunger Games.


When there is only one correct answer, why not let all students who know it show off their understanding?


2.  Every time I ask a question with an open-ended answer, I direct students to share their answer with a partner before calling on an individual.


  • How did you solve 99 + 27 = 126?

  • Name two countries in Africa.

  • What do you think will happen in the next chapter?


So long as a child wants to talk about the lesson, why not let them?

Picture the jaded sixth grader, slouched in their chair, uninterested in their teacher’s lesson.  Now, imagine that same child five years earlier.  You can see their hand stretching towards the ceiling - their eyes wide open and dancing - as they suppress the urge to call out an answer.  Notice the change in that same child’s expression when their first grade teacher calls on a different student.

Every day, this tragedy occurs dozens of times in elementary schools across the country.  Each time it happens, students lose enthusiasm for learning and become more and more distractible.

It doesn’t take long for lower elementary school students to develop a subconscious understanding of probability:

Why volunteer to share and/or pay attention to the lesson when the chances of being called on are not in my favor?

These same children know – at least on an abstract level – that their odds don’t increase when their teacher pulls equity sticks.