Questioning

Alex Quigley, subject Leader of English & Assistant Head at Huntington Secondary School, rightly calls questioning the ‘bread and butter of great teaching’ something I have forgotten at times over the years, sometimes when I have planned a lesson for an observation. There was often too much focus on producing the flashy resource or constructing active learning tasks when I should have spent more time thinking about the questions I was going to ask the students. As I now reflect back on my teaching career I can see that my most effective lessons have invariably involved good questioning that probed and explored the students’ thinking without a care for whether the lesson plan contained 3 parts, a starter or a plenary. 

I have several reasons for writing the following blog: Firstly, I want to bring together all the good ideas I have read about in blogs and books recently, such as Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (cheesy title but great book!); Secondly, I want to explore the part that questioning plays in NordAnglia Education’s High Performance Learning approach developed by their Director of Education Professor Deborah Eyre; and, thirdly, I thought it might be useful for other teachers who troubled themselves to read it.

1. Why a learning objective should be a Big Question?

I’ll start with an admission: I hate seeing students copying learning objectives into their books. We can argue about this one, but I think its dull and just seems to be something that teachers do because they were told it was a the right thing to do at some point. It is much better to construct this learning objective into a question that becomes their title. As long as it is suitably engaging and intriguing, it will immediately get them thinking. An example: say we are teaching a lesson about earthquakes, the lesson objective might be to identify factors which effect the amount of damage an earthquake can do. However, if you had the question ‘What are the chances your home would remain undamaged during an earthquake?’ on the board it would probably generate discussion and questions immediately. In that discourse the students will very likely raise the issue that it would depend on different factors, which could then be explored. Alternatively, ‘How did 3 bullets lead to the deaths of over 10 million’? is inherently more interesting than ‘By the end of this end you should be able to describe and explain the factors that caused the First World War.’ The lesson could then start with the students constructing ‘Little Questions’ that would need to be explored before they could fully answer the ‘Big Question’. This then sets their lines of research for the coming lesson and is one way to encourage independent learning.

I’m not alone in believing Big Questions are the way to go. In fact, I am in esteemed company. Here’s Dylan Wiliam explaining why he thinks questions are better than learning intentions:

2. How can we use questioning to develop discussion?

There has been a lot written about the lack of time students are given to answer questions. We cannot really expect them to answer anything other than simple factual recall questions if we do not give some thinking time. If your questions can be answered quickly then they can’t be all that challenging and won’t push the students on in their learning. That’s not to say that quick fire recall questions don’t have a place in the classroom; there often needs to be a ‘questioning warm-up’ before you move onto those that require deeper thinking. That’s where Pose Pause Pounce Bounce comes in. This involves posing a question, pausing to allow some thinking time, pouncing on someone for the question and then bouncing their answer to someone else to hear what they thought about the other student’s answer. You can read more about this on Ross McGill’s blog ‘Teacher Toolkit‘. This technique also has the advantage of keeping all students on their toes as they don’t know whether it will be them that you ‘pounce’ on, in what Doug Lemov calls, a ‘cold call’ or what British teachers would call ‘no hands up’. This can also be developed by using Alex Quigley’s ABC idea, which involves students following up on another students view by stating whether they Agree with it, want to Build-on it, or Challenge it. They should be expected to explain their reasoning even if they agree and the teacher should  probe them with further questions, such as ‘what evidence are you basing that on’? An example of how this type of discussion might develop can be read on  Andy Tharby’s blog entitled Responsive Questioning.

3. What types of questions should we ask to stretch and challenge their thinking?

The questions that we ask should reflect our high expectations of all students and encourage deep thinking. So, we shouldn’t accept poor or superficial responses from students, but should re-question them and encourage them to think deeply and elaborate on their responses. Furthermore, no one should be exempt from our questions – there shouldn’t be a get out card! This is important in terms of building resilience – they may struggle with a question, but we’ll support and scaffold the questioning to help them get there. Don’t accept ‘I don’t know the answer’ as a response. Add ‘yet’ to the end of that sentence.

An excellent English teacher, Sue Wolstenholme, who has now retired, summed this up beautifully – ‘Good questioning isn’t about asking isolated questions, it’s about growing a dialogue in the classroom that probes, challenges and inspires’. Perfect!

Factual recall questions certainly have their place in classrooms, however I think there are better ways to check the level of their knowledge than in a verbal Q & A e.g. quick quizzes using white boards, hand signals, online tests like socrative.com. The questions we ask verbally should mostly aim to stimulate higher order thinking. The ‘Teaching for High Performance Learning’ guidance published by Nord Anglia Education outlines 3 broad categories of questioning: Closed questions that aim to elicit information, more open questions that shape understanding by, for example, requiring students to make connections, and questions that press for reflection by pressing for critical assessments or value judgments. It also provides the following chart:

HPL Q

I feel it is possible to take questioning to an even higher level than this by exploring certainty. This is the type of discourse that is at the heart of the IB Theory of Knowledge course, which requires students to examine their own beliefs and assumptions, as well as how they ‘know what they claim to know’. Additionally, questioning could push students to make links to different contexts, such as another book they have studied or era in history. You could push them to make logical leaps from what they already know as shown in this Questions for teaching spectrum .

4. How can we use questions to check understanding?

Apart from the questions we might ask students at the beginning of a lesson to check understanding, there is also a need to test levels of understanding during the lesson and at the end. During a lesson you could employ a ‘Hinge Question’, which, in the words of Darren Mead, ‘are simply a tool to help the teacher and learner decide what the learner needs to do next, by helping them identify what alternative conceptions they hold on a particular ideas/concept/ item of learning. They are often multiple choice questions ( or at least these are easier to design) but can be more open ended in nature. But, either way the purpose of the question is to illicit what the learner understanding is in a clear and unambiguous way.’ 

And, here’s some more guidance from David Didau’s blog:

  • A hinge question is based on the important concept in a lesson that is critical for students to understand before you move on in the lesson.
  • The question should fall about midway during the lesson.
  • Every student must respond to the question within two minutes.
  • You must be able to collect and interpret the responses from all students in 30 seconds
  • You need to be clear on how many students you need to get the right answer in advance – 20-80% depending on how important the question is

At the end of a lesson we might consider displaying the original ‘Big Question/ Learning Objective’ as a continuum and have students place their names on post-its at a certain point along it to indicate their level of understanding. They would also have to inlcude questions on the post-it that they feel they need answering to help them ‘close the gap’ in their understanding.

5. How can we get the students to ask better questions?

As an IB History teacher I am required to supervise students undertaking their Extended Essays. The students have to decide on a area of interest and formulate a question to shape their research and analysis. The questions they come up are often long-winded, convoluted or do not lend themselves to an analytical investigation. However, on reflection it should be no surprise that they are so bad at constructing their own research questions because they have had no practice at doing this lower down the school. So, what can we do to address this?

One idea is to train them in Socrative questioning techniques. There are six types of Socrative questions :

  1. Questions for clarification, e.g. Why do you say that?
  2. Questions that probe assumptions, e.g. How could you verify or disapprove that assumption?
  3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence, e.g. What would be an example?
  4. Questions about viewpoints and perspectives, e.g. What is another way to look at it?
  5. Questions that probe implications and consequences e.g. How does…affect…?
  6. Questions about questions e.g. Why do you think I asked that question?

I believe the first three types are most appropriate for pupil use in the classroom. These are displayed in my room on a big poster in the hope of encouraging the students to use them with each other (or me!) during class or group discussion, or as a prompt that I can point to when I think there is an opportunity to ask one. If they do utilize them then I reward. Another idea is described by Ritchie Galere here. Ritchie has the Socrative questions in envelopes and hands one to a student if he thinks they are missing an opportunity to use one during group discussion. Using them is somewhat forced at first, but the more they are used the more they become integrated into the normal discourse of a lesson. 

Another technique could be the Question Formulation Technique. This involves introducing the lesson focus and getting the students to write down a list of questions, which they then classify as closed or open questions by putting an O or C next to them. They are then tasked with changing a closed one into an open one, and vice versa, followed by the selection of three questions they find most interesting or important or the three questions that they think need to be addressed first. They then share their questions and reflect on the process. David Didau describes an English lesson based on QFT focusing on ‘Of Mice and Men’ here.

One final idea is ‘What is the Question?’. This involves having an answer on the board and asking the students to come up with the question.

6. Tips on issues related to questioning from Doug Lemov

Just finished reading Doug Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion’, a book I would recommend to any teacher no matter what their experience. Lemov spent time observing some of the most effective teachers in the US and recorded what they did that stood them out from their peers. It is packed full of great advice and tips, but the section that dealt with questioning techniques interested me the most. Lemov describes a range of techniques related to questioning which I have listed below:

  • Right is right – A teacher should insist on high standards by pushing students to provide more if they only supply some of the answer and encourage them to use precise technical language.
  • Stretch it – A teacher should reward right answers with follow-up questions that extend knowledge and test for reliability.
  • Format matters – A teacher should insist that students make themselves audible using complete sentences and proficient grammar every chance they get.
  • Cold Call – In order to make engaged participation the expectation, a teacher should call on students regardless of whether they have raised their hands. This can be a follow-on to a previous question, a follow-on to another student’s comment or a follow-on to a student’s own earlier comment.
  • Call and response – A teacher asks a questions and the whole class calls out the answer in unison. This has 3 primary goals: Academic review and reinforcement; high energy fun; and behavioral reinforcement.
  • Pepper – As a warm up activity perhaps, a teacher tosses questions to a group of students quickly, and they answer back. In this case the teacher does not slow down to engage or discuss and answer.
  • Wait time – The teacher delays a few seconds after a question before asking students to answer.  
  • Everybody writes – With the higher order questions a teacher would give them the opportunity to reflect first in writing before discussing.

A few general rules of thumb for designing effective questions, no matter the purpose:

One At A Time: Have only one question in the question

Simple to Complex: Ask questions that progress from simple to complex.

Verbatim: (No Bait and Switch) If you restate the question before student answers, make sure you are asking the same question.

Clear and Concise

  1. Start with a question word.  (who, when, what, where, why, how)
  2. Limit them to two clauses.
  3. Write them in advance when they matter.
  4. Ask an actual question.  (Why does Pat think so?)
  5. Assume the answer.  (Ask, “Who can tell me…,” not, “Can anyone tell me…”

Hit Rate: A hit rate of 100% isn’t necessarily a good thing unless you are wrapping up a lesson of review.  When they get them all right, you need to ask harder questions.  However, a hit rate below 2 out of three is a problem.  Students are not showing mastery.

In summary

Think carefully about the questions you ask in lessons. Make them the primary part of your planning rather than the activity you hope they ‘enjoy’. If we want to achieve High Performance Learning there has to be rigor, students have to think and think hard, and to be taken to the very edge of their comfort zone and often out of it. It is in the struggle to get back into their comfort zone, as they make sense of what they are learning about, that strong connections are made in their brains and deep learning happens.

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