Three things I’m learning about questioning

I’ve always assumed that questioning is one of those ‘things’ teachers ought to be good at. I’ve reasoned along the lines of ‘if we supposedly spend a third of our time in the classroom asking questions (equating to 400 a day and 60,000 a year) that ‘third’ of teaching time ought to be made worthwhile to the learning of our pupils’. I’ve been compelled by the evidence stated above and the often quoted claim that ‘teachers don’t ask good enough questions’ to really develop the strategies I use. My thinking lately has led me to consider how I can improve this part of my practice and I’m putting my findings down here.

Here are three things I’m learning to do with my questioning that is shaping my practice and the strategies I’m trying to use in my teaching.

  1. Teach questioning explicitly – it’ll pay off in the long run

Let me tell you a story from my brief time in a Year 1 classroom.

After a fantastic afternoon with a visitor from a local Law firm where all were thoroughly engaged (far more so than they would have been with me on a Wednesday afternoon), I drew the workshop to a close.

“Thanks very much guys for coming in. It’s been a brilliant afternoon,” I concluded. “We’ve got ten minutes before we need to go home. Would anyone like to ask John and Joanna a question?”

A few hands shot up. I chose Jamie.

“My dad is a lawyer,” Jamie blurted. “He’s a barrister.”

It was nice that Jamie wanted to share this with the visitors but I had to intervene.

“Thanks for telling them this Jamie, have you got a question you’d like to ask them.” I said, emphasising the ‘q’ word.

He nodded, blinked and then turned to look at the visitors.

“He works in the city.”

I realised that Jamie didn’t know what a question actually was. I realised at that moment that children need to be taught the structures, punctuation, purposes, creation and formulation of questions and be able to develop their own. I assumed that this would just be known by pupils. I assumed they would pick it up by osmosis. I assumed wrong.

Even in Year 6, at the other end of the school, I’ve been baffled when children don’t punctuate their questions in their writing. When editing writing, I’ve often asked them:

“What should go at the end of this line here? (trying not to give away that it is a question)”

To which some pupils have responded:

“A full stop?”

Baffling. Yet, I realised once again that some children just don’t pick up what constitutes a question in either written or oral form.

If this is the case and I am right that we ought to explicitly teach questioning, questions stems and question structures to our primary aged children, as part of this, I think that teaching them how to ask better questions is also an essential step.

This is for the simple reason that if we are always the ones thinking of good questions then the whole process is merely transactional: the teacher asks a question, the student responds, the teacher asks another question or provides feedback. If we can teach children to ask good questions then these can extend thinking, help children understand the mistakes they’re making and help them help themselves with their learning.

Just imagine, if children really know how to ask, answer and discuss good questions, what incredible potential there is for deeper levels of classroom talk. Children take ownership of classroom talk far more confidently when they can ask great questions, expect them of their peers and are able to formulate their own to develop their learning.

A practical way to do this is to use a question generator like the one you can see here.

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  1. Sometimes asking questions is the wrong thing to do

Reading some of the insights of Doug Lemov, David Didau and Kris Boulton has led me to challenge the way I understand the place of questioning in the classroom. There is no doubt in my mind about the essential role questions play. However, they are only useful if they serve one of two purposes: to deepen understanding as part of teaching or to assess student learning. Here’s why I think this:

Questioning is inefficient: it is far easier to just tell pupils what they need to know and how they can practise it better than to question them a hundred times. Kris Boulton uses an example from his classroom to illustrate this:

3(2x – 4) = 6x – 4

“Sir, is this right?”

“Almost there.  It should be 6x – 12.”

“Ah, yeah, I forgot to multiply the 3 and the 4 as well.  Thanks, Sir.”

“No problem.”

Total time taken: about 15 seconds.

To sit there and ask questions and ‘induce cognitive conflict’ might have taken us a good couple of minutes at least, it could also have actually overloaded the student, causing further confusion rather than clarity.  In that time I could help eight kids by just telling them the mistake. 

Within the time constraints of the school day, which is more cost-effective? To ask, like Kris suggests, three, four or even ten questions so that the student struggling can get to the right answer, or, to tell them what their misconception is, how they can rectify it and then move on to work with another pupil? On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, the latter option wins hands down. In fact, I think it probably wins most of the time. Beneath this sits an excellent teaching principle, ironically phrased as a question in his infamous TLaC 2.0, Doug Lemov suggests that when planning and teaching, teachers should ask themselves ‘will this activity, action, process be the best and fastest way to achieve my goal for this lesson?” In other words, given the time constraints of the school day and the need of all teachers to help their students progress as quickly as possible, we ought to always think what the fastest way to do something it. Over-questioning, as shown in the example above, certainly doesn’t meet this criterion.

So when should we not ask questions? I am of the opinion that when key content or a process is new to pupils, or if they have come up against a misconception of some kind, the most efficient thing a teacher can do is to explain it clearly, model it carefully and give plenty of examples. After these teacher actions, questioning will then be very important. First to ensure they understand what has been taught, next to teach further, helping them understand other places that the new content or process might be relevant. In sum, it should be in this order: explain, model give examples…then question.

I agree with David Didau here when he says “a clear and relevant explanation will be memorable. In our rush to get kids to understand, we can, at times, be guilty of failing to concentrate on making sure they remember what we’ve taught them.”

This wonderful question matrix created by redorgreenpen that I found on Kris Boulton’s blog is a great way to try and think this through. I’ve been using it a lot.

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  1. Children need knowledge to answer deep questions

Another great insight from Doug Lemov is that to ensure the key content is learned, remembered and is academically as rigorous as it can possibly be, you have to tell pupils what they need to know before you ask questions. In Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson’s book ‘What does this look like in the classroom?’, Carl interviews Lemov and the one main piece of advice he would give teachers to improve their questioning is that applying knowledge in an answer to a question is more rigorous than discovering the knowledge through a question.

For example, the question:

“Who can guess what perpendicular means?” might elicit a response that, at best, is nearly right. It is highly unlikely that a student who has never seen the word written down or heard it said will know what it means. Asking this sort of question in this way is inefficient. It doesn’t meet the criteria for the purposes of questions: to teach or to assess. It isn’t teaching them anything new because the class has never heard the term before. It isn’t assessing whether they know anything either – they’ve never seen the word before! You know already that they don’t know it.

A better way to do this is to explain, show some examples and then model how to put the lines together. For example:

Explain: Lines are called perpendicular when they are at right angles to each other.

Examples: All of the diagrams on the board show pairs of lines that are perpendicular (show lines that are perpendicular.

Model: Right, so, I have two straight lines here and I’m going to place them together so that they are perpendicular to each other.

After this explanation, example and model, to ask lower-order questions or ‘guess what the word means’ become pointless. Instantly the sorts of questions you can ask are deeper, here are a few examples:

Questions: Who can tell me one fact that is not true about perpendicular lines? When might you see perpendicular lines in real life? When is it important the lines are perpendicular in real life? What shapes have perpendicular lines? What other types of lines can you remember from previous lessons? How can you be sure that line is perpendicular? Who cares about perpendicular lines?

The questions above extend thinking further than just memorising facts about perpendicular lines. It is important, of course, to ensure that students know what perpendicular lines are and can remember it beyond the lesson it is being taught in. However, I’ve come to realise that often it is best to give children the knowledge, the concrete facts that need to be learned and then after this, question deeply.


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