Sunday, 31 August 2014

Can I be that little bit better at.....understanding why I might be getting differentiation wrong

There are a few things in education that either scare me or confuse me.  One such thing is the term differentiation.  When I trained as a teacher we discussed the fact that students vary in ability in lessons.  This is common sense and something anyone would be able to tell you.  If I remember back to my own school days, every lesson I was in put me in a different academic standing.  Some lessons I flew in, some I struggled and some I just plodded along.  It's obvious then that students in lessons may require additional support, help or challenge.  Now this thought sits very comfortably with me.  But this sounds so simple.  Why then does the term 'differentiation' wake me up in the middle of the night with screams of terror?

A few years into my teaching something changed.  All of a sudden (and I'm not sure where it came from) people were talking about the fact that we need to be planning detailed lessons that highlighted and catered for every single student in the classroom.  The word flew in like a whirlwind and numerous strategies and ideas were left in its path.  Suggestions of designing a lesson numerous different ways, creating thirty different worksheets for thirty different students, changing the outcomes for the different abilities in your lesson, utilise students learning styles, that it should be clearly visible to an observer how I was differentiating for every student.....  It all got a bit overwhelming and if I'm totally honest, a little bit far fetched.  Luckily for me our school stayed pretty grounded and kept things in perspective.  But the worry of whether I was doing it right still lingered.
The differentiated worksheet

The reason that this particular face of differentiation bothers me is that it seems very unrealistic on teachers.  I am fully aware that the students in my classroom are very unique and learn in very different ways.  Experience tells me this.  I understand that some prefer different approaches and various forms of interactions.  I understand that students differ in the type of instruction they need.  They're not battery hens where a one size fits all system works.  But what for me felt like hysteria around differentiation a few years back gave me the feeling that what was expected wasn't for the students, but for other groups of people.  It felt like there was an expectation that every lesson had to be uniquely tailored to all students.  Now that takes time.  And I tried it for a while.  Believe me I did.  I spent hours on each lesson thinking how I could ensure every student was catered for.  But ultimately it became an impossible task and I felt fraudulent when I eventually only did this level of planning for things like observations.  So how could I manage this effectively and be realistic, and a bit more effective, in helping cater for students in my lessons?

As part of my renewed focus on my practice over the past few years I started to think of ways that I could scrap this view of differentiation, and simply look at ways that I could instead provide challenge for all.  In fact I'm not even sure what I'm talking about is differentiation anymore.  With it I began focusing on approach that would ultimately work for me and my students.  So what lessons have I learnt?

Differentiation isn't a short term fix
For me differentiation felt like a series of short term solutions.  'How could I adapt this part of teaching for this part of this lesson for this student on this day' became stuck in my head.  What I've learnt is that differentiation isn't about that at all.  It's not about one off strategies and doing things in isolation.  These can help but for me it's much better than that.  Differentiation is all of those tiny subtle things we do on a day to day basis.  The things we do naturally with the various students in response to their needs.  The hundreds of conversations, questions, discussions and pieces of advice.  These small moments that happen consistently on a daily basis makes a much bigger deal in the long run.

Sometimes you may not even know you're doing it
There are times in our profession, especially in observations, when we feel we have to make every action in our classroom visible.  But sometimes differentiation will happen and you may not even notice you've done it.  I worry that we expect differentiation to be the adapted worksheet or different task.  Something we know we've done and can point to in lessons.  Something we can physically hold on to and say 'here it is!'.  Or worse, something we go out of our way to make visible for others to observe it.  But differentiation may simply be the bespoke feedback you've given or the way you've demonstrated something differently to a student.  It's the way we respond to students needs.  It's helping students move forward.  As I've just said, it's the tiny conversations we have.  Those small things happen every single lesson and we may not even notice or recognise it.  That for me is differentiation.

Differentiation should be simple
Over complicating differentiation has been my downfall in the past.  It shouldn't take hours of my planning time but instead be part and parcel of what I do.  I don't need over complicated resources, activities or tasks.  Making things more efficient and manageable is a much better way to go.

More work isn't differentiation - is it?
There were times when all I did was provide more work for those who were flying which meant less work for those who weren't.  Is this differentiation though or is it just simply setting more tasks.  I'm not sure I know the answer.  I guess that if we do provide more work, it should firstly be something that extends students rather than being much of the same.  Secondly we need to make sure that there is a culture that everyone is expected to have the same output otherwise some students may produce two or three times the amount than others.

30 different worksheets for 30 different students isn't realistic
Yes every single student in your class is different but spending hours creating unique and bespoke resources can be very time consuming.  If it will help, if it will challenge, if it will support and if it will be used again then go ahead and make it.  If you feel that simply planning your explanations, your questioning, your feedback or demonstrations would be a better and more effective part of a lesson, maybe the worksheets can wait.

Don't make the task easier, making the thinking easier
Adapted from Daniel T. Willingham, this little nugget of advice has really stuck with me.  Instead of making the outcomes of tasks easier for different groups of students, structure the thinking behind it that little bit better.  A colleague of mine said a few months back that ultimately, every student in her class, regardless of ability, will have to sit the exact same exam with the exact same time limit as everyone else.  Making tasks easier for some just means that they will know less.  I have to agree.  Gone are the 'must, could, should' objectives and differentiated endpoints.  Instead every student has to learn the same key content, but, the way each student thinks and gets there may be different.

Differentiation is about knowing your students
I can't think of many things more important to help you teach your students.

Focusing too much on a group
I found myself guilty of focusing on specific groups of students that I actually took my eyes of those that remained.  Pinpointing under achievers or stretching the more able is important, but what I did when doing this was forget about those not in these groups.

And finally, differentiation is responsive
If you have a firm grasp on your group and you use various forms of evidence, assessment or data, you can plan differentiation into your lessons effectively.  Equally, if you know your students and know the difficult parts of the topics you teach, you could probably plan and adapt your delivery differently at these 'sticking points'.  Being prepared and planning differentiation is important.  However, I fell in love with the term coined by Andy Tharby; Differentiation the responsive way.  Most of the differentiation we do in lessons happens in response to the events that unravel.  Yes we can plan until the cows come home but it's the moments in a lesson when you have to rephrase an instruction, give a prompt when someone is stuck, pose a tough question that spins a student on their head when they are flying.  We never know what will happen in lessons.  We work with students so why would we.  Having experience, skill and expertise in our teaching means we can respond to differentiating when it jumps out on us unexpectedly.

So my approach to differentiation has changed and I hope for the better.  Instead of trying to plan numerous resources and creating an extensive range of activities, my focus is to respond to students needs in the lesson.  Planning to pinpoint sticking points, looking at tailoring questions, giving personalised feedback and helping support every student to achieve the same high aspirational goal is the key.  So how am I doing it?

1. Data, assessment and information that I'll actually use
Data is important but too often we can focus on the wrong things.  Regular marking, questioning students, homework scores, test result, quality of book work.....are all things that help me build up a picture of how my students are doing.  Years ago I would mark books because I had to.  Now I take books to help me see who needs help, who needs to be stretched and who needs a rocket firmly placed.  Paying attention to these details helps you understand the individuals and allows you to have those all important conversations.

2. Seating plans
Now I have tried a million different seating plans in my lessons.  For a while the consensus for some was to have more able and less able sat together.  The idea was to have direct support there when the lower ability student needed it.  It allowed students to feel confident that the person next to them could help them and in return, the more able student would reinforce their understanding by explaining it to their peer.  At the end of Year 11 I regularly get students to evaluate my teaching so I can tweak in preparation for my next group.  Out of all of the things, this type of seating plan took the biggest hit.  The higher ability students in the class highlighted their dislike for such a plan.  They felt that when they wanted to extend themselves they had to come back to help those who were struggling.  They also felt that discussions were limited and never grew with much depth.  The less able enjoyed the support but benefited more from my intervention.  Over the last few years I now group students based on their results.  After unit tests or exams, the groups are reworked.  Those that consistently achieve around the A*-A grades work together.  Those around the B grade sit together.  And this goes on.  And it changes every unit.  Now is it working?  Well if I had to group students without any sort of data but purely on knowing my students they would be roughly the same groups.  It means that I can go to every group and pose a slightly different question or challenge their thinking.  On one table I may pose a question that gets them to reinforce a key piece of information.  On another table I may ask students to think about the impact this topic has had on another.  It isn't full proof but it allows me to provide 6 or 7 differentiated pieces of instruction, questions or feedback very quickly.

3. Oh no, not SOLO - The Marmite of eductaion
Love it or hate it but using SOLO taxonomy to plan my lessons allows me to think through the different stages or a topic.  It really helps me break down the components and begin to formulate a plan of delivery.  This allows me to identify possible sticking points and create simple contingencies or interventions.  The system also allows students to have different entry points.  I can work with some students developing the important content knowledge that they need whilst helping others tie this topic into other areas we have covered.  The taxonomy also allows students to go back a level as well.  I worry some feel that we need to get to the top to EA as quick as we can where as we can actually spend a good lesson or two developing students uni/multi-structural knowledge go back and forth until it is secure.  For me it's a real help.

4. Conversations
More than anything I now try to spend time chatting to my students.  Lesson time doesn't allow me to have numerous 1:1 chats, primarily because I have to get through the teaching.  One thing I have done is design a rota where I aim to chat to 4 or 5 specific students every lesson.  Over the course of a few lessons I have had a conversation with every member of the class about their progress, where they are at, what needs to be improved and where need to go to move them forward.  The conversation is bespoke, it's unique and it's tailored to that student.  By using a rota as a guide combined with the general hustle and bustle of getting around your class, I now try to ensure I have real conversations with students about their learning.  Some are longer than others, some are more direct than others, but ultimately they happen and they happen regularly.

5. Bespoke feedback
Feedback, in my own personal opinion, has to be one of the best methods of differentiation.  What I say to one student will be different from what I say to another.  The tailoring of this feedback can prompt a student to become unstuck or stretch their thinking beyond the curriculum.  Each student is individual no matter how similar their grades may suggest.  What you say can be hugely important and is such a vital part of our craft.  Marking falls under this category as well.  It may be slightly more time consuming than generic comment stickers or stamps, but I aim to give every student at least two feedback questions when I mark.  Yes two students may have a similar grade or mark, but they have probably had a different experience doing that work.  Knowing my students allows me to provide personal feedback that works for that individual.  Feedback in my eyes in key.

6. Questioning
There's a real craft in using questioning to support, stretch and challenge.  Planning questions for key parts of the lesson is advisable but the art of being responsive and posing them in real time is a real skill.  There are those students whose bewildered faces suddenly become enlightened when a rephrased question you pose gets them unstuck.  There are those able students who think they've done it, only for you to spin their head with a higher level question.  Having such questions at the ready may come over time with increased confidence in your subject and increased experience.  But, along with the bespoke feedback you give, what can be more effective and more efficient in terms of differentiation?  In my eyes, not much.

7. Examples of excellence
No book has inspired me more than Ron Berger's 'An Ethic of excellence'.  The book shares numerous stories of how Ron gets students from a young age to create work well beyond their years.  It is a masterpiece and a must read.  Throughout the book Ron explains how he uses 'examples of excellence' with his students to demonstrate the high quality of work they need to produce.  He doesn't expect lower ability students to create any less work than a more able.  In fact he aims students to produce professional pieces of work such as architect designs and town radon reports.  The choice of excellent examples is a fundamental building block in the process.  By sharing outstanding or high quality work with students, you can inspire them to achieve work beyond what they probably believed.  The examples help students understand where work could lead to and the dissection and unpicking of it helps to make the steps to greatness concrete.  Collecting examples from industry, media articles and from students is easy to do and can be brought out when units or schemes are taught again in the future.

8. Modelling
Modelling is not a new idea but one that is used so regularly in the classroom.  And is it differentiation?  If we go by any technical definition it might not be.  In my classroom though, modelling is an essential component.  Over the years I have begun to use students work as it happens.  Sharing students work with their peers can be very helpful.  Like with examples of excellence, models happen there and then.  They can incorporate greatness, errors, and process of thinking.  They help students who are struggling see the next steps.  By working as a class to refine a sentence it can help the more able progress their work further.  If we use models in the right way, they become an important method and can provide so much in terms of moving everyone forward.

9. I scaffold and structure
As Daniel T. Willingham talked about, I shouldn't be making the task easier.  Instead I should support the thinking that is needed to get there.  And I totally agree with this.  Within my lessons students are expected to produce excellent pieces of work.  Some will get their by themselves.  Others will need varying levels of support.  What none of them needs is for me to make tasks easier and expect lower standards.  Using a variety of scaffolds is very helpful.  Using ideas like the four part process for writing excellent sentences is one great tool that pops up again and again in my class.  For some students it becomes the guide that they really need.  For others it is just a simple reminder of what to include.  For others it is irrelevant as they write with confidence, style and elegance.  Ideas like Dough Lemov's 'At first glance' sentence starters has also been a great way to develop, support and extend.  Simply providing three words of differing academic difficulty (although all of them are still quite high) forces students to think and adapt the subsequent sentence they craft.  Designing and displaying these starters is quick and effective.  The important thing is that these types of scaffolds become redundant the more skillful the students become.  And that's what I feel scaffolding and using structures (like PEED, IDEA and so on) should do.  Help when it's needed but then disappear when ready.

10. Graphic organisers
I rarely produce a worksheet for lessons anymore simply because of the balance between the time it took to produce it, compared to the time the student actually used it.  Instead I have a bank of graphic organisers which I can tweak and tailor when needed.  The beauty of these resources (such as double bubble maps, compare and contrast maps) is that they can help students keep track of the information before working with it.  The less able in the class can use them to record key points and then manipulate them.  The more able can use them to find more detailed connections and relationships.  The organisers are excellent and can be used flexibly from one lesson to the next.  Adding prompt questions or even high level statements can support or stretch abilities.  They can also help scaffold and structure work.  A complex essay can be quickly mapped out before becoming a plan for the subsequent drafts.  Graphic organsiers in my classroom have made things a lot clearer for students and have a place for all ability levels.

11. A level beyond the curriculum
I've thought a lot that we shouldn't simply be restricted by the curriculum we follow.  Yes students must know, cover and learn information that may come up in exams, but we can go beyond to really enlighten them.  I've been dropping a few AS level PE exam questions into lessons.  I use them for two reasons. Firstly, when something becomes difficult, showing them something at a more advanced level demonstrates the bigger picture and has helped students understand the topic better.  Doesn't sound right does it?  Secondly, they provide a great challenge when students have finished work and shows them that a topic isn't finished.  There is always something more to learn.

12. Expect excellence
And finally, I set the expectation that every student can produce great work.  I know that links into the Growth Mindset ethos, and some might argue that not every student is capable of producing great work, but I do set the aim that we all can achieve a high standard of work.  And I demonstrate how.  Redrafting work shows that things do get better when we act upon feedback.  Using techniques like the literacy upgrade shows that by improving the vocabulary we use in answers or essays, or work becomes more academic.  By spending time with a peer/group/class removing redundant words I show that we don't all need to waffle and in fact we can become much clearer in our writing.  Demonstrating these small things makes a big difference and changes habits.

And so?
And that final point is the big deal for me.  It's the small things that make a big difference over time.  Like Sir Dave Brailsford's Marginal gains, the aggregation of all of these little strategies improves the outcome over time.  Are some of these things differentiation by definition?  Most probably not.  But I have learnt that I can't make lessons 1:1 or bespoke to every student every lesson.  That takes too much time and is unrealistic.  Instead I can put in manageable strategies and spend time doing the things that matter.  In my eyes, if you asked me outright, I'd say effective differentiation (for me) is talking, questioning, challenging, marking and responding.  I call it teaching.  So can I be that little bit better at differentiation?  I probably can, and probably a million times better.  But I am not super human.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Can I be that little bit better at......asking effective questions?

After writing my last post on barriers to effective questioning, I began to reflect a lot on the strategies I use in the classroom.  One of the main areas of focus was why some of the methods I have used throughout my career might not have been as effective as they possibly could have been.  Questioning is such a frequent tool in the classroom and one that is used to elicit what it is that students think or know about a topic.  If we don't ask questions then how on earth can we assess their learning.  From the last post I made the point that some of the ways I delivered questions fall short of the mark.  I pulled out a list of reasons why my questioning techniques need tweaking in order to maximise their impact:

  • Calling on high achievers a lot more than low achievers
  • Same student answering
  • Not enough wait time
  • Lack of depth in the questions
  • 'Guess what's inside my head'
  • Responding to students answers (just moving on)
  • Giving them the answer
  • Asking questions that are too complex
  • Dealing with 'The hands up kids!'
  • Patience
  • 'I don't know' and dealing with similar answers
  • Only gaining one students insight
  • Wrong answers and what I do with them
This list is quite extensive and rightly so.  If you look at them closely, they are more about what the students gain from questioning rather than what we as teachers do.  And I firmly believe that that should be the case.  If I remember back to my school days I probably thought questioning was a way for teachers to either annoy us or check we were still awake.  As a new teacher I thought questioning was part and parcel of what we were expected to do.  Now more experienced I see questioning as a way for students remember, connect, expand ideas, discuss, agree, disagree, share opinions, challenge, entice curiosity, offer perspectives and much more.  So when looking at this list in an effort to improve questioning, new strategies or refined techniques might not attend to all of them in one go.  However, a series of habit changes and a combination of strategies might ensure that the questions I ask have a lot more impact than before.  So can I be that little bit better at asking effective questions?


One key area that kept cropping up when looking at my questioning was why students don't involve themselves in the process.  If I think back to my days at school, I can picture classes with old friends and peers with different abilities, backgrounds and views on education.  We had some who enjoyed school.  We had some who tolerated school.  We had the naturally talented.  We had those who struggled.  We had some who gave their all.  We had some who wasted talent.  We had some who knew it all.  We had some who found school wasn't for them.  With such diversity in the class I found that sharing ideas and opinions during class discussions could be a mine field.  A wrong answer could be met with a severe put down from peers.  A great answer could result in ridicule as you are seen as a 'boff' or teachers pet.  The worry of the teacher finding out you have no idea left you feeling pressured, panicked or worried.  The culture of a classroom might not be that different now.  Who really knows.  But that culture where sharing answers during class questioning is safe is extremely important.  Yes we want students to challenge each other and offer opposing opinions, but we need to ensure that the environment in which questioning occurs allows everyone to contribute without the worry of ridicule or panic.  Setting clear rules, modelling how to share answers, demonstrating good protocol and scaffolding the process allow students the security to be involved.  Celebrating good answers, valuing opinions and rationally challenging ideas takes time to achieve, but setting up such a culture means that the methods that follow might have a lot more success.

Quality of answers

If we allow it, student responses could become very weak or low in standard.  Challenging students to provide answers can be quite a task in some instances.  Setting expectations that every answer must be high quality can be even harder.  Still, it is worth the battle if you set ground rules regarding the answers students provide.  It will take time to introduce them, model them, scaffold them and reinforce them, but the quality over time will improve immensely.
  • Set that expectation that every student must speak loud enough so that they can be heard by all.  There is nothing worse when a student mumbles and the majority of the class can't hear it.  
  • Ask that they use well structured sentences and language.  Now this will take time to develop but similar to writing, students should be using specific terminology, sound structure and a range of vocabulary.  Be a stickler for slang words.  It will be tough but it is well worth it.
  • Develop it if it needs to be.  Some students will settle for giving you the minimum they possibly can.  If an answer is a bit thin on the ground, before using another technique like ABC questioning, ask the student to refine their answer so that we as a class can do something with it.  It may need prompts and probing questions but getting a culture established among students that high quality answers are the norm is a great first step.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi........Wait time

As I pointed out in the last post, teachers rarely leave students enough thinking time before asking for an answer.  As simple as it may seem, pausing before asking students to contribute is a key thing.  Unfortunately from my own (and others) experience, the fear of silence in a lesson is one of the reasons we rush in.
Make it your standard practice to allow at least 3 or 4 seconds before asking students to contribute.  The difference in that and rushing is can be immense.  The quality of answers and the depth of thinking might just be that little bit better.  Silence doesn't mean that learning isn't taking place.  Students need space to think so build this in (just make sure that it doesn't just become extended daydreaming time).

Planning questions

With the nature of learning and the messy form that it can take in lessons, it is not uncommon that its direction can deviate at times.  Trying to plan your questions is therefore unrealistic.  In fact I would recommend not trying to plan every question as it would be so time consuming and probably a waste of time.  Instead the majority of questions we pose are responsive to the situation and occur when needed.  The ability to react in such a way requires us to have expertise in our subject knowledge so we can stretch and challenge all abilities.  However, you are still able to plan carefully designed questions to use at specific times.  Imagine a topic you teach.  Many have key points that must be understood or common areas of misconception.  At these times, during your planning phase, construct one or two questions for the lesson that you can pull out at these pivotal points.  The ability to have them on hand to reinforce or correct the learning can be extremely helpful and ensure students head towards a desired outcome.

ABC questions

I have absolutely no idea where I first heard about this technique.  It has now become a regular routine in my classroom even if I don't make specific reference to the strategy.  ABC stands for Add, Build and Contest/Challenge.  It is a way of turning the process of questions and answers into a class dialogue.  Rather than simply gaining one students insight or calling on the same student over and over again, the teacher poses a class question which they allow time to mull over.  When the teacher calls upon a student to answer they use this as the beginning of the dialogue.  The teacher then invites other students to contribute.  The first stage is having others 'Add' to the initial answer.  Was there anything that you would add that might have been missed out?  Was there a bit of information, key word or idea missing?  Was there a part of the answer that needs refining?

The teacher then asks if anyone would like to 'Build' upon the answer.  This involves adding more structure or content.  It could involve drawing in additional information or vocabulary to make the answer more academic.  The idea is the class is now building this up and developing the complexity.

The final stage involves offering the opportunity for anyone to 'Challenge' what has been said.  This is crucial as students may not agree.  Rather than let it be a free for all, the process allows a rational approach to rebut, disagree, oppose or offer a different perspective.  The process of reasoning also allows students to understand a variety of viewpoints or even consider an alternative answer that might not have been initially perceived.  Depending on the quality of the answer, the ABC process can begin again.  The whole process is simple to implement and excellent for modelling.

Live write the answer

Such a simple idea but one that I see underused.  It is certainly one that I have only recently begun to do more avidly.  The process simply involves annotating answers on the board as students give them.  Attention spans, working memory capacity and distractions can sometimes mean that after a complex answer has been given, peers or classmates have forgotten what has been said.  The process involves the teacher keeping track of the answer and noting down any key elements of it on the board.  This allows students to then reflect upon what has been said and generate a discussion about its quality.  With it being so visual, the teacher can then manipulate structure or have it critiqued by the class in an effort to improve it.  Students can discuss the answer in pairs or consider it individually.  By it being live, it is easier to keep track or the thought process and in itself becomes more memorable.

Driving questions

Driving questions are generally thought provoking open ended questions that is used in approaches such as PBL.  A driving question is large in itself but requires a bank of knowledge and understanding to answer it.  Although large, the question is refined enough that it requires students to focus on specific topics and information.  It can been seen as a hook which prompts curiosity.  In our current GCSE course, we split our topics into units.  Each unit was carefully designed to include areas of the curriculum that were related to each other.  Each of these units has a driving question which literally 'drives' the learning.  In our recent physiology unit, the question we launched with was 'How do the four physiological systems interlink to allow an athlete to perform in competition?'.  The question prompted curiosity and thought before the subsequent lessons pieced the answers together.  Every lesson the driving question was mentioned and new information was added to the students thinking.  At the end of the unit students are given this as an extended question which they must answer using what they have learnt.  The beauty behind using this method is every student has the same carefully selected question throughout.  The question itself is one which all students ultimately need to know by covering the unit.  It allows teachers the opportunity to assess what has been learnt and forces them all to demonstrate it.

Questions as objectives

Very similar to driving questions is the process of using questions as objectives.  The question will pose curiosity among the students and set up a bigger picture of where this topic is going.  Like with the driving questions, all students should be expected to answer it in some form during the lesson (whether as a final task or plenary).

No hands up (but with hands up)

There are a lot of strategies out there that work on randomly selecting students to answer questions in lessons.  The 'not knowing if it is me' scenario is one way to keep most students involved in the lesson.  The process involves choosing a student at random who provides an answer.  As it could be anyone, student naturally need to be paying attention.  Over the years you might have seen name cards, lolly pop sticks, spinning wheel random name selectors, an Octopus that selects boxes with students names on (or was that just in the 2010 World Cup?).  My preferred method which I share with fellow teachers is extremely technical and simply involves pointing at a student and asking them.  Either way, the process means that the same students in lessons don't get asked.  But hold on a minute.....what about those students who actually want to answer a question rather than the student trying to wriggle out of it.  Should they still not be allowed an opportunity to share?  Why should they be penalised?  This is a good point.  The last thing we want to do is cause students to lose motivation or give up caring.  A straightforward solution is to work on the no hands up strategy (Doug Lemov calls it 'Cold Call') but after one or two answers, allow students to put their hands up and share their responses.  It seems so simple yet on numerous times when I have mentioned this people say 'Oh yeah, I'll do that'.  Yes all students should be part of the questioning process and have to think.  No hands up does that.  But we should still allow those who genuinely want to contribute, and who may bring a high quality answer that may change the lesson, to share their ideas as well.

Modelling with questions

There are times when a student comes out with a mind-blowing answer that summarises everything you have asked so concisely.  It doesn't happen everyday and sometimes it is lost on the majority of their peers.  Students need to understand why it is you are praising  the depth of the answer.  Annotating it on the board and deconstructing it helps the remainder of the class see how that conclusion was made.  Highlight the thinking.  Highlight the structure.  Highlight the vocabulary and use of terminology.  Show students (just like with writing) how they too can end up at the same outcome.

Hinge questions (and other whole class response systems)

Hinge questions have quickly become one of my favourite questioning strategies.  One of the problems with a lot of questioning is it only asks one student at a time.  There is a danger that doing this does not paint an accurate picture of what the remainder of the class thinks, and, it is time consuming to then move onto the next individual.  Whole class response systems allow you to quickly see what every student thinks and gives you a slightly better temperature of the classroom.  A hinge question itself is where at a critical point in the lesson, usually for me at the stage where I want to move onto more complex tasks, you share a multiple choice question on the board for students to think over.  The answers are labelled 1, 2, 3, 4/A, B, C, D and students have to raise their hand/white board in response to which answer they think is correct.  Designing hinge questions can be tricky to start with.  The wrong options need to be close enough that they may be plausible but not too similar that they may cause a misconception to be learnt.  That can be tricky to unlearn and fix.  They also shouldn't be too easy that they become pointless.  A quick scan of the class allows you to decide whether to move on or spend more time on the topic you have just covered.

Question statements

Stolen entirely from Dylan Wiliam is question statements.  As a teacher you display a statement based on a topic or piece of learning you have just covered.  Rather than it being a question to elicit an answer, it challenges students to think of a more developed response that share their opinion.  To do it justice, here is the excerpt from Dylan:

This is an idea that I have become a big fan of.  It's simplicity yet alternative way of working means that students are forced to think and draw opinions.  The simple tweaks to our input means that students can be continuously challenged.

You've got 30 seconds - Bounce.

Out of all of the lessons I have observed, one where I watched our Director of Learning stood out the most.  In his lesson he had a mixed ability Year 9 class.  During the lesson he asked a question to students.  He offered some wait time before he asked for an answer.  No hands went up and no contributions were made when called upon.  At this point I got my pen out ready to make some eagle eyed observation notes.  Before I had even got the lid off he simply said to the class, "Okay guys you have 30 seconds to get an answer, off you go".  My pen was safely put away.  The answers that came from the repeated round of questioning was a million times better.  Initially I thought a number of problems had occurred.  Maybe the question was to complex?  Maybe the students weren't listening?  Maybe they hadn't gained the necessary knowledge to answer it.  Instead all the students needed was 30 seconds to bounce their ideas around and feel confident that what they were going to say was along the right lines.


One of the first real strategies I had for questioning (apart from simply firing them from the hip) was snowballing.  It still becomes part of my teaching repertoire and crops up in lessons now and again.  I simply ask a question to the class and allow students time to develop an answer for themselves.  I then ask students to share it with a partner so they can compare and evaluate the answers they have reached.  They then grow into groups of four, then half a class until we share a refined answer as a class.  The process allows students to analyse each others statements.  When the group size grows each student has a chance to share their view and time is allocated to refining that answer into a shared consensus.  The final few answers hopefully include a wider content base, more factual meaning, higher reasoning and increased structure and vocabulary.  The process itself doesn't ever have to reach the whole class stage.  Sometimes time won't simply allow it.  A similar strategy is 'Think, Pair, Share' where the same principle of independently creating and answer before collaborating exists.  Instead of going for large numbers, the same principles exist for sharing an answer with a partner before sharing their perspective with a class.

Write it down

Sometimes students aren't able to pull together a constructive answer in their head.  Occasionally a question is quite complex or contains wording which needs thinking time.  In this instance it is a great help to allow students an opportunity to write down initial thoughts.  It only needs to be in short hand or bullet point but allows students an opportunity to refer to notes when sharing their ideas in class.

Exit tickets

Exit tickets have now become a common theme in my lesson.  The strategy is great to use as it ask students to summarise the key learning within the lesson as well as provides some more of formative assessment which you can use for future planning.  Ideally used right at the very end of the lesson, the teacher poses a challenging question on the board.  In my experience, the question should only be a maximum of a 3 or 4 marks so students have ample time to respond to it.  The question pulls out the key learning concept from the lesson and forces students to show they have an grasp on it.  As we know (from Bjork's Learning v Performance) it doesn't give you a huge indicator of what learning has taken place, but it is another opportunity to squeeze thinking into your lesson and have students manipulate the information they have just had shared with them.  The teacher asks the students to either answer the question on a slip or write it in their books for marking.  If the responses are very poor, the teacher can then attend to that topic area in the next lesson.  If the answers are excellent, the teacher can skim this before moving onto a new area.

Generating questions

Research suggests that the majority of questions that are posed in lesson come from teachers.  Why is it that we spend little time getting students to develop their own questions?  A technique I borrowed from Martin Said on my visit to Cramlington in 2009 was the Questioning Grid (Kipling's).  The grid has been well documented by such teachers as John Sayers and Tait Coles.  It uses Rudyard Kipling's 6 questions (who, where, what, when, how and why) combined with other words such as is, did or might.  Responding to a stimulus (possibly a driving question) students have to generate questions for themselves using the boxes as prompts.  The rule of thumb (although I am not quite sure) is that the further to the bottom right corner you get, the higher the level of question you are creating.  Students then select their top one or two questions which they then share on a question wall or with the class in another format.  The class can then select a question which to investigate or pose to the teacher to answer.  The technique itself doesn't have to simply be for inquiry but works well in any other circumstance that the generation of questions is needed.  The modelling and challenge that a teacher facilitates helps students see what a good question looks like.

And so....?

Culture, confidence and strategies are all well and good but as teachers we need to ensure that whatever question we pose has a benefit to the learning.  Sometimes asking less is more.  Sometimes designing a few well constructed questions is better than machine gunning 300 off in one session.  Maybe the strategies themselves are not important but the quality of the students answers.  Maybe forgetting strategies and focusing on designing well crafted questions around the content of your lesson would be time better spent.  I'd have to hold my hands up and say I don't know.  What I do know is that some of the strategies, habits, protocols and procedures that I have listed above have been time efficient and have created an environment where students are sharing their opinions in a much more refined way than they had before.  So can these methods help me ask more effective questions?  I hope so.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Can I be that little bit better at.....questioning my questioning?

Picture from David Hayward

For as long as I can remember I have asked questions in my classroom.  In fact I can't think back to a lesson where I haven't posed a question at least once in the first few minutes of a lesson.  Questioning is such a frequent element in lessons and something that we as teachers use numerous times, in numerous different ways with numerous different students.  Robert Marzano in his book Classroom instruction that works claims that 80% of teacher instructions involves asking questions.  Leven and Long (1981) also found that teachers ask around 300 - 400 questions each day, with (in one study) the average question being fired roughly every 43 seconds.  Now that is a lot of questions if we are true to the trend.  And as teachers this probably isn't surprising is it?

Questioning is a vital part in the process of both thinking and understanding.  They are intertwined so intricately and allow us the opportunity to unpick, stretch, check and challenge.  In fact questioning doesn't just have to be about stimulus-response or eliciting an individual idea. Questioning at its finest can produce a symphony of thinking, discussions and curiosity.  It helps us gauge levels of understanding and respond where necessary.  If skillfully utilised in lessons it allows students the explore, investigate or manipulate information.  It has the ability to help strengthen the retrieval or facts, figures and content.  It can open dialogue between individuals and encourage students to go beyond the level of learning expected.  If done very well, it can leave students thinking about the topic well beyond the time the question was asked.

There is a problem though and this problem is the same as other areas of teaching such as feedback.  These things are only effective if we use them effectively.  Poor or inadequate feedback won't drive forward the learning.  The same is true for poor use of questioning.  If we use questioning in an ineffective way we shouldn't be surprised if the depth of learning isn't as we expected.

However, there is the point as Walsh and Sattes (2005) found: asking questions is better than not asking questions.  Gall et al (1978) also found that those who were asked even low level questions learned more than those who were not.  So the challenge then is can we become more skillful in the way we ask questions?  Can we design our methods to help drive learning forward more than it previously was?  Can we create a culture where excellent questioning in the classroom is the norm?  Can we be that little bit better at questioning our questions?  I am most certainly confident that we can.

It would be wise in my journey to improve my questioning, to first be aware of what I might be doing less effective in the first place.  Within the hustle and bustle of a five period day with varying classes, these 'errors' as you may, probably creep into our practice on more than one occasion.  It's human nature and with the high frequency use of questions in our job, one of these is probably going to slip through.  However, having them in your mind when improving questioning can be extremely beneficial:

Calling on high achievers a lot more than low achievers

This is something I have been very guilty of.  I can clearly think back to my early days as a teacher.  The awkward silences and 'pulling teeth' moments where you ask a student a question and get met by a response that is not what you expected.  Innocently, your next questions are directed at some of the more able students in the class.  The answer is as you expected.  It reaffirms the content you have taught and the pace of the lesson remains.  Calling upon the more able student has ensured we have can all move onto the next part and an example answer has been provided.  Fantastic hey?  Maybe, maybe not.  Using high achievers certainly has its plus points.  Some of the answer that I have had from certain students have provided light bulb moments or even clarified a point that has caused so many of their peers to be stuck on.  I have been blown away and amazed how some students can articulate their thinking.  Their responses allow me the opportunity to unpick, model, scaffold and guide the remainder of the class forward.  However, relying on these students glosses over a key point in learning: mistakes can be made and learning benefits from them.  It also has the ability to create resentment among students.  The comments such as "Paul always gets asked" or "Kate will get it right so why should I bother?" are a sad thing to see.  But it happens.  Some students find topic areas difficult and begin to be part of a culture where they let the high achievers answer and simply zone out.  If we are to ensure that every student in our class is involved in questioning, and more importantly, not scared to be involved in the process, then we need to ensure that we equally share out questions to all abilities.  The skill is how we respond to the answers.

Same students answering

Teachers inadvertently can fall into the trap of asking the same students to answer questions all of the time.  It's human nature to have 'go to' students who we know will provide the correct answer.  That student who has a real interest in the subject and wants to do well.  It's also only right that we allow those who constantly put their hands up the opportunity to share their ideas.  And why not?  They have patiently followed the rules and politely raised their hands to explain their answer.  Interestingly, Sadker and Sadker (1985) found that certain students in class answered questions three times more often than their peers, and 25 percent did not answer questions at all.  And if we always go to those who are willing to share rather than those who might not be so forthcoming, these figures shouldn't be a shock.  There is also a cognitive side to this as well.  If we call upon Bjork's desirable difficulties and the testing effect, it is no surprise that Strother (1989) found that "students who regularly asked and answered questions, did better on subsequent achievement tests than students who did not".  So being part of the questioning process can actually improve your understanding and learning over time.  So why don't students involve themselves in questioning?  It's difficult to pinpoint down a definitive cause but common themes are fear of getting it wrong or the way teachers control of the questioning process.  Maybe students are worried the environment doesn't allow risks to be taken without criticism.  Maybe the students simply feel the teacher isn't bothered about asking them because they have their regular 'go to' people.

Wait time 

Would you believe it that on average, it is said that teachers typically wait just one second after asking a question before looking for an answer (Walsh and Sattes, 2005).  If that is true it means that students have less than a second to decode what it is you have said, processed it in their working memory, searched for relevant information in their long term memory, retrie.........  You get my point.  The key point here is that in my experience, the 'fear of silence' can play a nasty trick on teachers.  With the constant lack of time, large amount of content to be covered, and dare I say it, various myths about what the big 'O' want to see, we feel that having a moment to pause and think before providing an answer will slow down a lesson and ultimately be detrimental.  However, research in various quarters shows that allowing students real time (around 3 or 4 seconds) to actually think allows better answers to be provided.  The need to be confident in setting this up could be transformational.  On the other hand, it could simply be more time for individuals to daydream so careful structure is advised!  

Depth of questions

Fact recall is important.  For example, in GCSE PE theory I may pose the question "What is an agonist during muscle movement?".  It's a necessary retrieval question that highlights a key point and contributes to its storage in our memory.  Asking such questions solidifies the fundamental knowledge that students need to know before being able to manipulate the topic.  And this is where we need to up the ante and begin to ask more higher order questions.  Once students can grasp the content then we need to stretch them by asking them to evaluate, compare, contrast, hypothesise, reflect and so on.  Gall (1984) found that only 20 percent of the questions posed in lessons require high level thinking.  This means that the remaining 80 percent is often low level.  Now the research is mixed.  Some see this as a barrier to deeper learning.  Others see the use of constant recall questions as a great way to develop understanding.  Either way, the point is we should be aware of the balance of question types that we pose in lessons. 

Guess what's inside my head

If you were able to pop into my lessons in my first 5 or 6 years of teaching you would have seen this more often than not.  In my early days I wasn't skilled at asking questions and the game I seemed to play was 'guess what's in my head'.  The obscure use of question, the confusing explanation or the extremely abstract point meant that students simply had no idea of what the answer could possibly be.  It would cause frustration when I kept trying to tease out an answer that students simply were never going to say.  Questioning is a skill that needs to be developed and we must be confident that the question we ask is clear for students to grasp.  It must also be relevant otherwise students may simply miss the connection and the whole process becomes a confusing mess.

Responding to students answers (just moving on)

When I talk about questioning to colleagues, something called IRE always comes up.  It stands for Initiate, Response, Evaluate.  In its worst form it simply involves asking a question, a student giving an answer, simply acknowledging the answer and then swiftly moving on.  It makes the whole process less effective and could easily be tweaked.  When a student provides an answer we need to ensure that we don't simply move onto the next question.  The answers that students provide can easily be explored in a short space of time.  If a misconception or error is made, this is perfect time to discuss the topic again and helping students see how the correct answer can be found.  If the answer is an average one, we can work together to make it an excellent answer.  And if it is an excellent answer, time can be spent discussing how this conclusion was reached so other students see the thought process.  Now I am not suggesting that we spend time over every answer in the class.  Nor am I saying that every subject or topic lends themselves to having time responding to answers.  What I am saying though is as a teacher, do we furiously fire out questions, quickly collect answers before reloading and unleashing another fury of questions again?  Spend time unpicking answers and responding to them (including other students in the process).

Give them the answer

I see this a lot in inexperienced teaching and recall this point back to my own classroom.  There are times when (probably due to the fear of lack of pace in lessons) we pose a question and then end up answering it ourselves.  It happens with the best intentions but removes the responsibility from those in front of you.  We feel that the lesson needs to be continuously moving and times when it slows becomes worrying.  We also worry that if students don't know the answer, giving it to them will hide the cracks.  What it does at its worst is create a culture where students don't think as hard as they could do and rely on the teacher enormously.  If we don't know it, Sir will tell us.  If we look confused, Miss will tell us.  If we stay silent, we'll get given the answer anyway.  When memory is the residue of thought (Willingham), maybe not giving them the answer straight away would be a smarter thing to do.

Questions that are too complex

If the question we pose to students is so complex that students have no concept of a) what it is you have just asked, or b) what on earth you want them to say, then we have an uphill struggle.  Questioning shouldn't be reduced to the most basic vocabulary or insult the intelligence of the students, but being aware of the language you are using as well as what is is you are trying to entice is crucial.  If the question you pose is long, complicated and very technical, some support strategies to help answer might be helpful.

The hands up kids!

There are those students who constantly have their hands up over and over again in lessons.  They have a muscular endurance that sees them raise their arm repeatedly in lessons without ever crippling to fatigue.  If we aren't cautious, lessons can end up with the same students answering the majority of questions.  Lot's of strategies have come in to combat this to ensure the 25 percent of students who never answer a question (Sadker and Sadker, 1985) get more involved.  This is great as students are now in an environment where they know a question may be thrown at them at any time and they must stay alert (and thinking).  Confidence grows in those who previously did not participate and now questions can come from all corners of the room.  But what about those who still want to put their hands up?  What happens to their involvement?  These students know the answer and want to share it.  If they don't know it, they are comfortable in providing something that the teacher can help correct.  If they don't get the opportunity to now share what they think, does this motivation or confidence in learning deteriorate?  Are we penalising these students who want to contribute?  Who knows?  A point worth thinking about when using a well balanced questioning strategy.


There have been many a time when I have become 'the impatient teacher'.  These are times when a student is taking longer than I anticipated to answer a question.  It becomes that time when a "this is painful" feeling crosses my mind and I quickly swap to another student.  This process may mean that we get to the desired outcome quicker but what happens to the initial child who is contributing?  Patience and guidance to help the initial student is vital.  Simply skipping past them may make them feel that their contribution has been discarded and may develop less confidence in sharing ideas in the future.  The thinking process has suddenly stopped.  Having the time and patience during slow responses is important though.  Helping students formulate verbally what it is they want to say is a skill that can be learnt.  Modelling the process with them and providing additional cue questions also helps keep the thinking going so the student learns from the experience.  

'I don't know'

I could quickly lose count of the amount of times a student says 'I don't know' when asked a question.  For whatever reason this crops up (genuinely they don't know the answer, easy option, not listening, not bothered....), accepting it can create the assumption that this type of answer is acceptable.  Challenging it can be tough but breaking the cycle and making it not the norm can be hugely beneficial.  Stick with the student, provide prompts, help scaffold an answer and provide direction.  

Only gaining one students insight 

This refers back to IRE (Initiate, Response, Evaluate).  A lot of the time during my career my questioning ran along the lines of:
  • Pose a question
  • Get a students response
  • Listen to it
  • Evaluate it
  • Say a simple 'Yes that's right' or 'No not quite'
  • Move on.
And that was it.  I would be the John Wayne of the classroom, firing off questions all over the show and simply taking an answer and moving on.  I would think that the isolated answer from that one individual would be representative of the entire class.  If they got it right I would be safe in the knowledge the class knew it so off we go.  If they got it wrong I would bang my head against the wall and then repeat what I had just taught.  The problem with gaining just one answer is that it doesn't allow you to find out what the other 29 students think.  What if they don't think the same?  What if the correct answer makes no sense to them?  What if they have a better answer?  Gaining one students insight limits the capacity for us as teachers to take the temperature of the learning taking place in front of us.  Questioning therefore should involve more people.

Wrong answers.

What do we do when we are met with a wrong answer?  Do we give the polite 'Not quite right Paul' and then move to another?  Or, do we spend time probing rather than accepting poor answers and moving on.  Wrong answers are actually quite helpful and may pull out common misconceptions that others may help.  The key is to stick with the student and provide prompts.  Helping them develop a more structured answer which is correct sets the expectation of the classroom.  It helps students see that they can improve.  Unfortunately I still see teachers receive an incorrect answer and brush it off before moving on.

So what now?

Questioning therefore is more complex than I thought.  But it's also easy to improve.  Listing the common errors that I've made over the years makes it even more obvious that simple tweaks can make bigger gains.  It goes back to the my repeated thought that 'If only I knew this back at the start' I would made bigger improvements in my teaching.  But there's still time.  So now I am aware of these pitfalls, what strategies could help counteract them?  In my next post I will pick out some questioning techniques that are at least 1 percent better than those that used to haunt my classroom.  Hopefully, they will try to demonstrate how we can make effective questioning actually become more effective.