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.

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