Quesiton everything

“The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.” Claude Levi-Strauss

Einstein would be rather chuffed: I have spent the last two weeks questioning everything about my approach to questioning in the classroom. Having written about the questioning traps that I kept finding myself stumbling into with new groups, I have made developing questioning in the classroom my pedagogical mission for this year. To narrow this mission down, below are the ten strategies I will be focussing on:

1. Embracing the wait time:  This was initially coined by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972, where she identified the silence that teachers left at the end of questions as integral to improved learning. Her research (Slowing Down may be a way of speeding up) found that the periods of silence between teacher questions and student responses rarely lasted more than 1. 5 seconds. When she explored the impact of raising this to at least three seconds she found a range of benefits.  For students, the length and correctness of responses increased, the number of the dreaded phrase ‘I don’t know’ decreased and volunteered answers increased. She discovered that as teachers build more wait time they become more thoughtful about the level of challenge in their questions and tended to employ more variable questioning strategies. The wait time I will be seeking to build more into practice will be focussed on the following areas:

(a) Teacher question: Pose the question then pause. Wait for three to five seconds then hear feedback from students. Making it clear that you are waiting for students to enable thinking is important in this technique.

(b) During student responses: Often a student will pause to seek to clarify their thinking during responding to a question. We gasp in horror at the thought of a moment of silence in the lesson and interject. Enabling time will ensure the student can consider carefully without pressure – likely to improve the overall quality of the response.

(c) Post student response: Slowing down at this point enables the students to consider the response their classmate has given. This prevents us from leaping in to assess the quality of the answer, encouraging young people in the room to listen carefully and think about the answer. At this point we may consider asking students to reflect on the strengths and possible ways of developing the answer.

(d) General teacher wait time: At times we ourselves may need to take a moment to gather our thinking and consider how we want to explain something or move forward. This is vital in modelling to students that thinking requires time, patience and deliberation.

(e) Process wait time:  This builds time in for students to catch up on content.

Key phrases to help to ensure that students are actively thinking during wait time:

  • I want to give you some time to consider that question…
  • Think carefully about that idea for a moment…
  • Let’s give ourselves some time to consider that thought…
  • What are our thoughts on that response?
  • How could we build on that interesting idea?
  • Can I ask you to pause and reflect on that idea?

2. Hinge questions: Hinge questions can provide a vital pause moment in a lesson and is one of the more effective assessment for learning strategies. Ultimately, they involve pausing the lesson at a “hinge” point to provide students with a series of options on a topic. Often they can function as multiple choice questions with one correct answer, which ask students to justify their response. While this needs planning in advance, it is an excellent way to decide on the direction of a lesson. It allows any misconceptions to be addressed immediately and to check how well the class are progressing. If something needs re-teaching to ensure understanding it can them be immediately implemented. Harry Fletcher has a range of fascinating posts on hinge questions with examples for a range of subjects. The simple example I have used with Year 8 this week when teaching a lesson on poetic techniques is:

Which two are incorrect and why:

A: Sibilance: repetition of an S sound

B: Metaphor: a direct comparison

C. Alliteration: repetition of a sound at the start of a letter

D: Simile: when the line of a poem continues on

E: Enjambment: comparison using like or as. 

3. The pugnacious probe: Rather than accepting a student’s first answer (which often may be superficial in its depth) we seek to encourage them to re-phrase or to offer more to their answer, or perhaps we “bounce” an answer around the room to seek to develop other assessments of the answer. We might offer encouragement but not finality, there is always more that can be added to points. Even if the probe is in seeking to expand the language that the student has employed, broadening and developing a rich vocabulary classroom will benefit students immeasurably.   The pugnacious probe has an element of fun to it, but it is obviously used to seek to encourage students to expand on their answers.

That’s a good start, how could we build further?

What elements of that answer might we develop?

Why do you think that is?

Do we agree or disagree with this point?

Could we disagree or challenge that assumption?

Can you say more?

Can you explain that further?

This post from Mark Roberts ‘So What and Tell me More’ is an excellent example of the value of probing in building more sophisticated thinking.

4. Cold call: One of Doug Lemov’s excellent ‘Teach Like a Champion’ techniques that seeks to generate a classroom culture in which any student can be asked a question at any point. Given my dust bowl questions with Year 9 since the start of the year, I am trying to generate this culture with them in which they can be asked a question at any point. This blog from Doug Lemov explores the multitude of reasons why students may avoid raising their hands, highlighting why a number of our students are completely averse to nominating answers.  The book outlines how to ensure Cold Call is effective: keep it predictable and make sure students know it is a possibility; make it systematic; keep it positive and unbundle questions (break larger questions into smaller units).

5. No Opt Out: The curse of all responses to questioning is the glazed frown and ‘I don’t know’ (or in reality: “dunno”) Often, this inspires a speedy leap to another student to provide the answer we are looking for. Tackling the ‘I don’t know,’ however, is important is reiterating a climate of high expectations in the classroom and motivating students. Doug Lemov’s ‘No Opt Out’ strategy is a good starting point, where you ask another student then return to the first student to explain how the answer has been arrived. Alternatives are rephrasing the question, providing the answer and asking the student to explain it or providing two contrasting answers and asking the student to explain which answer they feel is correct. Either way, the ‘I don’t knower’ should not escape our high expectations! This field guide to this technique from ‘Teach Like a Champion’  has everything you need to know and more about this technique.

6. Ladder questioning: There is no right or wrong question to ask in the classroom, all are meaningful and useful in different degrees. Yet, it is important that we balance our closed and factual questions to assess understanding, with open questions that seek to challenge thinking. When we have established that the surface level knowledge has been secured, then we know we can embrace deeper and more conceptual questioning. The movement to asking more challenging questions requires subtle alterations in our language to seek to ensure students build on points. In ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby use the analogy of a planning ladder: “A ladder is a useful metaphor: each question acts as a rung leading towards the core idea or concept”. This ladder requires an investment of time as you plan out the concepts that will reach the top in terms of challenge.

7. Validate the effort: To take the step to share an answer requires confidence: confidence in sharing ideas and in how they will be received by the class and teacher. If we, as teachers, recognise this positively and sincerely, then we will find that other students in the group seek to share more of their answers. The converse is, as Guy Claxton highlights: “If children believe the teacher isn’t interested in what they have to say, they will stop saying anything at all.”  The danger is to slip into over-praising that exclaims “fantastic”, “outstanding” etc in response to any incoherent grunt. Instead, the focus here is to recognise and value the thinking and effort that has taken place in the room. While it might not all have been correct thinking, it is the act of effort itself that we are seeking to encourage young people to do more of. Some phrases:

Thank you to all of those who have volunteered answers and thinking.

Clearly there is some real thinking going on in the room.

Lots of thoughtful and interesting comments and ideas, thank you for sharing.

Sorry we didn’t hear from everyone in the room, keep going with thinking carefully.

8. Low stakes testing questions: A quick perusal of ‘Ten Benefits of Testing and their Applications to Educational Practice’ by Henry L.Roediger et all highlights: “Tests can serve other purposes in educational settings that greatly improve performance”. When we move away from a ‘test’ that concludes a unit of work we embrace a slow, repetitive, carefully planned structure of low stakes testing that removes the fear and stress factor. Herein lies the wonder of the low stakes testing questions method. This can be a splendid way to start a lesson to recap and test students’ knowledge. As I outlined on this post on teaching ‘Macbeth’, I have been starting lessons with ‘Sizzling Shakespearean Starter Questions’:

How is Macbeth presented to the audience at the start of Act one? What quotations are used?

What is the role of the witches in Act one? Which themes do they link to?

What is the significance of this quotation: “To full of the milk of human kindness”

How would you summarise Lady Macbeth in the act so far?

What is the significance of this Lady Macbeth quotation: “Act like the flower but be the serpent under it”

For more on this, Zoe Taylor has written an excellent overview of her practice using low stakes testing and teaching for retention on ‘Macbeth’ here.  The idea of repeating questions with students in order to secure knowledge is also explored in this fascinating post from Chris Curtis.

9. Advance questioning: The notion of slowly and thoughtfully planning out the questions we will ask in lessons may well feel alien to us: surely we should be designing an outlandish PowerPoint or writing streams of information? Yet, the time invested in preparing questions will be significant in assisting the learning of students in our rooms. While there has to be room for spontaneous questioning, pre-planned questions can provide a guide to what exactly needs to be explored in a lesson. It will again give us a sense of calm clarity about the direction of our lessons. This is also a powerful differentiation aid:

10. Question time: Based on the ‘Question Time’ BBC show, there is a period in every lesson in which students have to think of questions they have about the lesson or about the topic they are studying. They then have time to ask me (looking increasingly like David Dimbleby as the term wears on) or other students in the class their chosen questions. This has been working particularly well with Key Stage Three groups this year, interesting questions posed on war poetry by Year 8!

Undoubtedly there will be stumbling blocks and questioning failures along the way in this questioning mission. Yet this deliberate practice and desire to hone and develop our craft is part of the beauty of teaching. There is always so much more to learn, as this rather inspiring speech from Dylan Williams captures:

Keep on questioning. Thanks for reading. (Question to Year 11 today: Come up with an inspiring Macbeth related quotation to get me round the Glasgow half marathon this weekend. Best answer: “Act like the teacher but be the Mo Farah under it.”) 

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