Authors: Joe Sylvester and Lucy Longhurst
Allison and Tharby’s statement about questioning feels instinctively correct:
‘…questioning is hard to pin down. Good questioning is ubiquitous and fluid. It occurs in different forms during each part of a teaching and learning cycle.’ (Allison & Tharby, 2015)
We ask a lot of questions (on average, 2 per minute per lesson), but are they any good? It is the case that teachers are reminded that asking questions is a way of assessing progress, of checking learning, of stretching and challenging pupils. But what is the best way to go about this? Is this the case that this happens at this school?
- Can we conduct a brief literature review to find different ideas about classroom questioning – what is judged to be good? Are different types of questions used to do different things?
- Do we instinctively feel that this will be or is the case here at this school?
- How can we look more carefully at our own practice and that of others to see if our findings and the literature match up?
- How can we reflect on our findings, share them with others and continue to gain insight and develop our ideas?
What did we do?
The methodology spanned both reading and doing elements:
The document ‘Effective Questioning Techniques’ summarises the range of techniques that are
recommended. This is one part of our ‘making sense of the information’ – it is our distillation for colleagues of current best practice. The approaches are at times called different things by
different authors, but the essence remains the same. What is clear is that there is a spread of approaches, and they are by no means mutually exclusive.
We began by conducing two reciprocal observations to give us an initial jumping off point into looking at questioning in action. In all honesty, we did not have a clear idea at this point about how to observe a lesson in such a way as to focus on the range of questioning techniques involved. What quickly became apparent was that a sharp eye was needed, and that questioning had to be the absolute focus of the observation. Further to this, it was important to write up and additional observations and comments as soon as possible after the lesson in order to maintain the quality and integrity of the information. Over the course of a sequence of observations, it became clear that observing for questioning required a supporting framework to assist the process. The result of this is that we developed an observation form to be used for this purpose within the school.
Digesting lesson observation material that accurately records the teacher’s approach to questioning generates a very rich data set. In choosing to try and both tally numbers of questions and also note techniques used and some qualitative comments, we found that the post observation discussions were much more in-depth than we might have expected prior to the research.
Different types of questioning, and questioning techniques:
Closed/lower order questions
These are straightforward questions with a clear right or wrong answer, such as ‘When was the Battle of Hastings?’. These can though be used to lead the discussion into more complicated areas when used appropriately.
Waiting 5 seconds can increase the number of children willing to respond, and the quality of the answers. It also encourages those who are less quick-thinking to attempt an answer. When combined with a ‘no hands up’ rule, the results are even better as all children know that they may be called on to answer, so all children must attempt to answer the question in their heads at least. You must refuse to accept an answer before the wait time is up.
Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce
This technique is a way of facilitating classroom discussion, forcing children to respond to each
others’ ideas rather than simply stating their own. The teacher poses a question, for example ‘To what extent was the Treaty of Versailles the main cause of the Second World War?’ The teacher then waits for five seconds or so before selecting someone to answer. Once the first answer has been given, the teacher then ‘bounces’ it to another child, asking them to critique the first child’s answer, or to develop it further. Insisting on hands down throughout this exercise is essential – that way you can check who has really understood and who has not.
Otherwise known as ‘No Hands Up’. Ask the question, pause a moment, then say the name of the person you want to answer (NOT saying the name first – you’ve essentially told the rest of
the class to switch off). This is often used a means of pointing out to a pupil that you know they haven’t been listening, but it’s much better to use it non-punitively as a way of getting quieter pupils to answer or to check understanding. It’s also a way of scaffolding so that weaker pupils can access the work.
People often say ‘Socratic Questioning’ when they mean ‘a discussion’, but Socratic questioning has a very specific structure, designed to challenge and expand a pupil’s thinking. It follows the pattern below:
- Get the pupil to clarify their thinking or explain the origin of their idea, e.g. ‘Why do you say that?’ ‘What do you mean by…?’
- Challenge the pupil’s premise or assumptions, e.g. ‘Is that always the case?’
- Ask the pupil for evidence, e.g. ‘Can you think of an example of this?’ ‘Is there a reason to doubt that evidence?’
- Get them to consider an alternative viewpoint, e.g. ‘What might someone say to counter that?’ ‘Is there another way of looking at it?’
- Explore the implications or consequences, e.g. ‘What would be the result if…happened?’ ‘How does…. affect this?’
- Assess the question, e.g. ‘Why is this an important question?’
Think, Pair, Share
An effective way of scaffolding ideas and developing them. Ask a question, allow pupils to ‘think’ then share and discuss their idea with the person next to them, and then share their ideas with the whole class.
What did we find/produce?
The first key finding was to admit that we did not necessarily start out employing ‘good’ questioning techniques, and neither were we able to say confidently that planning good questioning was integral to our lesson planning. Anecdotally, this seemed to be the case for other members of staff.
A further finding has been that supportive professional dialogue around a specific area of pedagogy and across subject areas can be really invigorating! Using the investigation of questioning to facilitate peer observations has led to some thoughtful and thought provoking conversations. As noted above, the information from the observer provided excellent material. Perhaps the most simple finding, but the most important, is that in order to be truly effective, questioning needs to be planned into the process from the beginning, and conducted in a conscious fashion – teachers thinking about the techniques they want to employ to support students meeting the aims of the lesson.
Having produced both a summary of different approaches to questioning, and also a form to support observing questioning, our next step is to share our findings with staff, to explore how the knowledge gained through this project can be mobilised throughout the school.
Allison, S., Tharby, A. (2015). Making Every Lesson Count. Carmarthen: Crown House.
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