Everybody loves questioning. There are books on questioning. Much of in-house CPD seems to be focussed on questioning. There are courses you can go on to improve your questioning. I’ve written about questioning.
And yet I wonder just how effective questioning can be. Don’t get me wrong – I like questioning. I actually think I’m pretty good at it. I can tease out all sorts of recall and inferences and contradictions with my gigantic arsenal of highly explosove questions – my QMDs. And yet.
Think about it:
- Oftsed like questioning because it demonstrates clearly the teacher’s professionalism and classroom control as well as the school’s CPD system; it also highlights the quality of student responses.
- Management like questioning because it’s easy to tick off on the observation sheet: open-ended, interrogative, recall-based, etc.
- Students like questioning because more often than not the teacher’s doing all the work.
Look, I know that there are all sorts of ways to circumnavigate the third point – no hands-up, lollipops, mini-whiteboards, cold-calling: these can all be really effective. But it seems to me that there might be a simpler way to get more out of students.
Give fewer questions and instead give statements.
A while ago I wrote a little about this here, but let’s explore this further.
There are potential problems with questioning.
- Questions waste time. Too many question-based tasks, especially using ISMs (sorry, history term: initial stimulus material), require the students to have the answers teased out of them. This isn’t necessarily a problem. I might do this when trying to solve the Valentine’s Day Massacre by showing a piece of evidence that students need to question: this is an attempt to create what one might call ‘awe and wonder’, or a sense of mystery: it’s a hook. However, I think this is unnecessary in the vast majority of cases – why not just tell the students what’s happening? So often I have spent fifteen or twenty minutes pulling apart a source when I could have just told the students the history! Too much questioning means that …
- Questions can be an ineffecient use of time. Who said that schools are where children go to watch teachers work? I enjoy improving my craft, but I’m not a performer and the students aren’t an audience.
- Poor quality questions lead to poor quality answers. On my second placement my PGCE mentor made me write down every single question that I might ask. Plans were three, four page essays. If I asked a question that I’d not previously planned then I’d not planned well-enough, and I was not allowed to ask Yes/No questions. It was a fantastic, though exhausting, education for me. Some of us were lucky enough to have this rigour in our training, and some weren’t. But even the greatest interrogators can end up with ‘I’m not sure’ and ‘I don’t know’ and ‘What Katie said’.
- Too much questioning can cause misunderstandings. Bright students often want to add their two-cents; they like to ask speculative questions. At our best, or at least at the right moment, we do the same: ‘OK, so we now see why x happened, but what if y hadn’t signed the treaty in the first place?’ But if we do too much too fast we leave others behind. I think we can do better than that.
So, why not have students discuss mutually compatible answers to just one question?
Let’s take an example. My Y8s had been studying the development of the American West. They knew about the geography and the inhabitants of the Great Plains. The next part of the scheme called for them to consider multiple reasons as to why Americans moved to the West. I provided them with the following cards using similar tactics described here.
I then asked one question and gave three possible options. Because I bought some coloured lollipops but had never used them I asked students to pick a statement they agreed with and find a stick of the corresponding colour.
Next, I said something very simple: ‘Jasmine, you reckon people moved because of economic troubles in the East.’ And Jasmine talked. She talked all about unemployment, wage decreases and the collapse of the banks in the late 1830s. And I said nothing. I just listened, as did the rest of the class. Hands began to rise, but I ignored these for the moment.
‘Zach, you disagreee.’ ‘Leo, you said somethig very different to me earlier on.’ ‘Lucy, you agree with Jasmine.’
And the class talked. They discussed it amongst themselves. Some changed their minds. They just got up, swapped lollipop sticks and sat back down: ‘Cerys, you now have a red stick.’
Watching students change their minds is pretty powerful. Given that we can’t see learning we have to make inferences and often these are quite poor, but I reckon that this might be one of the better proxies.
The benefits of this were threefold:
- The students were doing the work.
- Even without a question they felt that not only did they have to justify their decisions but they referred to the opinions of their classmates: ‘Well, Alex said … but I’m not convinced because in 1846 …’
- The answers were mutually compatible so no-one could be wrong.
If you want to try this then I have a few tips:
- Make the choices mutually compatible.
- Make sure the choices aren’t too different – this can lead to misconceptions.
- It’s hard to not get invovled and finish students’ sentences so try to use gestures.
- Allow them to change their minds.
It takes some practice to get right. I first wrote about this three months ago and only now do I feel completely at ease. It is very hard to not ask questions as we’re just so used to them, but this is really about getting the students talking more.
I do not, of course, have a problem with teacher-talk. I do, however, have a problem with meaningless and inappropriate questioning: I have a problem with an activity where the students don’t have to think or where the thinking is obscured by the teacher’s perfomance. Let’s get the students discussing the history and the maths and the music and art because if they can say it they can usually write it. If all they’ve had chance to say is yes/no, and that in response to the teacher doing all the work, then no wonder we might be disappointed with their writing.
I don’t dislike questioning. But I do wonder how often we do this to perform to a given orthodoxy at the risk of students not having to think for themselves. Is it a cult? Perhaps. Is it always inappropriate? No, of course not. Is it maybe overused? Yes.
Let’s stop performing. Let’s stop trying to prove how great our questioning is. Let’s make students do the work.