This post originates from a learning conversation I led at Pedagoo Plymouth, 26th September 2015. The post is deliberately very thorough so if you’d rather not think that I’m teaching you to suck eggs then you might want to skip down to point four.
I’ve previously written here and here, as well as presenting here, about my concerns over questioning. But instead of reading all that nonsense, why don’t I just smash all that big, thoughtful stuff into five little, easily digestible pieces that lack any nuance?
- I think questioning might be overrated, probably by people who think they’re really ace at it. (I thought I was really ace at it. Actually, I still do, but that’s not the point).
- I think questions often waste time that could be better spent telling.
- I think questions often show the teacher’s skill off but allow the children to just sit back and watch said teacher perform. Round of applause!
- I think that many of us have honed this incredible skill of being able to hew a perfect answer that we want to hear out of even the most reluctant child (as a pony to a carrot) but that this is only a magic trick.
- I think that questioning could (and perhaps in some schools it has) become a stick with which to beat teachers.
So, what can we do instead? Well (and now you’ll have to read the links above for my initial ideas surrounding the practicalities – oh go on!), I think we have to help children speak about their subject like we do. We have to model and demonstrate subject specific language and not be afraid to talk. We have to provide children with the tools to be independent and allow them to struggle a little. We have to keep things simple by ‘keeping almost everything constant’ and concentrate on the core bit of thinking, as Bodil Isaksen says.
I don’t think questioning helps this.
Do you not think, Toby, that questioning has any use at all?
Yes, I do. But I think that questioning is more useful for the teacher. I’m really not convinced it helps the students there and then. And there and then is where and when we’re teaching them, so why spend ages on it?
But to do all this we need children to be organised, trained and increasingly confident in both written and spoken literacy. So: how?
We have to help children speak about their subject like we do.
One: effective organisation.
I am sure I read something recently about glossaries having little impact in the classroom. So why do I insist that children keep them?
- As in every subject history has an enormous amount of potential new terms and key words, not to mention concepts. Department budget doesn’t stretch to having dictionaries? A glossary will do fine. You have dictionaries but they’re rubbish? A glossary will do fine.
- If both the teacher and the children keep a list of these then there’s no excuse to not use them. What word could you have used there? You don’t know? Not acceptable – you’ve a glossary full of key terms. Turn to it and use some.
- A glossary is a checklist of what’s been covered. For more on checklists Harry Fletcher-Wood‘s upcoming book will, I’m sure, offer a huge amount of practical advice.
- A glossary is a proxy for performance, and in that sense one might argue that observing children using their glossaries is meaningless, but if we can get children into the habit of being organised and thus being able to find the information out themselves then isn’t that a great thing?
- I keep a keyword/definition table on one of my whiteboards at all times. We’re just a few weeks in but already my classes are now used to turning to their glossaries automatically whenever a new word appears. Most don’t even bother asking Should we put this in our glossaries? Many ask if they can add their own suggestions. Some are adding their own when they feel it is necessary: I’ve seen widow, demilitarised and colonies added even though I haven’t said so.
Most schools have some kind of presentation policy, and this has obvious benefits, but what’s also important is to consider how the order of what we teach – the actual scheme of learning – affects its presentation. In history we tend to teach chronologically because, well, it makes sense. But how should that look in a book? And what do we expect the children to be able to do with that information?
What I mean is this: if we’re asking children to make notes then how does the exact presentation of those notes affect their ability to construct an argument, if that’s what they then need to do? If we’re practising a technique then does it make sense to have this in the exercise book? Is this what exercise books are for? Traditionally they probably are, hence exercise, but I’m not convinced that’s the case for geography or business studies: the presentation of mathematics is necessarily different than that of history.
So, for example: if I need children to be able to make the connection between the Ruhr Crisis and hyperinflation in 1923 then not only does this need to be presented chronologically but the notes need to build these links. The key headings I might ask children to make in order for the connection to be obvious might be: Why did the French invade the Ruhr? What was the German government’s reaction? What were the immediate consequences?
Perhaps this is too simple, you’re thinking. Perhaps this is a stabiliser instead of a balance bike. Hasn’t scaffold done the thinking for them? Well, that’s all in the delivery, which I’ll come to later.
This isn’t rocket-science and yet I’ve seen many exercise books where this connection is not clear at all. The notes read like a series of mutually exclusive events. Knowledge needs to be built upon in a way which will allow students to focus on what’s important for that subject: if it’s practising working out different types of fractions then so be it. If, however, it’s both remembering factual content and then having the confidence to explain it in a variety of given circumstances then this presentation will be necessarily different. (This is also, incidentally, why whole school marking policies are a dreadful idea).
Two: repetition, repetition, repetition, &tc.
I like repetition. I like to repeat everything. A lot. And I do this because I’m trying to get a physical response, Pavlovian – perhaps – where I can say November and Y11 will say Criminals!
But what about repeating certain phrases and arguments? If I want to tease an argument out from a class I can question them to death until, like David Blaine in his perspex box, there’s nothing left in the dialogue between teacher and student. Questioning can do this. A better way, I think, is to tell them something and tell them it often. So often, in fact, that the class might finish the sentences for you, like my Y8s who – on Ignaz Semmelweis’s death – kept saying Oh, the irony, Sir!
But how might that develop? Let’s take that example of the Ruhr Crisis and hyperinflation again. After setting up the scenario (Germany owed France money which it couldn’t afford to pay; France invaded an area of Germany with a) lots of industry and b) no German army thanks to their insistence at the Treaty of Versailles; France desperately wanting revenge for WWI) I might show a video, then explain – this time expanding on some points, then give some reading – perhaps including some sources – and then ask the three questions above.
The repetition helps to build the memory of the story; my expansion introduces anecdote, drama and phrasing; the reading ties the literacy together; the sources, whether primary or secondary, both stretch and enable the children to offer their own examples. This is the layering in the delivery and I’ve found it to be highly effective.
Three: the delivery.
Is this not just a quite didactic way of delivering content? Show, tell, remember, repeat: and repeat ad nauseam?
No. This is effective teaching.
Whilst I’m not convinced of the efficacy of questions as a tool to create confident historians, for example, I do like to give children the illusion of ownership of a topic by using what I’ve always known as Killer Questions.
These are, essentially, loaded stimulus materials which beg a particular question. One point of this is to force children to think in a particular way by recognising what it is they might be curious about and then channelling that into your own subject. Good teachers, I reckon, do this all the time: the best teachers do it by using something domain specific thus letting the subject drive the conversation.
But even then we have to frame the knowledge in a way that is going to get the children from A to B and then allow them to move to Z at some point as well. This is all in our delivery.
We remember what we think about, and we remember more of what we think hard about. So, if we are clear on what we are delivering (and we bloody well should be!) then we need to ensure that the means we employ are sharply focussed on what we want children to be able to do. We cannot afford to confuse matters for them.
Actually, I think we all know when we’ve done this. Maybe we chose the wrong type of table to use; perhaps we didn’t need to mention that anecdote, interesting as it was; what if we’d ordered that list differently?
We make the doing simple in order that children have a clearer path to think harder: it’s creating an organised structure around which the more complex can grow.
Four: the conversation. At last.
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.
Recently, though, I’ve found this much harder. Why? Because I’ve moved schools. I’m currently trying to embed all of the above and it is tough.
Ink, sweat and tears.
If you’re like me then you can’t help but give an inward fist-pump when students say things like My arm is hurting, Are we ever going to stop working? and Do you not get tired, Sir? I wrote somewhere in the mass of text above that I’m now getting students to more effectively use their glossaries, but encouraging them to have the confidence, especially with my Y11 boys, is a challenge that is moving forward in the most stuttering way.
I find myself constantly gesturing writing and turning pages: Have you looked? Have you looked!? Check, because you probably have the answer already? Have you checked? Olivia, are you checking? Dylan is. Dylan, what terms have you found? Come on, we should all be checking. Where could we find the answers? Where could we find out how to complete the timeline? How far do we need to go back? And on and on and on.
At the moment this is not a pretty process. It feels messy, but that’s because I’ve not yet trained them. It feels hard and that’s because it is. It feels tiring. It is. But it’ll be worth it.
Creating meaningful discussions.
Okay, I’ve read all this and I’m no clearer. You’ve listed all this stuff you do – so what? What’s the deal? Why does this make conversations better? Why am I not allowed to question?
Here’s the top of the hat, the tap of the dance: the punk in all that steam.
If children are organised; if they have constant opportunities to repeat their learning and have you repeat it; if the delivery is sharply focussed on removing obstacles to thinking; and if we can then create a knowledge-rich, literacy-heavy culture where answers can change and are, in fact, encouraged to change based on argument, evidence and what is in their books – the work they have done themselves despite the teacher’s framing – then, and finally then, we’ll have some pretty awesome conversations.