This post follows from my presentation at the 2016 Festival of Education at Wellington College.

Toby, you can’t say that! Oh, but I can. The initial title (Questioning: bringing down the totem and laying new foundations) was pretentious and unnecessary, so – given the events of Thursday evening/Friday morning – I decided to go with Questions are shit. Yes, its deliberately provocative and yes, it got a laugh. I don’t mean all questions are shit, but I think many are and mainly because of this: too often we ask the wrong questions of the wrong people for the wrong questions. This, I contend, is shit, and shit questions lead to shit answers which lead to shit consequences.

In this post I’ll focus on three types of shit questions. I have written about some of this previously, so instead of repeating myself I’ll just send you on a little journey of my blog.

1. Questions we ask in lessons are shit.

In July 2015 I asked if questioning was yet another cult. To be clear: I don’t think all questions we ask of children are shit, but I do think that too often we do the work to show how great our questioning is (our QMDs, or Questions of Mass Destruction) whilst Billy Bottom picks his … nose.

Too many of us ask questions because:

  1. Ofsted like it (give it a ‘1’, inspector!) because it shows the school’s investment in CPD and clearly demonstrates evidence (hah!) of student knowledge.
  2. SLTs like it because it’s easy to tick off on the observation sheet: open-ended, interrogative, recall-based, etc.
  3. Students like it because we’re doing all the work.

And so:

  1. 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).
  2. I think questions often waste time that could be better spent telling.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. I think that questioning could (and perhaps in some schools it has) become a stick with which to beat teachers.

I think there’s a better way. This post explores my contention that questioning might have become, for some a cult, whilst this post goes into much more detail about how we might create more meaningful conversations with and between children.

2. Student-voice is shit.

We like student-voice type activities because:

  1. Ofsted see that schools care for their students. Can you imagine the copy-and-paste Section 5 report? The school has taken into account pupil views of the canteen and lessons, and as such introduced ‘Monster’ breaks into all lessons in order to both more successfully engage pupils and give them that energy boost that only an unholy amount of taurine and sugar can. Pupils report they are now happier as the energy drinks are 30p cheaper than the local One Stop.
  2. SLTs look like they care. No, look, obviously they do, but I did work in one school which threw the responses in the bin on collection of the paperwork.
  3. Students like it because it appears that we are actually listening to their poorly formed, badly phrased, myopic ideas.

But there are, again, potential problems with these questions.

  1. We create dangerous cultural norms when we ask about certain practices. If we ask about marking then our students think that marking is paramount; if we ask about engagement, grades and levels, homework and targets – the same: we, essentially, shit on our own doorstep. The first and third parts of this post deal with this problem.
  2. If the questions aren’t valid then nor are the answers. Just because they’re easily quantifiable – and spreadsheetable – doesn’t mean they have validity. Heather Fearn has expertly covered the issue of validity and reliability in exams here.
  3. And if the questions aren’t valid, then we have to wonder whether they’ve been asked in order to control a staff by cultivating these cultural norms.

In my previous school we gave out a student survey to find out what they thought about the place. The results were pretty unremarkable: they liked PE and technology but didn’t like writing and homework and languages in Y9; boys wanted to study more wars and Y7s didn’t like strict teachers. When I subsequently asked my tutor group to reflect on their learning that year (not my phrase and not my chosen activity) a very bright young lady responded that her books were not marked regularly. The conversation went something like this:

When you say ‘not marked’, what exactly do you mean?
My teacher clearly hasn’t marked my book.
But I haven’t marked your book in ages and you’ve just written one of the best essays in the year group.
Yes, but you’ve clearly read my book and then given advice to help me improve.
So when you say ‘marking’ do you mean actual red pen or being given an opportunity to reflect and improve your work, often through conversations? Because there seems to be a difference.
Yes, reflecting. With some teachers we’re given a chance to improve and with others we just move on.
OK, and so what has it got to do with marking?
Um, well I’m not sure. But I’d like my work to be read.
Ah, so you want your work to be recognised so that you can improve. 
Yes, if I’ve done it I want to know what I need to do next.
So is that the same as your book not being marked?
No, but that’s the question that I was asked.

Ah! That’s the question she was asked. I didn’t see the survey until they’d completed it but I did wonder if ‘Are your books marked regularly?’ would come up. Students were also asked how well they felt they were progressing in each subject. In history 90% felt that they were making excellent progress. But those same students were saying that their books weren’t marked. See the problem?

So what can we do instead? I think we need to ask about what really matters: their subject knowledge (requiring a subject specialist’s questions); the behaviour; their pride; their desire to improve; about the thing itself, what they’re actually doing.

But, beware! These answers will not fit easily into a big spreadsheet. We can’t all be Johnson from Peep Show. If we want to know more about what students think then we need to accept that the resulting data will be messy. We also have to recognise that, as children, most will simply not know enough to be able to make informed decisions about their learning. They’ll be able to talk about behaviour and routines, but don’t ask them about levels and grades and progress – they don’t understand this and, perhaps, there’s an argument that they don’t need to.

3. Accountability questions are shit.

We like accountability questions because:

  1. Ofsted like them: they show that SLT and middle leaders and governing bodies are on top of the situation – it’s all under control, even if it doesn’t look like it!
  2. SLTs like them because they can pass the buck. Hey, Mr Sloth was told to do x and he didn’t – we’ve done all we can! And if you’re now, as an enlightened member of a great SLT, very offended then tough: there are too many stories and complaints of this kind of nonsense for me to ignore it. Just because it doesn’t happen in your school or mine doesn’t mean there aren’t others out there: the fight still has to be fought.
  3. Teachers tend to not like them, because PRESSURE.

Look, I don’t think that we all need to inhabit these utopian, free-for-all Steiner Schools with no consequences but I do think that we ask shit questions of people, thus making their lives, their teaching and their students suffer. We want, and need, to check what’s going on in our schools, and so ‘How do you know …’ type questions are understandable, but I also think they’re unimaginative and framed poorly due to time constraints, a lack of intelligence and a misunderstanding of evidence. I’ve about written evidence previously, but the general gist is worth repeating.

Here’s a real conversation that I once had about evidence:

‘The issue that we have, Toby, is that there’s no evidence of your marking in the books for the last six weeks. It’s not since the last essay that you’ve written anything at all.’

‘Well, no – there won’t be. I don’t understand what the issue is.’

‘We need to see that you’ve been marking their books so that there’s evidence that you’re helping them to progress. If we can’t see your comments then how do we know what’s going on in the lesson?’

‘Surely you know what’s going on in the lesson by the quality of what they’ve written? You’ve commented already on how neat their books are and how well they’ve been writing, so I still don’t understand what the issue is.’

‘But you’ve not evidenced that.’ 

‘Isn’t the evidence in the quality of their work? I mean, look at what Rory was writing at the start of the year and look at what he’s writing now – look at the difference. And this is across the board. The evidence is there. If they weren’t getting feedback then they wouldn’t be writing more fluently now than at the start of the year.’

‘But again, Toby, it isn’t clear. You’ve not made clear to me or an Ofsted inspector what you’ve done.’

‘Eh? So it happens by magic, does it? Look, I read their books both during lessons and …’

‘So you could use a verbal feedback stamp to evidence that?’

‘… hang on, that wouldn’t be evidence of the students thinking – that would just be evidence that I had a stamp, wouldn’t it? Anyway, I read their books during lessons and when I’m free. I must do because otherwise I wouldn’t know how to help them improve, which the vast majority have done. There’s your evidence.’

Remember: evidence is the answer to a particular question posed of a particular piece of information, often with a particular answer in mind. A stamp is evidence of a stamp; a comment of a comment, nothing more. Disagree with me? You’re wrong.

These are terrible questions to ask (answers in brackets):

  • How do you know your department individually plan? (My first school checked our planners!)
  • Will your mark sheet make sense to an inspector? (So what? It needs to make sense to me, no one else.)
  • How do you know your predictions are accurate? (I don’t.)
  • What can you do to ensure student x doesn’t behave like that again? (I can’t. I’m not the one who told me to fuck off, am I?)
  • What intervention are you putting in place for x, y, z? (I’m teaching lessons, doing my job.)
  • What evidence is there of x? (See the seventh circle of hell.)
  • How are your PP/FSM/etc students doing with x? (I’m not a saviour, superhero or sycophant.)
  • How effective has your promotion of British Values been? (This conversation is over.)

These are bad questions because they pressurise teachers to perform rather than teach. Now, you might say that all these things are part of good teaching anyway, and that these questions just attempt to break that good teaching down into its component parts. Again, you’re wrong. Good teaching cannot be box-ticked: it is neither a PiXL PLC, nor an IKEA instruction leaflet. There are important consistencies and routines we aim for in terms of behaviour and presentation, but the moment we try to isolate the teaching of children from poorer homes we do ourselves, our profession and our children a great disservice because we inadvertently seek to elevate a particular group, or technique, above the whole. Teach Like a Champion seeks to find out, and disseminate, what it is the most successful teachers do, but Doug Lemov is also very keen to point out that we can’t just adopt all these principles and expect success. On their own the answers to these questions, especially if they are used for performance management or – worse – performance related pay, are invalid or even irrelevant.

And thus, an accountability system which uses as a central piece of evidence an irrelevant or invalid data set potentially wastes time, money and resourcing on unnecessary CPD, pointless meetings and unhelpful bureaucracy.

So what can we do instead? Why not ask questions with responsibility in mind:

  • What can the school can do to free up time? How will teachers use this? What do teachers want to achieve in this time?
  • What will help teachers be better? Do they need CPD, or books, or coaching, or just to see some other great teachers, in this school or another?
  • What do teachers think about behaviour?
  • What subject-knowledge do teachers lack? What would they like to know more about?
  • Does the school’s assessment system work for each subject? Is that why predictions haven’t worked out? What would make it better?
  • How much work do teachers do in the evenings and weekends?

These questions might lead to greater responsibility and autonomy. They also might help create happier, and better, teachers.

So, I don’t think all questions are shit, but I do think we ask a lot of shit questions a lot of the time. I was asked after the presentation whether I’m just calling for better management, both in the class and from leaders. Of course I am, yes, but this is my particular battle. Luckily, it’s not one I currently have to fight, but I have done so in other schools. So, if you’re suffering from shit questions why not show your interrogator this?

You can find the slides for this presentation here.

Finally, I want to thank Oliver Caviglioli for his superb sketch of the presentation.