Questioning is an interesting subject. It was something that was brought up in one of our fortnightly CPD sessions internally and after about an hour or so felt reasonably confident that I was good enough at questioning to write something about it.
So, why should we care?
Well of course questioning is important! It’s something teachers do all of the time, and not just because we feel like we should. Questioning has an honest to goodness impact on the pace and flow of your lessons and forces to students to engage with the learning materials so that they are able to answer them.
I called this ‘keeping them awake’, but humour aside this is actually what you are doing, focussing their attention and ensuring that they are conscious that they need to be processing the concepts due to almost immediate assessment of their understanding or prodding of their knowledge.
It should also form the backbone of your lesson, by forming it around some other key concepts it makes more sense why we’re bothering. Assessment for learning, for instance, seeing where your students are, and directing the lesson to support and energise the lessons, can only be attained properly with clear questioning.
How can I question effectively?
That’s it really. Oh, and no hands – pick on people, especially if they look like they’re struggling or are hoping you’ll avoid them because these are the students whose knowledge you need to prod, to test and improve. My classroom is a place where everyone knows they’ll be answering at least one question per lesson, and that reduced the fear of being ‘picked on’ as everyone has their turn.
Yes, Blooms. Bloom’s Taxonomy. It’s a really effective way of forcing you to think more formally about the phrasing and ability level of your students. Successful differentiation is key to questioning, knowing your students and by extension knowing your data means that you know who to ask which type of question to. This helps you stretch pupils by moving them up a step at a time rather than being all scattershot with your approach and throwing them in the deep end.
Don’t feel overawed by this, honestly, it’s enough to use it and see what works for you. I love Blooms because it just forces me to be continually thinking about the use of differentiated questioning with more fine grain than I could muster myself. It also means that I am aware of the students’ levels and abilities in asking this and, genuinely, I am more aware of my students uniqueness than I would be otherwise.
If you need to get started with Blooms for questioning then just print out a handy list of the words you can use to phrase a question at each level. Don’t be precious about it, get it printed out in a huge font and slap it on your classroom wall. Don’t be afraid to teach from it and get your students involved in structuring the questions for others. I do this with a simple Blooms Question Generator built into our Moodle install (moodle.cabot.ac.uk) from our toolbox menu. It’s great because after a few goes the students get the idea, and you can use this to get them to craft and critique some of the most dastardly questions you’ve ever heard!
Another thing to do is to start thinking about using Blooms in your learning objectives, if students get used to the words being used and the levels of understanding being clearly out on display, then they will be able to engage with your questioning more quickly.
Wait for it…
Make sure you wait for a response. Or at least an attempt. Documentary filmmakers use silence as a weapon, and in the best traditions of the teacher; let’s steal this idea. Leaving silence forces people to want to fill it – you do not need to be that person – you need to feel comfortable in the silence as the students process and to some degree start to fill the silence with their attempts at answers.
The key with this is not to let the silence in a lesson become your enemy, work with it, use it to encourage better, more thought-out, answers from the students. And please, don’t be too concerned with this in an observation. The worst thing that a teacher does in a observation is feeling the need to ‘fill the gap’ – let the students pause, think and answer. No matter how long the silence needs to be.
Students shouldn’t feel pressured to get it right first time, every time. In fact, students should feel confident enough in your lesson to fail. Failure on their part allows for a better learning experience than if students are always getting things right because it allows you to take the misunderstanding, deconstruct the , and spin it as a method of improving their knowledge.
With this securely in place students are more than able to start to apply logical thinking strategies and meta-cognition to the problems in order to solve them without relying on you for the answers.
What about this Ping-Pong idea?
Yes, so – questioning should be mostly the work of the students. Weird huh? Well like everything in teaching, the student benefits more from it if they are the ones delving in and analysing the responses. So instead of asking a question and analysing the answer (the pint-pong style) it makes more sense to pick on a second student to critique the first’s answer. In Bloom’s Speak this engages higher level thinking in the class, meaning that you can easily turn a simple low level question into a differentiated beauty. With enough knowledge of the students in your class you can deliver a walloping good lesson simply using effective questioning, by looking to students of differing ability to do all the usual analysis-of-the-answer work that you used to do.
So what now?
Find what works for you and adapt these strategies to your own working practice. It doesn’t matter what phase, subject or level you are teaching at; these questioning techniques work, even if you only use a subset of them then give them a go.
There’s loads more to questioning than I wanted to get into here, but don’t discount it. Don’t think ‘I do questioning well’ without examining your own practice honestly. Do take some of these simple suggestions and try them out.
Don’t spend forever analysing the strategies and debating them, either, just do it, and be reflective and honest about the results.