I recently spoke at the excellent St Albans School Forum on Education (#SASFE18), curated by Mikey Smyth (@tlamjs). The theme of the day was “Questions and Questioning.” By popular request – OK, two people, one of whom wasn’t even there, but you’ve gotta take what you can get – I’ve put the key points from my talk in this blog. Clearly it lacks the verve, wit and downright incision of the live version, but I’m available for bookings. I can also juggle, if you need a bit of light relief.
As part of my job I observe lots and lots of lessons. In those lessons lots of questions get asked, mainly by teachers. For SASFE18 I thought it might be interesting to concentrate instead on the kind of questions asked by students, and see what transpired. And I was right: it was interesting.
I went back over all my lesson write-ups (I like to just write down everything I see and hear and discuss that with the teacher, rather than imposing my own view) and gathered together a long list of questions. Several things struck me:
- In some lessons, lots of questions are asked. In others, hardly any.
- The number and quality of questions asked does not necessarily correlate with age (i.e. there aren’t necessarily more or less in any particular age group).
- Pupil questions largely fall into one of four categories:
- “How to do it” questions
- “Clarificatory” questions
- “Thanks but” questions
- “Good question” questions
None are bad questions, but the real gold is in the good question questions. The rest of this post will concentrate on how to get more of them out of your pupils. (It got quite long, so here’s the summary: get rid of poor questions, model good questions, and create the right environment. Not rocket science but, be honest, when did you last think about honing your pupils’ questioning technique?)
I’ll take each type of question in turn.
How to do it questions
These were the most common. Pupils ask them to make sure they understand what they are being asked to do. Here are some examples:
- Can we take notes on this?
- Should we put a cross or a tick?
- How should we structure this essay?
- Do we only add three things?
We’ll all recognise these. They aren’t bad questions but they are a bit annoying: they take up time which could be used on other things and they reflect the fact that either you haven’t explained properly or they haven’t been listening, or both. They’re just a bit too boringly procedural to add much to your lesson, and can be avoided (see later).
I like these questions better. They are ones through which students try to clarify their understanding of a particular issue. They may not drive the lesson forward, but they will probably help ensure that the foundations are secure. For example:
- Do you have to re-sign Executive Orders every 90 days? (Bit niche but fellow teachers of US Politics will back me on this one.)
- Does sea or land heat quicker?
- Is judicial activism something which overturns a ruling?
- What was that thing you said about Labour’s rise in the 1970s?
Nothing wrong with these at all, but they probably aren’t the ones that make you say, “Good question!”
Thanks but questions
These are the ones which represent the opening of the rabbit hole. Perhaps something more tempting than a rabbit hole, actually; sometimes they offer the possiblity of an interesting tangent, a beautifully freeform, off the cuff discussion. Such questions may well reflect an inquiring mind and some genuine interest, but they threaten to derail your lesson. Hence the “Thanks, but…” Some examples:
- [In a lesson about the UK constitution:] Does the constitution really exist?
- [In a lesson about the transmission of disease:] AIDS, is that what Freddy Mercury died of?
- [In a lesson about the 2017 election:] Why does the left wing see the media as so biased against them when there is so much media attention on minor gaffes like fields of wheat, rather than on big issues like Corbyn being friends with Hamas?
None of these are bad questions, but all of them were in the wrong context. You’ll have to take my word on that.
Good question questions (GQQs)
These are the ones you want. They take whatever it is you are discussing and move it on a level. Unlike “Thanks buts”, these ones do make you say, “Good question.” They show interest, understanding and curiosity and they are relevant. For example:
- [In a lesson about the formation of tropical storms:] Why are tropical storms not found on the equator since it’s an area of low pressure?
- [In a lesson about the transmission of disease:] So, a doctor could be infected?
- I know second term US presidents are supposed to have less power of persuasion, but haven’t they built up good relations with Congress by then, which should help?
So, what makes a GQQ? I think it’s a combination of relevance and stretch. You can use those two requirements as the axes on a graph, which helps show which types of question you want:
How then do you get fewer blue, purple and green questions, and more red ones?
How to do it questions (HTDIs)
This is pretty straightforward. Make sure your have clear instructions, clearly given, at a clearly defined point in time – i.e. not with 30 seconds to spare, only once everyone is listening with their homework diaries at the ready, etc etc. You can also use “three before me” or whatever system you prefer to encourage them to find the answer without disturbing the whole class. I have no great insight here, I’m afraid, save to say that if you actively think about and prepare for reducing the number of HTDIs, you’ll be doing yourself a favour.
Clarificatory questions (CQs)
You don’t want to discourage these; they can be a good sign. First, at least they are asking rather than wallowing in confusion. Second, they could represent a gateway to further questions: if they feel comfortable asking a CQ, maybe next time they’ll chance their arm with a GQQ. And thirdly, they could be preliminary questions which pave the way for a supplementary GQQ. Perhaps they are just tidying up one area of doubt, which then allows them to pose the question they (and you) really want.
Thanks but questions (TBs)
These can be fun. But if you get drawn in, ensure that it’s only because you want to be. Digression can be stimulating but can also leave the rest of the class behind and/or uninterested. A good way to acknowledge TBs without actually wasting time on them is to deploy the fridge. When you get asked a TB, say something like, “That’s a great question but I can’t deal with it right now. Put it in the fridge and if it still feels fresh at the end of the lesson, ask me again.” My fridge is now choc-a-bloc with TBs; once a question’s in, no-one ever asks to take it out.
In my experience these are the hardest to come by. The main obstacle? Sadly, I think it’s mainly us, the teachers. Here are some reasons why teachers sometimes lament the lack of good questions in their classes:
- “They’re such a quiet group.”
- “They don’t respect each other’s right to speak.”
- “They keep asking pointless question.”
- “The just will not think for themselves.”
- “They’re only Y7.”
Rubbish, frankly. The top four can be overcome, or at least alleviated, if we put in the effort, and the last one is no barrier at all – one of the GQQs above is from Y7. So, if you aren’t getting enough GQQs, do something about it. Think about three things.
- Your classroom layout. There is some research to suggest that pupils ask more questions when they are in a semicircle rather than rows – and that in both layouts, pupils with a more central location ask more than pupils sitting to the sides. Personally I don’t think the layout is the be-all and end-all, and you may have very good reasons for wanting to seat your class in rows. Whichever you prefer, though, if getting more GQQs is your aim then it’s worth ensuring that your classroom layout does not act against them.
It’s also true to say that getting more questions won’t necessarily mean more GQQs. So, we need to move to step 2.
- The classroom environment. Have you created the right atmosphere for GQQs? Consider these:
- Do people laugh at others, or roll their eyes?
- Do you laugh at others, or roll your eyes?
- Do only some ask the brave questions?
- Is that because of you?
- Is that because of others in the class?
- Are good questions praised?
- Are good questions properly answered?
But even if you can honestly answer these in a satisfactory way, your style of teaching may need refining to make it truly GQQ-friendly. That’s step 3.
- Is your preferred teaching style conducive to GQQs?
- Do you allow time and scope for your pupils to think about their questions? (I don’t just mean pausing to allow more hands to go up; if you really want a GQQ, perhaps you need to get them to discuss in pairs first.)
- Do your lessons make clear that you view student questions as a good use of time and a valuable part of their education?
- Do you expect students to switch between “receive” and “transmit”? (I think this is really hard. If you have been doing a lot of talking, expecting pupils to suddenly switch into interactive mode is quite an ask. We all know this; we’ve all been on courses.)
- Do you know when it’s reasonable to expect GQQs? (In other words, would you expect one during the first lesson of a new topic?)
And even if you feel OK with all of these, your students may still be at a disadvantage if they don’t know what a GQQ actually looks like. For that, we need step 4.
- Do you model GQQs? We do this for lots of other things. We show pupils how to conduct good experiments, how to manipulate clay, how to write a good paragraph, but I’m not sure we are good at showing them what a GQQ looks like. There are lots of ways to do this; I found an interesting one via the Right Question Institute. As they put it, “the skill of deliberate questioning is far too rarely taught in schools.” Here you can see a video of how one US school teaches this; basically towards the end of topic pupils are posed a conundrum, write down all the questions they can think of that might help them solve it, refine them, and discuss why their best questions are their best ones. (The most useful bits are from the start to 2.05, then 4.55-6.30.)
There are some things I don’t like in the video: the group work is a bit sketchy, some of the questions are poor and the process is interminable due to the way the teacher sets it up. But I like the idea: model what you want, and ask the pupils to replicate; use pre-existing knowledge; and have a group element to provide security. Other ways to encourage GQQs include:
- Give the students a list of questions; can they identify the HTDIs, CQs, TBs and GQQs?
- Could they put the questions on a stretch/relevance graph?
- Have someone write down all the questions asked in a lesson, and then do 1 and 2 above.
So overall, GQQs are hard to come by but worth the effort. In the end it comes down to this: reduce the number of poor questions, create the right environment, and model what you want. Not so different from every other aspect of teaching, really.