What every teacher should do: ask a lot of questions

What every teacher should do: ask a lot of questions

Asking questions is one of the most important things a teacher does on a daily basis. Teachers ask thousands of questions per week in their classroom and are fully aware that not all questions are equal. It requires great skill and precision for a teacher to ask the right question at the right time. Getting to this stage of asking the right question at the right time takes practice, purposeful practice because not all practice is equal either.

Why do we use questions?

Teachers use questions for a number of reasons but good questions get pupils to think and think hard. Checking for understanding is a key skill to also develop and the best way to do this is to use questions which move from closed to open questions. Beginning with knowledge recall questions a teacher can skilfully move to more open questions and really get the students to think hard.

Similarly, questioning allows you to deepen and develop your students understanding by using strategies such as probing (I particularly like ‘Probe Them Like Socrates’ from Making Every Lesson Count). This provokes our students to think hard and thinking is one of the true essences of learning, especially given that ‘memory is the residue of thought’.

Questioning also ensure that students undertake most of the cognitive work in the classroom and Doug Lemov beautifully writes about ‘ratio’ defining it as the balance of cognitive work shared by students and the teacher. This idea brings to light Lemov’s techniques of ‘no opt out’, ‘100%’ and ‘no hands up’ all of which will contribute towards developing a business like and productive classroom culture.

Finally, questioning does a lot to help build the classroom culture that is conducive to a positive learning experience. By incorporating and insisting on some of the techniques put forward by Lemov a teacher can really build an inclusive culture where it is ok to get it wrong. Getting it wrong is a cornerstone of questioning which allows the teacher to identify misconceptions and misunderstanding which could prompt them to reteach material.

The discussion of classroom culture through the use of questioning brings me onto my last point. Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby write in Making Every Lesson Count:

Questioning and class discussion help you form and maintain your classroom culture. Do you expect students to answer in subject-specific language? Do you accept incorrect or incomplete answers, or do you expect a high level of correctness? Do you expect them to listen respectfully to each other and to respond sensitively?

Allison & Tharby, Making Every Lesson Count

What does Rosenshine say?

Barak Rosenshine says in his 2012 paper that ‘less successful teachers ask fewer questions’ and that ‘most effective teachers also ask students to explain the process they used to answer the question’ showing that skilful teachers probe and dig deeper. This is vital if we want to make the invisible visible and get to grips with what our students actually know and can confidently tell us. I like to cite Rosenshine because of the language he uses, I mean who doesnt want to be one of his ‘most effective’ teachers? With this in mind then, you must ask a lot of questions.

Asking the right questions

In The Teaching Delusion Bruce Robertson writes ‘the questions you ask should be ones which students have a reasonable chance of answering’. So before asking questions make sure that you have taught the students something which they might have access to from their long term memory. Bruce also discusses the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ questions and instead tries to focus his readers on thinking about ‘what makes a good question?’. Bruce suggests that we keep in mind the Goldilocks principle which is to ‘ask questions which are appropriately challenging – not too easy and not too difficult’.

As alluded to earlier we must carefully consider our questions based on what we have taught. We cannot think about something we do not know anything about so asking a student a question hoping that they know will be like trying to find a need in a haystack in the dark!

Questioning ideas

Now that we are in full agreement that asking a lot of questions is good for the soul how do we go about asking the right questions in the right way. A few ideas that I like are ‘ Wait Time’, ‘Probe Them Like Socrates’, ‘No Opt Out’, ‘No Hands Up’ and ‘Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce’. All of them contribute to an inclusive classroom culture whose foundations are built on the ratio of students thinking a lot harder than the teacher. Why? because the teacher will have planned their questions before hand, of course.

No Opt Out – This is one of my favourite Lemov Techniques from Teach Like a Champion. This is where you don’t allow students to say “i don’t know”. You either probe or rephrase your question or revisit them before your period of questioning is done. The simple act of returning to them after their peers have given an answer ensures a culture of high achievement and that they verbalise what has been said, given them a better understanding of what is being discussed.

Wait Time – In 1972 Mary Budd Rowe investigated the amount of time teachers left between asking a question and requesting an answer. She found that most teachers leave just 1 second, even today teachers wait for too short a time. I am guilty of this. Mary Budd Rowe found that if a teacher waited for just 3 seconds there were a number of positive changes in the classroom including better responses from the students. This technique is the easiest to implement, all you need to do is count in your head 3-5 seconds after asking a question. You’ll be amazed at how much better the responses are from the students after some thinking time.

Probe Them Like Socrates – In Making Every Lesson Count Shaun Allison & Andy Tharby propose this method of questioning and I love it. Socrates used this dialectic method of questioning when teaching the young men of Athens over 2000 years ago. Socratic questioning is still used today to challenge the accuracy and completeness of a students thinking. These six levels of questioning are considered important:

  1. Getting students to clarify their thinking: Why do you say that? what do you already know about that? could you explain further?
  2. Challenging and probing students about assumptions: is this always the case? do you agree or disagree with this?
  3. Demanding evidence: why do you say that? can you give me an example of that?how do you know this?
  4. Looking at alternative viewpoints and perspectives: what is the counterargument for…? what are the advantages/disadvantages of this?
  5. Exploring implications and consequences: but if.. happened, what else would result? how does X affect Y?
  6. Questioning the question: why do you think i asked that question?why was that question important?

Pose, Pause, Pounce Bounce – I first came across with in Ross McGill’s 100 Ideas for Secondary teachers: Outstanding Lessons. This technique is when you pose a question, pause for 3-5 seconds (or even longer if you deem it appropriate), pounce on a student to answer (Cold Call) and then bounce their response to another student (can you go further? do you agree/disagree?). You can keep this going and have a number of students respond to each others answers. Ross writes more about it here on his Teacher Toolkit blog.

About the Author
Teaching for 8 years. Blogger, Podcaster and Educator.

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