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Asking Questions

Pupil with their hand up in class

‘Does everyone understand?’ is a completely useless question. Pupils who think they understand will not want to answer positively in case they are put on the spot and revealed to be over-confident and mistaken. Pupils who think they do not understand will not answer for fear of losing face. Pupils who are not listening or have no idea whether they understand or not will similarly remain silent.

Asking questions effectively is a key teaching skill. This year, in our endless quest to do an ever-better job in the classroom, the Senior School teachers are all thinking about how and why to ask questions in their lessons.

It is tempting just to throw out a quick question, ‘Which region of the electromagnetic spectrum has the longest wavelengths?’, relevant to my own subject of Physics, gather the correct answer, ‘radio waves’, from a pupil who has raised a hand and move on. This barely scratches the surface of what can be achieved through using a better question and a better questioning technique.

Firstly, the question itself is very closed. This limits the thinking challenge to the pupils and the requirements on them to articulate reasoning. A question such as ‘How does the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation affect its properties?’, needs much more thought and then time to compose an answer using the correct technical vocabulary and drawing on existing knowledge about radio waves. For any topic, there is a hierarchy of possible questions from the straightforward factual recall at the bottom all the way up to the demanding and perhaps profound at the top. Many educationalists have grappled with this theme and Bloom’s taxonomy (after the psychologist Benjamin Bloom), now more than 60 years old and occasionally revised, is probably the most enduring contribution.

As teachers, we will want to ask questions distributed across the different levels through each lesson. Clearly factual recall questions have their place, as public examinations and life require factual knowledge, but most teachers will want the pupils to think harder than this and push towards the higher levels to help them refine their understanding and hone their critical thinking skills in using the new ideas.

Secondly, teachers need to think about which pupils are answering the questions. The example above simply tells the teacher that one confident student knows that radio waves have a long wavelength. It tells the teacher nothing about the knowledge of the other pupils or indeed whether they were even listening to the question, let alone thinking about it. Here are some better ways to ask questions:

Cold Calling: the teacher asks the question to the whole class and then chooses who will answer (no hands-up or shouting out). This stops the same small number of pupils from bagging all of the questions and ensures that all of the pupils are paying attention.

No Opt Out: if a pupil gets an answer wrong or says ‘don’t know’ the teacher goes back to the same pupil after other pupils have answered.

Check For Understanding: the teacher asks several pupils to answer the same question before shaping a discussion towards the ‘correct’ or at least ‘best’ answer.

Probing Questioning: each question and answer exchange becomes a mini-dialogue with further questions exploring the same pupil’s understanding.

Think, Pair, Share: after a question is asked the pupils must discuss the answer in pairs before one pupil is chosen to report back to the whole class.

Say It Again Better: after a pupil has given an answer they are helped by the teacher or other pupils to improve the answer.

Whole Class Response: each pupil has a mini-whiteboard to write an answer on. When the pupils hold up their whiteboards the teacher can see immediately who is able to correctly answer the question and see whether to move on to the next topic or stop and consolidate. (The return, after 100 years, of the chalk and slate, beloved of Victorian classrooms.)

In all these techniques, giving pupils time to think results in a much better selection of responses. Research suggests that teachers should allow three or four seconds for pupils to think after a closed question before accepting responses and give up to 15 seconds thinking time for more challenging, open questions.

It also helps if the classroom environment means that pupils are willing to have a go at answering. Failure, even public failure, is normalised as part of the learning process and not a big deal.

We hope that asking great questions with great technique will engage more pupils and engage them in thinking at a higher level. ‘What do you understand?’ is not a bad question.