By doing some simple tracking of how my questioning was distributed in class, I have noticed that my pupil premium students are at times getting more closed and less challenging questions to answer. They are involved in the lessons; but not necessarily getting a fair deal.
The importance of good questioning in the classroom is well established and most teachers have clear routines for planning and delivering effective questioning sessions. Whilst questioning plays a key role in checking what the students have taken from the last activity or presentation it also givesthem a chance to connect ideas and develop their thinking. In my most recent post I explored how I have been using increased ‘wait time’ after initial student responses to draw more out of them and the positive impact this was having https://jmsreflect.blog/2018/01/15/reflecting-on-powerful-pauses/
As a teacher, questioning is an area in which I’ve always felt confident. This is not an entirely unfounded belief, as my questioning has frequently been tagged as an area of strength in lesson observations. I balance closed ‘checking’ questions with open questions that do encourage students to think. I have always been very conscious of circulating the classroom and ensuring that all students have the opportunity to participate and try to give thinking and discussion time for those who need it. All students participate in my lessons, regardless of prior attainment, gender or other factors.
However, in reading Harris and Williams’ (2012) research into classroom interactions I was recently inspired to take a closer look at the patterns of my questioning and recognise that my questioning may not always have been equitable and that I need to think more carefully about how it is distributed within my classroom. Harris and Williams found that in affluent schools questions tended to be more open, with longer wait times for students to think than in poorer schools. Here the questions tend to be more closed, and of a lower order of thinking. Essentially, children from more affluent background were getting higher quality interactions within the classroom.
Although their research was conducted in a primary setting, it made me reflect on my own practice. At JMS we have a “FIRST” pledge for pupil premium students which includes going to them first to offer help, marking their books first and targeting them first in questioning and discussion sequences. But I am also aware that the ‘first’ questions in a sequence tend to be less challenging and of a lower-order than the ideas we build towards. How far was my targeted questioning perpetuating the pattern that Harris and Williams found and trapping certain students in low quality interactions?
When thinking about questioning I often use a laminated seating plan to track what I am doing in class. I’ve used this many times to focus on specific goals e.g. checking whether everyone is contributing, measuring hands-down versus hands-up questions, looking for areas in the classroom that I might be overlooking. If a peer can come in and complete it for me that is great, but I can complete it whilst teaching. Each time I asked a question I jotted on the laminated plan the ‘seat’ the question had gone to – a black dot for a relatively low-level (probably closed) question and a blue dot for a more challenging, thought-provoking question. The outcome was certainly revealing: I believed that as I build my questioning to greater levels of challenge I was targeting students to ensure that their thinking was challenged for their current level of confidence in that subject. Whilst that is certainly the plan, my one week review of questioning in my mixed ability classes did also reveal that, overwhelmingly, my pupil premium students were getting easier questions to answers, earlier in the sequence and with less ‘meat’ for thought and discussion. The questioning was carefully planned, but not equitable.
To help I have turned to some random answer generators with which I know many teachers are familiar. We use MintClass which has this function but a free one can also be found at https://www.classtools.net/random-name-picker/. I don’t think I’ve made enough use of these tools recently, perhaps seeing them as slightly ‘gimmicky’. In fact, though, the potential for positive impact in equitable questioning should not be overlooked.
I have used these to supplement, rather than replace planned questioning sequences. Harris and Williams also note that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds may lack some of the social and communication skills to engage in questioning with the fluidity of those from more affluent backgrounds. A sudden ‘randomising’ spotlight that starts targeting them with questions they are not prepared to answer would not help their confidence or engagement. However there are well-established techniques to support students in accessing higher-level thinking including thinking time and paired discussion. My priority at the moment is consciously ensuring that as I move into more challenging areas with my questioning, I am circling back to some students who have already participated, or whom I might have targeted for lower-order questions to include them in the most challenging thinking in the classroom.
Dialogue in the classroom will always be tricky to manage with 30 individuals participating under any sort of structure. However, I have recently been reminded of the value of checking, objectively, what I am doing and reviewing and reflecting on my practice even in areas I would consider to be strengths. Sometimes little changes can make a big difference.
Reflecting on equitable questioning…
- How do I know that my questioning is ‘fair’ and balanced between different genders, abilities, backgrounds of pupils?
- How do I look beyond ‘number’ of or ‘distribution’ of questions to think about the quality of question and the level of challenge I offer to different groups of students?
- What can I try differently this week to shake up established practice? Are there any overlooked tools that might help me reflect on what is happening in my classroom?
Research into inequality in questioning:
Harris, D. and Williams, J. (2012) The association of classroom interactions, year group and social class, British Educational Research Journal, 38, 3, 373-397