Reflecting on … Why Am I Asking Questions?

After many, many years of just operating instinctively, I have been thinking a lot about questioning over the last few years.  I have been reading a lot about questioning.  I’ve read about strategies, types of questioning and pauses.  I’ve blogged as my thinking has developed; about distributing questions equitably, or using pauses at different points in the questioning sequence to build students’ responses.  I have learned about hinge questioning and how to construct  multiple-choice questions that really probe students’ thinking.   I’ve been introduced to technology that does an amazing job at supporting quiet students to respond and participate, or at randomising my question selection.

I have learned a lot.  To summarise some key thoughts in a few bullet points, I have learned that:

  1. Questioning is very important – perhaps one of the most powerful tools we have as classroom teachers.
  2. Performance and learning are not the same – so questioning needs to be subtle and strategic.
  3. There are many different types of questioning, with many different purposes.
  4. Students respond to questioning in very different ways.
  5. There is a LOT to learn about questioning, and it is very complicated.

Some of the advice I’ve heard and, indeed, repeated to teachers in the past now makes me cringe.  To take one example: whole class questioning.  I find this a hugely powerful tool, at the right time and in the right place.  If routines are established it can be an efficient way to poll the class.  However the routines are vital – the equipment being available, the speed with which it can be accessed.  If not, chaos quickly ensues.  Of course students copy each others’ answers; so I’m looking for more than just what is written on the whiteboard.  I’m gauging reaction time and looking to see who is stuck, looking around at their peers or quickly changing their answer to conform with the class.  It matters whether this is a hinge moment, or an opinion poll or a quick plenary.  It matters whether the act of correcting their answer is the learning I desire or whether I really need to know how many students actually know the information … in which case perhaps I should be considering a quick (private, low-stakes) written quiz.  Thus to simply tell teachers to “try whole class questioning” is remarkably simplistic and probably not going to work without much greater support and guidance.  And yet it happens.  A lot.

One of my roles is to support our early career teachers, who increasingly come from a variety of routes into teaching, with many different levels and types of training.  “Questioning” is a recurring development point, frequently raised by reflective teachers themselves who are always looking to improve the quality and value of their classroom interactions.  It is a hard one to tackle: there are so many things to get right, and so many which can go wrong. There is a lot of reading out there and much great advice, but it can be too specific, or else act like a “menu” of strategies.  It is not always clear what to pick.

With a focus on metacognition in our school this year, I have been thinking a lot more about my own thinking and about how and why I make decisions as a teacher.  To support our early careers teachers I have mapped out this questioning flow diagram that tries to capture some of the decisions I make on a day-to-day basis.  My key thinking boils down to:

  1.  WHY AM I ASKING THE CLASS QUESTIONS?
  2. WHAT DOES USEFUL INFORMATION LOOK LIKE HERE?

This is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of questioning.  It links to pieces that explore the issue with far more subtlety.  It leaves off some big ideas in questioning (e.g. hinge questions) as I find them to be a little complicated when struggling with questioning, although immensely powerful when well planned and because I really wanted it to be a single page for easy reference.  Every time I look at it I tweak it a little more, or question whether I have included or excluded the right things.  Several colleagues have suggested tweaks which have been included here (with thanks to Lucy Dasgupta and Chris Davies).

However my early career colleagues this year do say they have found it helpful as a starting point and so I am sharing it here.  Any constructive suggestions would be appreciated and any colleagues who have their own similar maps and would be willing to share, I’d love to take a look.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1APF3e4BfzDPp-ntNcCkhg2GNwNrGuuqkfH7KfaQeAU8/edit?usp=sharing

Questions that help me to reflect when planning questioning:

  1. Why am I asking the class questions?
  2. Should more students be involved in this questioning sequence/dialogue?
  3. Is this questioning strategy time-efficient for my major goal?
  4. What would this look like if it worked brilliantly?  Where should I go for help with that specific strategy or vision?

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