This guest post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.
Did you know that it is thought that 80% of teachers’ instructions actually involve asking questions? (Marzano, 2001). Did you also know that it is thought that teachers’ ask between 300-400 questions a day with some citing that we ask them every 43 seconds? (Leven and Long, 1981). If that’s true and the research is to be trusted, that’s a lot of questions we pose to students. But are all of these questions good questions? Do all of them pull out information or force students to retrieve knowledge? Do they help formulate a greater understanding of topics and help those finally ‘get’ something we have been teaching? Do they always spark curiosity and engage students within the learning? If we had our hand on our heart we’d probably say that in the hustle and bustle of a teaching day, some of the questions we pose may fall short of what we would hope. And I think that’s fair. We aren’t super humans who can conjure up world class questions at every moment. But there are strategies that we can use to ensure that the questions we ask are better. And what is more important, there are also methods that teachers can adopt that can help improve the responses given by students.
Plan a key question
I would never suggest that anyone plans out every question they would ask as the skill of questioning is primarily responsive depending on what students ask you. I would however consider planning one or two bigger questions. Every lesson, topic or concept has a point within it which is difficult or causes confusion. It is these points that I would encourage teachers to write one or two questions that may assist students’ in the learning of it or challenge them to look at it in greater detail. Planning these key questions helps us identify ‘sticking points’ in lessons and allow us to plan accordingly.
Teachers’ spend an enormous amount of time marking students’ written communication with great scrutiny. We check for grammar, use of terminology and even the ever so prominent ‘SPaG’. If a student writes without such high standards we usually ask them to spend time redrafting, rewriting or improving work. But how often do we find time to correct students’ verbal communication to the same degree? If the 43 seconds between every question is true, isn’t it of value to expect the same high standards from what students say as what students write? And there are ways to do this without eating into precious lesson time.
Live write the answers – as a student gives an answer, write it in as close detail as possible on the white board. By keeping track of the dialogue we can then take it through a process of refinement.
Literacy/vocabulary upgrade – with the answer annotated on the board, ask students to identify one or two elements of the answer where either a word can be substituted for a more academic/technical replacement, or, an alternative word can be used in its place. As a class can you find a different way to begin the answer or use an alternative ending?
Modelling – with words being upgraded on the board, the teacher can then step in and take the necessary time to re-model the answer with increased academic rigour. The process has taken a student’s answer and developed it to a new level. The use of a board and the precise nature at which it has been critiqued draws focus on the importance of giving high quality answers. It begins to set the standard and culture of the class. It only takes one or two answers to go through this process every lesson or so to allow students to understand the level of expectation in your classroom.
ABC stands for ‘Add, Build and Challenge’. It is a fantastic way to develop students’ answers and model the process with your class. It follows this very simple process:
Pose the question which you want students to answer.
Take your first answer from students in the class. Listen to it carefully and recap any important or interesting points.
Add – Ask students if there is anything they would add to the answer or are they be happy that this is the furthest we can take it (I guarantee students will want to improve it). In this phase students may want to add a particular fact that was missed out or a key piece of information that might have been overlooked.
Build – Here we can begin to develop the answer by building in the quality. We can use strategies mentioned earlier such as improving academic words, terminology and sentence structure. A teacher may help guide or direct this as it happens.
Challenge – This is the part where any student may challenge what has finally been presented as the improved answer. Are there fundamental flaws with the answer? Is there a fact that is wrong? Is there a technical word which isn’t quite correct? A student may even want to challenge what has been said by proposing a better/alternative way of communicating the answer.
Wait time and the power of silence
All too often we ask a question and then a split second later ask for an answer. Now there are probably students who have lighting fast neural connections who have the answer ready in a flash. However, the majority of students’ need a bit of time to actually process what it is you have asked before being ready to contribute. I do worry though that the fear of onlookers (observers, line managers, SLT, outside agencies) has meant that silence in the classroom is an anxious time. We worry that if no one is saying anything then the pace is lost and the lesson will crumble before your eyes. But it won’t! By allowing students actual time to think through and answer before asking them, we not only get more students involved in the process, but we have a better chance of getting answers which are of a much higher quality. Simply giving students five, six, seven seconds of thinking (wait time) might go some way in reducing the ‘I don’t know’ or poorly pieced together answer which does not benefit the learning of others. Make it the norm and be brave to silence.
No hands up (with hands up)
There is a lot of discussion about ways of getting reluctant students’ involved in the questioning process. We can all think of students’ who simply do not contribute. One way is to use the simple method of ‘No hands up’. The process is as simple as it seems. You pose a question and then (after some wait time) ask a random student to answer. There are a number of ways to select the student such as using random name generators or lolly pop sticks, but I prefer the simple method of calling a name or pointing at a student (much more reliable). The method helps ensure that no student slips through the cracks and that all must be involved. But what about those students who generally want to answer a question by putting their hand up? What about those who genuinely want to contribute? If we don’t ask them to answer do we cause them to lose motivation? Do we begin to overlook them and have them perceive that we aren’t interested in their thoughts? It’s a risky game but can be easily rectified. By all means use the no hands up method as it does really encourage a larger number of students to be involved. But do leave time for those who want to contribute to get involved. Take a follow up process by encouraging hands up (they may even want to add, build or challenge an answer).
Hinge questions or diagnostic questioning is a great way to get a wide response from students (in fact you normally get a 100% participation rate). The idea is simple. Identify a point in your lesson where a specific core concept will be learnt well enough to proceed onto a more challenging context. Normally we could ask one or two students a question at this point and dependant on the response, reteach that concept or securely move on. The problem though is we are using the answers of two students to gauge what the others students’ are thinking. Instead of this, plan a challenging question which has four possible answers. The answers must be high in quality so that they force students to scrutinise and think about the possible answer, yet not be so difficult that misinterpretations or mistakes are accidently learnt. Display the question on the board, with the four possible answers, and ask students raise either one to four fingers depending on which response they think is correct. You can quickly scan the class before deciding to move on. But what about those students who put the same answer as everyone else without knowing why? Well it is important that you follow up the responses by asking a variety of students to explain their answers. Use ABC if needed.
Alternatively there is a version of this called ‘Think, pair, share’ but snowballing goes a bit further. The method is very simple. The teacher poses a question and gives students a moment of silent time to formulate their own answer. The teacher then asks students to run their answers by their partner. At this point students can add, build or challenge what has been said. When a pair is happy with their response, they then form a group or four. This goes on until we have a number of larger groups or a whole class answer which has been refined. The teacher can then unpick the answer and model it with the class. The process of answers being unpicked at a micro level before being shared on a wider scale ensures that the quality is improved.