“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein
Questioning is the very cornerstone of philosophy and education, ever since Socrates ( in our Western tradition) decided to annoy pretty much everyone by critiquing and harrying people with questions – it has been central to our development of thinking and our capacity to learn. Indeed, it is so integral to all that we do that it is often overlooked when developing pedagogy – but it as crucial to teaching as air is to breathing.
We must ask: do we need to give questioning the thought and planning time something so essential to learning obviously deserves? Do we need to consciously teach students to ask good questions and not just answer them? How do we create a ‘culture of inquiry’ in our classroom that open minds and provokes truly independent thought?
Most research indicates that as much as 80% of classroom questioning is based on low order, factual recall questions. What we must do is put questioning back to the core of our pedagogy and planning – we need to create is a climate of enquiry and engagement in high quality, high order questioning if formative progress is to be identified effectively. We need to carefully formulate questions with precision, as well as targeting the right questions with the right students.
One key issue is that we teach in a ‘answer focused culture’ – students await to be spoon fed answers; they await the secrets to an exam that is typically closed to any breadth of thinking (many of our exams are awful – the English Literature AS level exam appears to have reduced the greatest literature known to man down to a reductive shopping list). The entire system we work within appears to reinforce a close-minded ‘answers culture’; inquisitiveness, time to explore and think are rail-roaded into a one track exam system. Controlled assessment after controlled assessment – judgement after stultifying judgement. Yet, we can change the system from the inside: we can make our schools and classrooms a world within a world – one where we maximise creativity by encouraging the asking of good, thoughtful questions; one where we crucially foster a culture of enquiry. In a culture of enquiry, questions are no longer the domain of the ignorant; a tool to trip up the teacher – they become dynamic – more about critical involvement, stretching knowledge and enriching understanding.
Effective questioning is key because it makes the thinking visible: it identifies prior knowledge; reasoning ability and the specific degree of student understanding – therefore it is the ultimate guide for formative progress. My top ten list is roughly organised by transitions within a lesson: beginning with 1 to 4 being questioning that initiates the learning process; 5 and 7 being core questioning techniques to develop the learning; and finally 8 to 10 being questioning strategies that are evaluative in nature:
1. Key Questions as Learning Objectives: what better way to foster a culture of inquiry than to spark the whole shooting match off with a big question that gets students thinking critically about what they are going to learn? By asking a big question you can initiate thinking and group discussion that immediate engages students in their prospective learning. By framing it as a question, it can raise motivation, as students feel like they have invested choice in their learning – and by getting students to subsequently formulate the learning objective they really begin to think about the nuances of what they are to learn and why.
2. ‘If this is the answer…what is the question?’
Taken from ‘Mock the Week‘, this simple little technique sparks the inquisitiveness within students – just by quickly reversing the standard question and answer dichotomy it can deepen their thinking. It could be a relatively closed answer, like ‘3.14159265359’ (the numerical value of pi); or something more open and abstract, like ‘religion’ (a potential powder-keg that one!). They can be given the idea by showing a short clip of ‘Mock the Week from’ on YouTube – but I would advise you to vet the video carefully first!
3. Thunks – These little gems are great to initiate deeper thinking, with seemingly simple questions opening up a complex array of higher order thinking. Thunks, such as: “If I ask if I can steal your pen and you say yes, is that stealing?” Or “Can I ever step on the same beach twice?” are great fun and thoughtful starters. These clever questions (see Ian Gilbert’s excellent ‘Little a book of Thunks‘ or the website: http://www.thunks.co.uk/ ) can simply be used to spark thinking or dialogue, or they can be more targeted towards the topic or subject at hand. As the students become familiar with thunking (they really enjoy it in my experience) they can begin to formulate their own thunks – a great way to get them to think about higher order, open questioning.
4. ‘Just One More Question…’ (said in the style of Columbo!): Given any topic or subject, they have to work collaboratively in groups to create an array of quality questions. They can then be given a series of challenging question stems to broaden their range of questions, using the following: What if…?; Suppose we knew…?; What would change if…? Suppose we knew…? If they write the questions on post it notes then they can be collated and saved – with the teacher returning to them further thrown the learning line. As the topic develops students can add ‘just one more question’, as well as answering the initial questions as their understanding grows. By following this method you can continue to foster the crucial culture of inquiry in the classroom – encouraging questions as a matter of course. Generating a range of such questions is a great way to initiate a topic, as it helps highlight miscomprehension immediately; it can foster collaboration and it can give the teacher precise and immediate formative feedback to shape their subsequent planning for the topic.
5. Socratic questioning and Socratic Circles – The old dog really can teach us new tricks! Socrates himself believed that questioning was at the root of all learning – and it is hard to disagree. The six steps of Socratic questioning creates a critical atmosphere that probes thinking and once more gets the students questioning in a structured way. There are six main categories:
Q1. Get your students to clarify their thinking, for instance: “Why do you say that?” ….“Could you explain that further?”
Q2. Challenging students about assumptions, for instance: “Is this always the case? Why do you think that this assumption holds here?”
Q3. Evidence as a basis for argument, questions such as: “Why do you say that?” or “Is there reason to doubt this evidence?”
Q4. Viewpoints and perspectives, this challenges the students to investigate other ways of looking at the same issue, for example: “What is the counter argument for…?” or Can/did anyone see this another way?”
Q5. Implications and consequences, given that actions have consequences, this is an area ripe for questioning, for instance: “But if that happened, what else would result?” or “How does… affect ….?” By investigating this, students may analyse more carefully before jumping to an opinion
Q6. Question the question, just when students think they have a valid answer this is where you can tip them back into the pit: “Why do you think I asked that question?” or “Why was that question important?”
I like to exemplify the probing nature of Socratic questioning with the attack dog of relentless questions – Jeremy Paxman – and his logical stripping down of Michael Howard!
I am thankful to @dailydenouement for the following document that presents a really clear set of instructions to document the Socratic circles strategy:
This approach is a fantastic way to structure dialogue and to involve all students in exploring and developing their arguments. It creates a variety of roles and stimulates collaborative thinking and learning. Once more, it is another way to get students to reflect upon the very quality of the questions and not just the answers, with the critique of students from the outer circle.
6. Pose-pause-bounce-pounce – This is a brilliantly simple but very important strategy. The thinking time at the ‘pause’ point is crucial – there is a great deal of evidence about how the quality of responses, and the confidence levels of students, is raised by even a short amount of thinking time. The ‘bounce’ is also crucial in that, once again, students are expected to constructively build upon the ideas of one another, which gives the teacher the crucial formative assessment information required. I will hand you over to Dylan William and his excellent explanation of the strategy and the importance of quality questioning:
7. Hinge point questions – This simple but effective question approach does what it says on the tin, but in terms of progress, planning using hinge point questions can be pivotal for formative assessment. These questions really are crucial to identifying formative progress. These can be relatively closed questions, such as in this History exemplar question:
In which year did World War Two begin?
This allows for a very swift hinge point diagnosis of student progress. But, you can deepen the thinking by asking a ‘Why’ question about the origins of World War Two. You can ask students to orally explain their rationale, or you can add further complexity by having two ‘right’ answers to a question. Regardless of the strategy, again the precision of the question is key to the answer, and the subsequent direction of the learning. Too often teachers plough on regardless to meet the demands of their brilliant lesson plan, when all the formative assessment shouts at them (sometimes literally) to move in another direction. We should not be frightened by going back steps to consolidate the learning – repetition is at the heart of acquiring knowledge – and without knowledge, skills become meaningless. Like the Green Cross Code tells us, we need to ‘stop, look and listen’ to the quality of the question, and the quality of the answer, before we go anywhere.
8. Question continuum – The continuum involves the students first devising questions, in pairs or groups, on any given topic or idea. Then the continuum is created very visibly, either on the whiteboard, or more semi-permanently on a display board (great to resume the strategy in future lessons) – with student questions being on post it notes for added flexibility. The horizontal axis would represent the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question – that is how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and new possibilities, and simply the interest level it generates from the group. Then the vertical axis could be flexible in a variety of ways, should you wish to include a vertical axis. The vertical axis could represent ‘Complexity‘ (from ‘closed factual questions’ to ‘open, conceptual questions’) – that is how far the question would deepen their understanding and generate complex thinking. Students could feedback their opinions, shaped by the teacher, to identify the best questions – which then could be the subject of further exploration. Having the questions very visible means you can also flexibly rearrange, such as selecting the ‘best’ nine questions and creating a new ‘diamond nine’ formation. As you can see, the possibilities are endless.
9. Questioning monitor: Once more, this technique constructively involves students in the evaluation and reflection of the questioning process – fostering my now well worn refrain of creating a culture of enquiry. A monitor, or a pair of monitors, would be given the responsibility to track and monitor the frequency of questions: teacher and student – open or closed: factual or conceptual. You can have them monitor for a given task, or relate more cumulative research by undertaking the monitoring over a week or two of lessons. By exploring the evidence you are signalling to the students that you value evidence, and you are diagnosing the quality of your questioning, and that of the students. You will then have the evidence to know whether you really do have a culture of enquiry – and if not, it illuminates some of the steps you need to take to develop one. The activity sends very powerful messages to students about how highly your value quality questioning.
10. The Question Wall (a design upgrade for a well-used technique) Many educationalists have put forward sound reasons for using a question wall, or a learning wall. The ‘Question Continuum’ clearly overlaps with regards to pedagogy with a question wall, so I would be wary of trying both concurrently with groups, as it could potentially confuse them. The ‘Question Wall’ in this instance is a working space for students to communicate questions about their learning. By giving students post it notes and asking them to commit questions to writing typically eliminates those questions that reflect a sense of ‘learnt helplessness’ – the ‘how does you spell such and such’, when they have a dictionary on their table; or, ‘what do we have to do’, in response to your lengthy and erudite explanation you have only just imparted! The question wall helps foster independence and, once more, makes the students think a little more about their questions. To add a level of nuance to the wall, consider creating simple quadrants with simple labels: students can be advised that closed questions are placed on the left of the wall, whereas more open questions are placed progressively to the right hand side. A vertical axis could indicate the timer he student would expect was needed for explanation: placing questions that need a high degree of support, and therefore time, higher up the wall than those shorter, typically more closed questions. This simple visual representation of their questions allows the teacher to make a quick visual judgement about what questions they have time to address, or may want to prioritise. It helpfully indicates the level of ‘stuckness’ of the student, which is important feedback.