What are the purpose of this teacher’s questions?
Apparently, teachers ask up to two questions every minute, equating to millions of questions over their career. No matter how true or false those statistics are for you, undoubtedly, you do ask questions in your daily practice. How many of the questions you are asking have real purpose? Do you plan them before the lesson or do they pop into your head as you teach?
Coaching teachers on their use of questioning, I know harnessing questions for purpose can have a powerful impact upon: pupil outcomes, effective assessment, deep thinking, support and challenge and more. If you have identified questioning as an area for improvement in your classroom, start your investigation with a review of the present.
When improving any practice, we always start by exploring what is already happening in the classroom. What are you already doing with questions? Filming yourself teaching can be a good place to start your self-review. Even better, work in teams to review, research and plan. If your school has Iris, use it. We once paid a fortune for this only for it to live in my classroom. Don’t be afraid of filming yourself. If your school has not invested in video tools yet, VEO is a brilliant at a fraction of the cost. The first time I watched myself teach, all I could focus on was the sound of my voice and how big my butt looked on screen. It gets easier and is easier still if you have a focus for your observation. Note down the questions asked, explore their impact, did you plan them? Did they achieve the desired outcome? Why?
Following your self-review, you now have lots of data. The temptation may be to throw everything at questioning, changing too much at once. This may not be helpful when it comes to review and may impact on your planning time (as if you have enough). Instead, create a research question that helps you to measure the impact of any changes you make.
“How can I improve questioning in the classroom?” may be the overall intention but it is far too broad. Instead, a question like, “What impact will the use of hinge questions have on pupil outcomes?” is more focused. You are looking at one type of questioning and you can measure the impact using pupil data before and after the investigation. “Can fishing questions improve use of classroom time?” similarly allows focus and specific outcomes for improvement. “Can divergent questions improve learning behaviours?” will not only improve your questioning but could also support in your development of a culture of learning for a problem class. Choose your focus, research, plan and get ready to measure the results.
Question Types and Purpose
There is far more to questions than simply open or closed. We all know that if we ask a closed question, we get a straightforward answer and an open question could lead to varied, more in depth answers; however, open and closed questions can take many forms.
Imagine a door that is closed. It requires a hinge to open for you to move through. A hinge question is asked to determine if students have learned the required knowledge to move through to the next step. Hinge questions are closed to avoid ambiguity in pupil responses. Can you name… what is… where is… Can you identify… could all be the start of hinge questions as they require a specific response. Multiple choice hinge questions could be asked but be wary that the outcome could be falsified as pupils may guess the correct answer.
If you are using hinge questions to assess if pupils are ready to move on, think about why, when and how you are using them in a lesson. They could be used at the start to review if pupils have retained knowledge that they need today. What will you do if pupils have not retained the knowledge? What will you do if only a handful of pupils have retained the knowledge? What will you do if only one pupil has not retained the knowledge? If you are investigating the use of questions for specific purpose, it is not enough to simply use hinge questions, you must plan their purpose.
The purpose of hinge questions is to assess if pupils are ready to move on. If they cannot, part of the process of using them will be to be aware of your next steps. If you are using them to investigate “How planning hinge questions can impact upon pupil outcomes.” You may find that pupils move forward more slowly as you continually revisit missing information. However, later down the line, you may also find that pupils retain knowledge and relate more easily to new concepts as a result of your effective use of hinge question assessment. How will you measure their impact?
Divergent Questions Versus Problem Solving
Divergent questions are problems that allow pupils to take any route. There is no right or wrong answer, it is all down to the investigation. A problem-solving question may have a right answer that pupils come to via investigation. Both question types require higher order thinking. Pupils may need to evaluate, gather information, hypothesise and argue to conclude their thinking.
Example divergent question:
Example problem solving:
These questions are great for practising learning skills but once again, it is not enough to just ask the question. Plan the purpose and highlight the skills that are being learned to the pupils. There are so many possible purposes to using these questions: team work, creativity, resourcefulness, gathering information, classifying information etc… If you want to research how planning to use these questions have impact upon pupil outcomes, do not just throw the questions at pupils and see what happens. Using a PLTS log alongside problem solving and divergent questions can help you to record and highlight progress.
Getting into the habit of opening lessons with discussion can create an environment where learning happens as soon as pupils arrive at your classroom. Using a poster gleaned from @beetlebug1, I now begin all lessons with fishing questions that lead into the lesson.
Pupils are conditioned to look for the question as they arrive and to begin discussing the answer as they enter. They are prepared to share once the lesson begins. Questions such as, “When was the last time you were stung by nettles?” “What music makes you feel happy?” and “What should I protect my children from?” are all examples of fishing questions. These questions fish for an emotional response that will hook them into the lesson.
The question and responses must have purpose in the lesson ahead if you want to condition pupils to feel that there is always purpose in answering them. For example, the nettles question evoked responses about childhood memories, pain and learning from mistakes. We were investigating a poem in which all of these feelings were relevant (as were nettles). The fishing question engaged the class personally and the responses were revisited when exploring the emotion in the poem. Pupils felt the question had purpose in helping them understand the poem making them more likely to engage in subsequent questions.
If you choose to investigate how planning fishing questions can have an impact upon pupil outcomes, look back at your starting point. Were pupils engaged right from the start of the lesson? How? Are responses showing more understanding as a result of emotionally engaging the class first? How? Your intention is to use every second of the lesson for learning. Has this improved? With VEO or Iris, you can count any wasted time in exact minutes.
Increasing Level Questions
Any taxonomy of learning can be used to level your questions. Perhaps you want to use questions to get pupils to adopt a growth mindset? Here is an example of levelled SOLO questions based upon the investigation of a work of art. The overall investigation is to be able to state an educated opinion about this painting. The questions take you from having no knowledge to gathering knowledge to relating knowledge to being able to look from different perspectives to evaluate your understanding further.
Here are the levelled questions related to the image:
What is your initial reaction to this painting?
The painting was completed by Salvador Dali, what can you find out about this artist?
The title is ‘The Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ what can you find out about the meaning of these words?
Many individual images appear to make this painting. What images can you see? How do the images make you feel?
What colours are used in the painting? What style is the painting created in? What can you find out about this style of painting?
How does the artist’s life link to the images that you can see in the painting?
How does the title link to the images that you can see in the painting?
How does the combination of the artist’s life, the title’s meaning and your exploration of the images held within change or highlight your initial thoughts about the painting?
In what ways could Dali’s painting be said to represent the fears of modern living?
If you removed the ants from the image, how might it change your interpretation?
If the dominant colours were blue and green, how might this change the meaning of the painting?
Investigating the use of levelled questions and their impact upon mindset, I focused upon a ‘predicted A* class.’ Their starting point demonstrated a fixed mindset. From an early age, they found learning easy. They expected to be able to achieve, no matter what, as that had always been the case. They did not need to put in effort as learning came naturally to them. Knowing that this mindset can only get you so far and, when faced with something they could not achieve straight away that they would switch off, they became my focus for investigation. My intention was to get them to understand that talent will not always see you through but effort, tools and determination will.
Before the investigation, I used differentiated tasks rather than questions, noting that this class always chose the most difficult. It appeared that they believed that they were intelligent and therefore should always go to the most complex first. When I first introduced SOLO questions, I let them choose their task and asked them to do so in silence. Below is an image of the buckets used to keep each question separate and to allow them to choose and re choose as they felt appropriate:
They went, as expected, directly for the most complex the extended abstract question. The investigation was something that I knew they were unlikely to have any prior knowledge in. There was no way that they could achieve the task. Slowly, one by one, they began to return their first choice and move back to the start. Over time and with much explanation and practice, pupils began to understand that intelligence was not fixed; persistence, effort and research of the right knowledge could always lead them to success.
As a learning geek, reflecting on my practice makes me happy. We are not happy standing still; we are happy when we are growing, whether that be as educators, in business, in health or in any area of human life. Standing still makes us bored and unfulfilled. No matter where you are in your career, there is always room to improve. Your focus may be questioning, communication, group work, knowledge retention… the list may be endless but trust me, it is far more fulfilling to be moving forward than stuck in a loop. What you learn from self-reflection will contain information worth sharing. Don’t keep it to yourself. What did you do? What did you learn? What impact did it have? Where did it lead? Being a lone star in your classroom is great for you and your students but being a galaxy of educators that share to improve can change the world.
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