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Linda Evans

Ask and you shall receive: how to stretch pupils with questioning techniques

Linda Evans explains how developing questioning skills in teachers and pupils can extend learning.

Many books have been written on about the role of questioning in teaching and learning, and its importance is clearly acknowledged in published good practice.

In the day-to-day delivery of lessons, many teachers find it difficult to incorporate the sort of high-quality questioning that can really enhance pupils’ thinking and lead them to higher levels of attainment.

‘Lack of time’ is the most often cited reason, alongside a teacher’s concern that pausing to think about good answers will result in a loss of control.

Perhaps the solution lies in shaping an ethos where questions and enquiry are as important as answers and solutions.

Explicitly modelling carefully considered questions and praising pupils who ask interesting questions are two important elements of establishing such an ethos.

In addition, teachers may find it useful to think in terms of ‘when’, ‘what/why’ and ‘how’ to ask worthwhile questions as they develop their technique.

When?

Before the start of a new topic: questions for determining prior learning

A quick quiz or a three-minute activity to ‘write all you know about…’ will establish a baseline for teaching. It will also identify the most able pupils who already know and understand a great deal about a topic.

This is especially useful for curriculum areas like History and Geography where out-of-school learning and experience can result in a pupil gaining lots of knowledge before a topic even comes up at school.

‘Recap’ questions are the most frequently used in traditional classrooms (along with the ‘are you listening?’ sort).

One child’s response, however, is clearly unreliable as an indicator for the whole class or group; instead, the use of individual whiteboards which pupils can turn and show to the teacher are more effective, or a ‘right/wrong’ checklist for example, which pupils can quickly complete on a computer or a sheet of paper to stick in their books.

In terms of recapping at the start of a lesson, a succinct reminder from the teacher can be much more efficient, enabling the learning to move on and avoiding able pupils switching off.

What/why?

Questions for promoting higher-order thinking

The first thing to acknowledge about these sorts of questions is that they need to be planned; phase teams and subject departments can work together to compile useful lists from which to choose – or at least use as starting points for more apposite questions.

Being able to extend a child’s thinking and help him/her to develop higher-order skills requires skill, patience and confidence. With practice, however, it’s possible to develop a repertoire of prompts to link to planned questions and there are some ideas for this included in the table below, which you can download and give to teachers to use in class.

Questioning tech​​​niques

More than one answer

What material would you choose to make a raincoat?

This:

  • encourages pupils to think independently and be creative in their responses
  • promotes discussion and debate
  • requires reasoning and justification.

Agree or disagree

Open questions offer more opportunities for higher order thinking.

Working hard at school will help you get a good job – do you agree or disagree?

This:

  • helps to develop critical thinking
  • offers practice in expressing opinions and persuading peers
  • builds confidence.

Right and wrong

Fizzy drinks are good for us – is this right or wrong? How do you know?

This:

  • assesses knowledge and understanding
  • encourages curiosity
  • requires explanation.

The answer is…

For example: oxygen; 112; sound… what is the question?

This:

  • is suitable for any group as everyone can respond at their own level
  • involves reasoning and logic
  • demonstrates originality/creativity.

What if…

Cinderella had not dropped her shoe… there was no rain for a year… electricity hadn’t been invented?

This:

  • calls for higher order thinking
  • requires application of prior learning
  • places pupils in the role of ‘expert’.

A different standpoint

For example: Henry VIII was perfectly reasonable in acting the way he did.

This: 

  • develops empathy and respect for others
  • promotes lateral thinking
  • requires explanation.

How?

No hands up; time to think; opportu​nities to try out responses

A ‘no hands up’ policy avoids the same children answering all the time while others opt out. Make it clear that everyone should be thinking about their response before choosing someone to answer.

You may decide to differentiate questions so that higher-ability pupils are tasked with something more exacting; in this situation, a card with the question or problem written down can be handed to the more able pupils.

The second consideration has to do with giving learners time to consider, to ‘try out’ their thinking and to rehearse communicating their ideas to others.

‘Talk partners’ are widely used to achieve these objectives; pairings can be changed according to the curriculum area and individual pupils’ strengths, supporting the development of social skills as well as higher-order thinking.

As with most approaches, this works well when children have some training: establish some ground rules; demonstrate with a TA or role-play with a pupil; regularly remind everyone of the principles involved in a productive exchange of ideas and ask for self/peer evaluation.

Allow a set amount of time, including:

  • 30 seconds for a quick response to a piece of text
  • 2 minutes to think of five metaphors
  • 10 minutes to plan a solution to a problem.

Better outcomes sometimes result from scaffolding discussion, so consider providing some prompts.

Lis​tening to responses

There is little point in engendering well-considered answers if teachers fail to listen carefully and respond appropriately to what pupils say.

Listening is especially important, but with so much to cover in a lesson teachers can succumb to the pressure of ‘moving things on’ and miss an opportunity to build on a good idea, explore a child’s thinking or address a misconception.

When time really is short, consider a holding comment – ‘That’s a really interesting idea, Thomas, let’s talk about that in a few minutes when everyone has got started on the activity’ – returning to the child later in the lesson or later in the day to achieve a more satisfactory closure. The alternative may mean that a very bright child learns that well thought-out answers are dismissed as quickly as ill thought-out ones.

Good subject knowledge is vital: if you lack confidence in responding to a pupil’s answer or idea, it’s better to be honest than try to bluff your way through, or even worse, to ignore/skim over an intelligent response.

Admitting to being unsure will not disgrace you in front of the class and, in fact, models good learning behaviour (in the meantime you can be checking with a colleague, nipping to the library or checking the internet). The important thing is to remember the child and make sure that you do come back to her/him!

It’s also important to remember that acknowledging ‘good thinking’ can be more important than praising a correct answer: such reinforcement will help pupils to develop metacognition and encourage them to use the higher-order skills of analysis, evaluation and synthesis.

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