By David Winfield Editor, innovatED Magazine and former Deputy Head (Academic)
Effective questioning significantly enhances the quality of learning by encouraging deeper engagement amongst pupils as they process new information and ideas.
I recently wrote a blog about how planning canreduce workload and accelerate learning that led to a number of thought provoking discussions with quite a few colleagues. Many of these conversations revolved around the benefit or otherwise of deliberately inserting different styles of questioning into lesson plans in order to support pupil progression. Whilst I remain unconvinced that this is absolutely necessary for experienced practitioners, I am sure that all colleagues have many first-hand experiences of how high-quality questioning has transformed learning in their setting. It also became clear that another blog in this particular area of teaching and learning would certainly be of use in supporting colleagues.
Before looking at how to construct high-quality questions, the best place to start is probably to look at what inspiring questions are not. Inspiring questions are generally not (especially in groups):
Closed questions that lead to embarrassment every time you get one wrong.
'Hands-up' questions that favour children who think quickly, and can be incredibly distracting for many.
Rapid fire questions that again favour quick thinkers.
That is not to say that there is not occasionally a place for these types of questions, but they should be used sparingly as over time they will exclude the majority of learners and leach away the passion for life-long learning which all children are born with. The best place to start when thinking about constructing high quality questions for learners is Bloom's Taxonomy.
Translating Bloom into classroom questions
Knowledge (be careful how you frame these questions)
What is it called?
Where does it come from?
When did it happen? To whom?
What types of tree are there?
Why do they...?
Explain what is happening in...?
How is she feeling at this point?
What are the key features?
What do you think will happen next? Why?
Which tool would be best for this?
Create a graph using the information
Use your knowledge to solve the problem
What patterns can you see in the data?
Why did the British invade?
What assumptions are being made?
What was the function of...?
What is the writer's main point?
How can you test your theory?
What conclusions can you draw?
Which method was likely to have the greatest impact?
Which route should Hs2 take?
Which was the better strategy to use?
So how do we get this hierarchy of questions into lessons in a practical way?
Firstly, allowing children time to answer and targeting questions towards children keeps the atmosphere positive. This also ensures that children cannot hide and 'opt-out' and allows for differentiated questioning. Here are two approaches for always keeping your questions fresh and engaging so that you pupils make rapid progression:
Write each child's name on a lollipop stick. When you want to ask a question, pull out a stick. Children love the tension when you pull one out and it ensures that all children are asked questions on a regular basis. You could also have different ability groups of children written different colours to allow you to pose differentiated questions.
I heartily recommend using talking partners all of the time in class. It gives every pupil a voice, builds confidence and raises self-esteem. You should also give the children about 30 seconds to discuss the question and provide an answer - and it's a good idea to model what you expect from the children before working with their partners for the first time. It can also be extremely effective for lots of different reasons (including social) to change talk partners frequently.
Effective questioning is really about changing the context in which recall questions are asked for maximum impact.
Teacher gives a range of answers to a question. This approach can really work well when more than one answer is correct and when some others are kind of correct - and which will promote discussion.
A statement. Statements develop comprehension, discussion skills, and critical thinking. "Mr Fox is nothing but a thief. Do you agree or not, and why?"
Giving the answer first. Instead of, "Give me an example of a complex sentence", re-frame it: "This is a complex sentence. Why?" This changes to emphasis of the question from the answer, to the reasons for the answer.
Finding opposites is where children need to explain why one answer is correct and one isn't. Again, it lowers the stakes associated with the question. This works brilliantly well in maths and spelling. It also encourages problem solving: "Why is this plant healthy and this plant dying?"
Opposing Standpoints are terrific for discussing controversial or sensitive subjects. They are also wonderful for improving persuasive skills, empathy and developing a respect for the views of others. Question: "Why is it wrong to steal?" Follow-up question: "What if the thief is a mother whose children are hungry?"
Socrates aimed to move learning to a deeper understanding by moving through six stages of questioning. It is worth reading through the Socratic approach as it can be used as a systematic way to extend children. Essentially, you are saying 'tell me more' at each stage of questioning, and the process of answering deepens understanding.
Further practical classroom ideas with questioning
Hot seating A child becomes one of the characters in the book the class is reading. The other children then ask questions about what the character thinks about events, locations, their feelings and other characters.
Flashbacks This type of activity focuses on consequences. "What would've happened if Bilbo had not found the ring" or "What happens if this plant is removed from the food chain."
Exchange Questioning Both the children and the teacher prepare some questions on a topic. Teacher then chairs a discussion inviting debate and higher-order questioning.