Questioning Traps

15 Sep 2017

Question mark heap on table concept for confusion, question or solution

“A prudent question is one half of wisdom” Frances Bacon.

There is always something slightly tentative about the first two weeks of term: students are eying us up carefully, deciding exactly how they are going to respond to our magnificent lessons (rather Machievalian I know!)   I have had an interesting week with a Year 9 group who at the moment are heroically quiet, eerily quiet in fact. I think my slightly austere initial (very Scottish) demeanour has rather thrown them, and the attempted light-hearted puns have failed miserably. There have been glimpses of personality, but so far there has been a number of teacher led moments that have reenacted this brilliant scene from ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’:

As I have been repeating my best “anyone, anyone” impression, I have been thinking about the number of questioning traps that I have unwittingly stumbled into through the course of the week with this group.

As teachers we fully embrace Albert Einstein’s “never stop questioning” philosophy: we question like the “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. It is a vital part of our teaching practice; we are likely to fire out hundreds of them in our working days, let alone the thousands we collate throughout the week (questions not rifles!) The automatic “rapid rattle” approach, unfortunately, often results in losing the significant learning power of the humble question. This week, I have clearly not been using it as effectively as I could be.

Now, clearly questioning is a vital teacher skill in so many ways. A quick perusal of Barack Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ validates why we ask so many:

“Questions allow a teacher to determine how well the material has been learned and whether there is a need for additional instruction. The most effective teachers also ask students to explain the process they used to answer the question, to explain how the answer was found. Less successful teachers ask fewer questions and almost no process questions.”

There is also the process that questioning encourages young people to go through. Richard W Paul and Linda Elder argue:

‘Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. Had no questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field, for example Physics or Biology, the field would never have developed in the first place… To think or rethink anything, one must ask questions that stimulate our thoughts”.

The question therefore becomes a significant ally in the mission to encourage thinking in the classroom: hijacking both the brains and engagement of the young people in our rooms. Research has suggested that the brain can focus only on one thing at a time; therefore the moment young people are in receipt of a question they automatically begin to engage with it. As neuroscientist John Medina puts it in his fascinating book ‘Brain Rules:’ “Research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.” By tapping into this with the power of a question, we are ensuring both the focus and thinking power of our students. Importantly there is also the motivation inspired by questioning: it gives our students active opportunities to participate and demonstrate their knowledge

For my own piece of mind as I endeavour to draw out more from this group next week, here is what I will be avoiding in this questioning mission:

Guess what is in the head. In our content rich curriculum we often feel the need to rush through material. We frequently ask questions that merely seek to reinforce the knowledge and content we have shared. Questioning in this vain is merely encouraging young people to parrot back the information we are looking for, it does not develop an enquiry based classroom. Those who know will volunteer and the rest of the students will switch off. Often this can form a teacher rhetorical question that does not require a student response, or even more tragically we begin to answer our own questions.

Closed questions dominating. A huge number of questions we ask in the classroom lead only to recall of facts and lower order skills. In ‘Questioning in the Secondary School’ by C Brown and E.C Wagg, the authors state that higher-level questions are used in the classroom only 10 to 20 percent of the time. Ultimately closed questions  lead to only a single word response or a short response; they do not require any real degree of expansion or further explanations. While all questions in the classroom have their place, the dominance of closed questions in classrooms is concerning, are we doing enough to extend and challenge thinking?

Time. Often we fly out questions and pounce immediately on the first student who shows the first sign of response. Research implies that on average we allow only one second for our students to reflect on questions. When we pause to consider the internal process that student’s must go through in order to generate a response this becomes even more troublesome. Researchers Winne and Marx (1983) note they must

“perceive the instructional stimuli, note their occurance, understand the cognitive processes that are required, use the processes to create or manipulate information to be stored as learned material and encode the information for later retrieval.”

In one second? Tough. The result is a significant number of students will give up and not go through this process, sitting back and waiting for their more enthusiastic chums to take the lead. Wait time, first coined by Mary Rowe in her journal ‘‘Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be A Way of Speeding Up’  from 1972 is one  way to address this issue:

“If teachers can increase the average length of the pauses at both points, namely, after a question and, even more importantly, after a student response to three seconds or more, there are pronounced changes in student use of language and logic.”

Any questions? At various points in a lesson we might be tempted to ask the students if anyone has any questions. We know that encouraging our students to ask questions will aid learning and motivation. The majority of young people, however, are usually unwilling to publically admit that they are unsure about the content. Would we as adults? Therefore there is the assumption that the knowledge is nestled beautifully inside their minds. An assumption that is untested and untried and likely to be false. We move on to quickly, leaving an unknown proportion of the class floundering and uncertain about the knowledge they require

Acceptance In our desire to seek to motivate our students we can often accept answers to questions that are overly simplistic or indeed wrong. We move on to quickly without probing or seeking to refine the quality of answers. Particularly at the start of the year with a quiet group there is the temptation to heroically herald the most incoherent of grunts. I have found myself doing this through the course of the week. It sends messages about the nature of my expectations to this group, missing out vital opportunities to them to signal the high expectations that I will want to define their lessons.

As with all aspects of teaching, awareness of these traps again gives us the clear upper hand, making us more thoughtful about how we employ the ubiquitous question. I will post a hopefully slightly more optimistic version of this with some practical ideas for developing  questioning in a few weeks. In the mean time, some excellent further reading:

Alex Quigley’s ‘The Questioning Collection’ 

Doug Lemov’s ‘On the Raising of Hands’ 

Shaun Allison’s ‘The Importance of Questioning’ 

James Durran’s ‘Asking real questions in the classroom’ 

Thanks for reading, any questions? Anyone, anyone?



Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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