I remember being a trainee teacher back in 2005 and going in to observe lessons. The lessons were pretty good, by whatever measure you might use. But I didn’t learn a lot from being there. Like someone with no technological knowledge inspecting the inside of a mechanical object, I just didn’t know what I was looking at.
I mention this because I think observing lessons is actually brilliant. I learn a lot from observing colleagues and I gain a lot from the feedback I receive, when they observe me. So why doesn’t this work for trainees, or even Early Career Teachers for that matter?
I think it comes down to experience. When an experienced teacher observes someone, they can watch the lesson and decide what they would do differently and why they would do it that way, drawing from their own classroom practice.
A trainee or inexperienced teacher cannot do this anywhere near as effectively or independently, in most cases. This is problematic for our trainees. We expect them to go into lessons, taught by our colleagues and expect them to soak up all of the good practice they witness, without realising that they simply aren’t equipped to do so.
So let’s equip them.
Here are some useful questions for trainees and Early Career Teachers to consider when observing. Hopefully, by getting them to reflect on their answers, we might help to focus their attention on what matters.
Lesson Observation Questions
Has the teacher demonstrated that they have high expectations for behaviour and progress? How did they convey this?
Does there appear to be a routine being followed? If so, what is it?
Is the classroom environment suited to the task? (e.g. grouped tables, equipment, use of space, etc)
How long does the teacher allow the students to work for, before checking progress?
Does the teacher model answers for the class? (If so, what was good about the modelling?)
What standard of answer does the teacher expect from the students?
How variable is the standard of answer from the students (and how does the teacher respond to this)?
When challenged by disruption, rudeness, etc, how does the teacher respond? How effective was the behaviour management strategy? (Did it work? Quickly?)
How many students are checked for progress during the lesson?
How often does the teacher ask questions? (What follow-up questions are asked?)
How could the students’ learning be stretched further?
How could the students’ learning be supported further?
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it gives students something to concentrate their attention on. When they begin their own teaching, these questions will naturally form part of the feedback on routines, expectations, behaviour, progress, differentiation and assessment. Having clear anecdotes to return to from their own observations, will help trainees and Early Career Teachers to compare their practice to the practice of experienced staff.
This post is based on the talk I gave on 7 July 2020 at The Big Think teach meet, organised by Jo McShane, Senior Lecturer in Education and RE PGCE Lead at Sunderland University.
Teaching RE is and always has been a tricky business. Unlike most other subjects, where the topics are purely academic, RE brings with it a lot of very important baggage. I don’t mean baggage in the negative sense, although it can sometimes feel that way when things go wrong in the classroom. Instead, I mean that alongside the academic aspect of RE, there is also an intensely ‘personal’ aspect too.
RE has always been, for better or worse, THE subject that stirs up controversy. For one thing, it’s a statutory requirement to teach it in England. This sets some people’s teeth on edge (and not just atheists), as they often think that the time spent studying RE should be spent on other subjects that are “more worthwhile”, whatever that means to them (practical? career-related?).
Secondly, some people argue that RE shouldn’t be taught at all, as it involves the promotion, or at least the consideration, of beliefs that not everyone holds. Faith schools suffer this criticism the hardest of course, as they seek not only to inform, but also, to varying degrees, to evangelise and promote their own beliefs and practices.
Thirdly though, RE is often delivered by schools as an afterthought and not given the attention it deserves, regarding timetabled hours, specialist teachers, or is combined with other subjects like PSHE and Citizenship, removing RE’s distinctive nature and effectively diluting it and removing what makes it fascinating.
It is in reply to these issues that I write this post. RE is an incredible subject, worthy of study in its own right and is equal to, if not more important than other core subjects like English and Maths. This is a bold claim, but hear me out, I’ve spent my whole teaching career so far (since 2006) contemplating this idea. And we all know how much RE teachers love to contemplate. Anyway, I’ll get to that bit later on.
Right now, I want you to think about questioning. What questions do we ask in RE? Do we ask the right questions? Do we ask our questions in the right way? Why are we asking questions at all? These questions themselves are incredibly important, because in general, if you want to get better answers from your students, you really should ask better questions. But what does that look like?
What questions do we ask in RE?
In RE, we ask a lot of different types of questions. Some are purely academic, some much more vocational, often they are practical and more often than not they are philosophical, at least on some level. Understanding this whole range of question types and knowing when and how to ask better questions makes your day as an RE teacher fly by. By asking the right questions, in the right way, to the right students, at the right time, you create vibrant discussions and delve deeper and deeper into the lives and beliefs of people all over the world, but also and crucially, in your own classroom.
On the other hand, asking the wrong questions, at the wrong time, or to the wrong person and in the wrong way, can have devastating effects. The consequence of getting this wrong in RE is so much worse than if a teacher of Physics got it wrong. Not because Physics matters less, it’s clearly vital to have at least an appreciation of light, motion, forces, etc. It isn’t something someone is likely to be bullied for though. Unlike Physics, which is purely “physical” (the clue is in the name), RE explores the lives, beliefs, practices and motivations of people. It is spiritual, psychological, emotional. Students often cover up these hidden aspects of their lives between 9am and 3pm, for fear that they will be outed as different in some way. In RE you must ask your questions with extra care.
The types of questions, whether in examination papers, or in the classroom, vary tremendously, from straightforward definitions and descriptions of festivals, to explanations of beliefs and practices, to moral dilemmas and the value of religion in the 21st century.
But does it matter which of these we ask? It’s not as straightforward as yes or no. Clearly there are some topics which seem more central than others, so questions should be asked about those. But no matter what you decide to put in your curriculum, there will always be gaps. We just can’t teach all the intricacies of all the major world religions in a way that does them justice. Something has to give. But with carefully chosen questions, we can at least give students an excellent working knowledge of RE, that will help them navigate the subject, and their lives, with greater ease, satisfaction and joy.
It’s important to understand the different question-types that we use in RE, to ensure that we can deepen our students knowledge whilst helping them to understand the personal implications, socially, psychologically and spiritually, of the topics we teach. Using a broad range of question-types also helps us to identify gaps, not only in attainment, but also in our own curriculum, as we often realise that we’ve assumed prior learning has happened, when in fact it may not have done (even when we’ve taught it).
Why do we ask questions?
There are two main reasons why we ask questions.
Firstly, to get our students to think. If we want our students to build up both a good working and long-term memory of interconnected ideas, then we need them to think. Memory is the residue of thought, after all. I call these “thinking” questions.
Secondly, we ask questions to check understanding. This is an important distinction to make. These two reasons for asking questions are the ones that matter the most, when it comes to teaching. I call these “assessment” questions.
But, when it comes to asking these types of questions in class, we must be mindful of our reasons. It’s very easy to slip into a questioning style that looks like we are checking understanding, when actually we aren’t. Take for example, a typical lesson, where students have completed a task. You then ask a verbal question to the class, supposedly to check understanding. One student raises their hand politely and gives the correct answer. You ask the rest of the class, “does that make sense?”, to which they all reply “Yes”. In your head, as a teacher, you feel like you’ve completed that section of the lesson and can move on to the next one, confident that your job is done.
Except it isn’t. You can’t know that your job is done, because you only really know that one student out of thirty knows the answer. You might have caused the rest of the class to think, rather than assess them. You don’t have that information though from the questioning method you used.
Deep Singh Ghataura (@DSGhataura), someone who you really should follow on Twitter, if you’re interested in assessment says this: When you’re assessing students, you really must ask yourself two questions:
What do I want this assessment to tell me?
Given everything I know about learning, performance, memory and bias, how likely is it that this assessment satisfies Q1?
You absolutely must, therefore ensure that you do not make inferences that aren’t supported by the assessment data, e.g. that ALL students know “x”, just because one student showed they knew it.
This is why Professor Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam) advocates the use of hinge questions in your lesson, to check whether or not the class is ready to move on to the next thing. A hinge is a point in a lesson when a teacher needs to check whether or not students have grasped a key concept and are ready to move on to study another.
There are different ways you can use hinge questions in your lessons, some involving tech platforms like Plickers (show example on slide) and some simply using good old fashioned pen and paper/post-its.
A quick way to check understanding is by using a short multiple-choice question, or set of questions. Every student has to answer them independently and present their answers to the teacher, who can then see, at a glance, who has fully understood. The key to this is to ensure that students do not just copy their friends’ answers, as this invalidates the data you get.
You don’t need a 100% “pass rate” in order to move on, but you need it to be high enough that you are able to spend time with those who didn’t fully understood, whilst the rest of the class moves on. I’d recommend 90% or higher in most cases, given a class of thirty, as you may not have enough time to re-teach more than a small number of students the information, whilst making sure the new task is supported for the rest of the class.
For advanced questioners, I would recommend adding to at least one of your multiple-choice answers, a red-herring or a common misconception, as well as a slightly more obviously (to you) wrong answer. This does two things. It helps to show not only who got the right answer, but also, who nearly got it right and finally who just didn’t have a clue. Of course, some students may just guess correctly, but they won’t get away with it that easily, as this won’t be the only time you ask this multiple choice question, or variation of it. Remember: the most questions you ask, the more likely and more often the “correct-guessers” will be revealed, distinguishing them from the truly knowledgable.
Dylan Wiliam goes further and says that the crucial thing about creating useful hinge questions is that “kids cannot get it right for the wrong reason.” If they can, then you need to ask a better question, one that distinguishes between students who understand and students who don’t.
The key to this is designing your questions, carefully, in advance of the lesson. You don’t have the time to examine every students’ reasoning for each question you ask. The question should do it for you. Plan your questions in advance and remember, are you trying to assess your students’ knowledge or are you trying to get them to think? This might determine which questions you should ask them.
Useful question types to use in RE
Rank the order questions
Open and Closed Questions (BOTH are extremely useful)
Moral dilemma questions
A question you should ask (and also have a good answer to)
Why should we study RE?
For me, RE is the one subject which speaks not only to what is out there in the world and beyond (or not out there at all, depending on your faith-position), but it speaks to the nature of your own existence and purpose in the world. This can be attempted in a biological sense in Science lessons, but Science can only explain the “how” and not the “why” of existence.
Asking “How did we get here?” is not the same as asking “Why are we here?” The first question is scientific, or even historical. The second question requires us to think about our purpose, our motivations, what we ought to be doing, rather than simply what we are doing. It invites us to examine our lives as persons, not just as a species or category of life-forms.
The study of RE encourages us to pursue what distinguishes us from the animal kingdom (so far as we know) and to explore what Aristotle described as the “intellectual virtues” and to be self-reflective, treading the virtuous middle path between the vices of excess and deficiency. This is what it means to be human beings, in the fullest sense, as persons, not just mammals with a particular genetic code. We are emotional, critical and social. But we are also story-tellers and empathisers. We judge ourselves and others on factors not linked to the basics of survival, sex and food. We plan for the long-term (not just within one lifetime either) and not just for immediate gain. We search for meaning, beyond the empirical and the immediately obvious.
We can, of course, find isolated examples of this sort of behaviour in the natural world, but nowhere near the same scale and with the same regularity that humans do it. We’re more than just biological creatures. Comparing humans and animals is like comparing a 10-second doodle on a napkin to Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sure, the doodle might have some interesting or redeeming feature, but really, there’s no contest.
If you would like a copy of my presentation on Asking Better Questions in RE (to accompany this blogpost), then just contact me on Twitter and I’ll get back to you.
This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
Earlier in my career, I used to ask all of the wrong questions and when I asked the right ones, I asked them in the wrong order. The result was predictably bleak. My students still learned, but at times it took far longer than it should have done and in some cases, very little learning happened at all. This was down to me (most of the time).
I’m sure that most of us have felt guilty for letting our students down when we’ve taught a lesson that just didn’t do what we wanted it to do. But rather than spend time navel-gazing, it’s important that we instead address one of the most fundamental parts of our teaching. No, not the worksheets, or the PowerPoints, or even the homework. It’s our questioning. It’s easy to think that we’ve got our craft down to an art. But is questioning more of a science?
In my own experience, asking the right questions at the right time, to the right people, in the right way, is often what transforms a lesson from mediocre to truly excellent. Not only that, but there’s a way to do it well and with consistency, without your students tiring of formulaic lessons.
What’s the purpose of asking questions?
There are many reasons why we ask questions in class, whether it’s to check the level of understanding, stretch answers further, or to help develop confidence in our quieter students. A key component to effective questioning, though, is identifying why you are asking the question in the first place.
This is where “planning for questions” comes in. When I plan a topic, I always begin by deciding what my students need to know by the end and what skills I want them to be able to demonstrate. Only then can I decide which questions are more important than others. For example, in Religious Studies, I teach the nature of religious experience and how far it proves the existence of an afterlife. In order to teach this, I need students to be able to answer questions such as:
What defines a religious experience?
What are the different types of religious experience?
What common features do different types of religious experiences have?
How do religious experiences manifest themselves in different religions and cultures?
Why do people believe that religious experiences are convincing as evidence for an afterlife?
Why do people believe that religious experiences are not convincing as evidence for an afterlife?
How convincing is religious experience as an explanation for an afterlife?
How far does a belief in religious experiences impact the lives of believers?
Each question is designed to build upon the knowledge and skills that were learnt and developed in response to the previous question. By the end, I can be much more certain that students have an excellent understanding of the topic. Moreover, if a student was unable to answer a specific question, I’d easily be able to identify the reason for it, just by working through the previous questions, to see where they began to struggle.
What About Higher-Order vs Lower-Order Questions?
In the past, it was argued by some that higher-order questions, which require students to analyse and evaluate, were more important than lower-order questions, which simply sought to develop a basic understanding.
This is wrong.
Without first establishing a basic level of understanding of the main points, it’s pointless to ask the higher-order questions. After all, you can’t evaluate the persuasiveness of religious experience, without first knowing the key features, which you then need to critically analyse. All students need to master those basics, regardless of their prior attainment or levels of ability, before they move on to more complex analysis and evaluation. Knowledge comes first: you can’t apply skills in a vacuum.
That being said, higher-order questions can make a huge difference to students who would otherwise give simplistic and short answers. The question “Was the Treaty of Versailles significant in causing the Second World War?” elicits a much simpler response than “How significant was the Treaty of Versailles in causing the Second World War?” Students who would give a brief yes/no response to the first question would have to justify and evaluate their reasoning in answer to the second question.
What difference does effective questioning make?
Effective questioning, if viewed as part of a feedback dialogue between the teacher and the students, adds as much as the equivalent of eight months worth of teaching to students receiving it. This is according to the Education Endowment Foundation’s Toolkit and you can read more on it here. In my own experience as a classroom teacher, effective questioning makes a huge difference. Not only to the quality of teaching and learning, but it also cuts out activities that don’t contribute to the true purpose of the lesson or topic being learnt. Consequently, effective questioning reduces unnecessary workload – the Holy Grail in teaching today!
How should the questions be asked?
When asking questions, it’s important that you give your students time to think before answering. One way to do this is to give them some key questions in advance, either on the board or on a worksheet. Whether you do this or not, you should always wait for an answer, even if it means creating an uncomfortable silence for a few extra seconds. We can often be guilty of jumping in too soon if a student doesn’t answer. But this can be detrimental as it allows students to effectively opt-out of answering if they know you’ll do it for them. Instead, if you really have to, try rephrasing the question and ask something specific about part of the answer you want them to give. By narrowing your question in this way, a confused student might be able to give a more confident answer. From there, you can then ask a follow-up question which builds on what they have already said.
The follow-up question could also be asked to a different student, to keep the rest of the class on their toes. The popular strategy of “pose, pause, pounce, bounce” is a really simple and powerful questioning tool, which you and your students will find increasingly effective the more often you use it. First, pose the question to the class, then pause, allowing the class to think of their response. After this you “pounce” and ask a specific student for their answer. You can then “bounce” to another student to answer a follow-up question.
What about those students who still don’t answer?
Some students just don’t want to answer questions in front of their peers. More often than not it’s a confidence issue. It’s easy to just let these students live an easy life. However, for these students to thrive over the long-term, it’s vital that you keep asking them questions, rather than leaving them out. Ask them simple questions to get them used to speaking in front of others. The lower the stakes, the more they will feel they can answer without the crippling fear of getting it wrong in front of others. Over time (this could be weeks or even months), gradually ask them more challenging questions as their confidence grows.
How much time should you spend on questioning in your lessons?
As much time as possible!
I’ve found over the years, that students perform much better when they’ve spent a significant amount of time answering and debating the answers to questions during the lesson. Having a range of different answers helps them to develop their own understanding, particularly of complex topics and gives them models to base their own answers on. It’s also an incredible way to build engagement in the lesson, as students feel as though they have some ownership over the direction of the lesson and are able to “try out” their answers before committing them to paper in high-stakes assessments, where it really counts.
Effective classroom questioning strategies are the lifeblood of many of the most engaging and thought-provoking lessons I’ve taught and observed. If I focus on nothing else but this, my students will receive an enriching curriculum that stimulates and challenges them. Oh, and they’ll also be well-prepared for the rigour of their exams (after all, that’s quite important too).
Starting a class blog is one of the most effective ways to engage students in and beyond your lessons. I’ve been using them for years and my students absolutely love them. Recently, my Year 10 class asked me to create one just for them. They’d heard from some older students how much they enjoyed learning in this way and why blogging beats using “traditional” methods hands down. I would agree for the most part with their assessment. However, when blogs are used effectively, they do not replace “traditional” methods. They simply present traditional methods in a modern way.
For example, in my both my Law and Religious Studies lessons, at all Key Stages, the most important part of my planning is “Questioning“. My students love to go deep into a topic during debates, looking at concepts from a broad range of perspectives. They love it even more when I drill down into what they mean by the words they’ve used, or what assumptions are built into their reasoning and beliefs. This is as traditional as teaching gets, just take a look at the dialogues in Plato’s works.
Blogging simply allows that dialogue to take place in an environment more familiar to today’s students, the digital natives. And we all know that when students are in comfortable surroundings, their fight or flight system switches off and they become more naturally inclined to engage with the lesson. The depth I’ve seen in some of the comments sections of my class blogs has been phenomenal.
When blogging is done well, it takes the topic away from the teacher and gives ownership and independence of learning over to the students. The teacher can still moderate the debate, but they become a moderator rather than the centre of the discussion. Not only that, but your entire debate is recorded. This means that your students can revisit it when planning an essay or revising for a test. How many of your verbal debates in class were recorded accurately and in detail in the past year?
Why aren’t more teachers starting a class blog?
Trying something new is always a challenge. Below I’ve listed some of my colleagues’ responses when I’ve asked them about blogging. Some of these may sound familiar…
The teacher is not familiar with blogging, so they worry about doing a bad job, or that it will take up a disproportionate amount of time for very little gain. (Below I’ll show you my foolproof 5-minute process to set up your blog. It takes me longer to create a decent worksheet!)
The teacher feels they are “not good with computers”. (Sorry you aren’t allowed to use this one, it’s not 1998 anymore.)
The teacher feels that their methods are perfectly fine, so they don’t need to change anything.
The teacher sees blogging as a fad, that will soon go the way of Brain Gym and Learning Styles.
The teacher is worried about how students may abuse the blog, bully other students on there, or somehow get the teacher into trouble.
Whilst all of these problems are valid to some degree, they all boil down to one thing. Fear. Fear that we as teachers aren’t good enough, or that we will try something that doesn’t pay off. Personally, I don’t think that as teachers we can afford to think in these terms, even if we try to rebrand the Fear as “just being practical” or muttering to like-minded colleagues “I’ve seen this before”. Apart from anything, we are supposed to inspire our students and give them the sense that it doesn’t matter if you fail. You just learn from it and do things differently next time, without judging yourself or worrying about being judged.
Not only that but as I mentioned in a previous post on Flipped Learning, students should be encouraged to engage with materials before the lesson in which they are studied. This allows the teacher to focus more on higher-order tasks regarding analysis, evaluation and problem-solving, rather than basic content delivery and comprehension. Blogging allows this to happen but also introduces the depth of analysis via peer-led discussions of the content.
Top tips for creating your ‘beginner blogger’s mindset’
Don’t judge yourself before starting a class blog.
If it ‘fails’ first time around, don’t judge yourself then either.
Stop thinking that others are judging you. They aren’t. In fact, they’re probably jealous of your guts to try it in the first place.
Now try it again, but tweak it a little.
Repeat until you succeed. (It really won’t take you long – you’re probably overestimating how hard it really is!!)
Tell others what made it work and what the benefits of blogging vs other methods are.
How do I set up my first class blog?
Firstly, you will need to decide on a blogging platform. There are many out there and for the most part, there is little between them in terms of how you would use them in the classroom. However, I’m going to show you step-by-step how to use WordPress.com to set up your blog. I use WordPress for all of my classroom blogs and even this blog you’re reading right now! It’s very easy to set up and to customise as you see fit.
All you need to do now is to follow each step and you will have your very own blog to use within five minutes!
Go to www.wordpress.com and click on “Get Started” in the top-right corner of the screen.
Select an initial layout for your blog from the basic templates. (You can change this later.) For ease of use, I would pick the “A list of my latest posts” option as it offers the simplest layouts.
Choose a theme. A theme is a detailed template which you can customise or leave as it is. Any theme will do for now, as again, you can change this later if you like.
Choose your domain (the web address of your blog). Type into the box a word or phrase you would like to appear in your blog’s web address and a list of FREE and PAID options will appear. Choose the FREE option. WARNING: You cannot change your domain once you have registered, so try out a few names to see which ones work for you.
Pick a Plan. Again just select the FREE option, unless you are familiar with blogging and web design and want more features. Personally, I think this is completely unnecessary for classroom blogging, but once you catch the blogging bug you might consider this in the future. With the exception of this website, I’ve always used the FREE options and been completely satisfied with what they have to offer for my students.
Create your account. Type in your email address and select a username and password in order to log in to your blog in future.
You will be sent a confirmation email to the email address you registered with in the previous step. Go into your email and click “Confirm”. You will be redirected to a login page where you need to enter your username and password that you picked in the previous step.
You will now be directed to your “Dashboard” where you can create your own content or link to content that exists elsewhere on the web.
Publishing your first post
Now that you’ve set up your blog, play around with the different features in the dashboard to familiarise yourself with them. Don’t worry about clicking on the wrong thing, you can’t break your blog! As with any new technology, the more you play around with it, the quicker you will learn about it. The Dashboard is designed to be as user-friendly as possible. However, if you are having any issues understanding how things work then there are a tonne of tutorials on WordPress, aimed at beginners. I’ve found that YouTube is also a brilliant resource for blogging tutorials too, with the added benefit of you being able to see what you are supposed to type or click on.
Keep your first post simple.
I tend to make my first post about “House Rules” for students using the blog. It really helps if from the outset students know exactly what they are and aren’t allowed to do on the blog. Set out your high expectations and (hopefully) the students will meet them.
To create a new blog post, go to the Dashboard and click the “Add” button next to where is says “Blog Posts” (I told you it was user-friendly!). Type in your title, then add your text beneath. You can add images if you like, or you could even add a link to another website. Once you are finished, it’s time to “Publish” by clicking on the “Publish button on the left-hand side.
Congratulations, you are now a blogger!
I would love to hear about your classroom blogging experiences and would be happy to answer any questions you have about starting a class blog. Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.
Asking the right questions, in the right way, at the right time, is the single most important thing you can do in a lesson.
The right questions engage your students, identify their reasoning and challenge their viewpoints. Great questions enable students to analyse and evaluate their own and other students’ positions. Perceptive questions drive self-improvement and improvement in others.
High-quality questioning significantly improves student progress over time. This week I explore how we can all use high-quality questioning to drive student progress to raise achievement and to promote a love of learning.
What questions should we ask?
There are two types of questions that we ask: closed questions and open questions. Closed questions are ones where there is a predefined response. For example, if I asked “Is London the capital city of England?” your answer would be either “yes” or “no”. My question doesn’t require you to go beyond that short response, so the information I can gather from closed questions is very limited.
Open questions allow for more extended answers. For example, if I asked, “What do you think of London?” the person answering could go in an infinite number of directions, explaining their answer at great length and in whatever way they wanted. Open questioning is very useful for finding out great breadth and depth of information, that you may not even have known to look for.
What does “open questioning” look like?
In lessons, I always begin with an open question. I teach Religious Studies and Law. Open questions are plentiful when it comes to morality, justice, and belief! Last week I asked this question to a group of 16 to17-year-old Law students: “How fair is the law on murder?” I expected some fairly short responses, as we’d only been studying the topic for a few lessons and so hadn’t delved very deeply into an evaluation of the topic. How wrong I was.
Their responses were fantastic! Students took the basic legal rules that I had taught them and began to create thought-experiments where the current laws would lead to absurd court decisions. They egged each other on, over and over, asking each other “What if…?”, “Yeah, but what if…?”, “No, but what if…?” It was magical. Once I took the students over to the Law Blog I had set up for their homework, they took the debate even further once they had left the classroom! You can read more on how to use WordPress blogs to teach in this post.
One simple question about fairness had led to twenty minutes of sophisticated thought, critical analysis, argument, counter-argument and eventually to the beginnings of an evaluative conclusion. They had explored, by questioning each other, every nook and cranny. They began with a naive and basic response to the question and by the end had arrived at complex and thought-provoking conclusions. I had given no direction and I introduced no further content to stimulate the discussion. Everything they came up with had originated in their own minds. Powerful stuff!
Here are some question styles to encourage depth in debates
Use them in starter activities, or during feedback sessions, to keep students thinking and to encourage them to go into greater depth. Design your questions so that they can’t give a superficial response!
What do you think of…?
How far would you agree that…?
To what extent is…?
How similar is…?
What do you think caused…?
Why do you think [name] is correct/incorrect?
Why are you persuaded by…?
Why are they wrong to say…?
Enhanced questioning techniques…
Don’t worry, this isn’t a CIA interrogation manual! However, the word ‘interrogation’ does make me reflect on some students who see questioning, especially in whole-class feedback sessions, as intimidating. Questioning doesn’t have to intimidate. Many students fear questions because they don’t want to give the wrong answer. You can address this in a number of ways.
Ask students who are particularly quiet open-ended questions that don’t require a ‘right’ answer. By getting them to engage just once or twice, even with a basic response, they will begin to lose the anxiety which many of our students face.
Ask a variety of questions and then allow the students to choose the one they would prefer to answer. By allowing them to take ownership over their learning, their engagement (see the common theme here?) will increase over time. They won’t be able to hide behind the myth that they are ‘forced’ to learn in a particular way. They are choosing the way themselves!
Try questions like “Why might some people agree with…?”. That way, the student doesn’t have to give their personal view, which they may be terrified to reveal! There are likely to be several different ways they can give a good answer, thus reducing their fear of failure.
Over time, keep going back to the “quiet” students, asking progressively more challenging questions. Once they begin to realise that they have nothing to fear, they will open up more and give deeper and more sophisticated responses, which is more likely to lead to a rise in attainment when it comes to exam time.
Tips on getting students to ask high-quality questions
There are a number of resources that you can use with your students to create high-quality questions. I know a lot of people use question-dice, where each side contains a question or even just the starter to a question, much like the list above. There is also the question matrix, which is excellent for demonstrating the different levels of questions that students can ask. They range from “What is..”, to “Who would…”, to “How might…?”. Students can choose a level of questioning they are comfortable with and gradually move from one side of the grid to the other as they challenge themselves over time.
In order for students to begin to create more sophisticated questions, they must have a good level of subject knowledge. A simple way to add depth to students’ knowledge of a topic, even early on in the topic, is to encourage independent learning beyond the classroom. Independent learning, as I’ve written about a number of times, is absolutely crucial for deepening the understanding of all students. Not only that, but it stretches the ‘most able’ (I have mixed feelings about this label) students to ‘go beyond the exam’ and to see the importance of the topics they study. When this becomes a regular feature of the students’ experience of a subject, they will naturally begin to ask a wider variety of questions. In turn, the whole class will be exposed to a much broader and deeper curriculum than if they had relied simply on teacher-directed learning.
From my own experience, students who ask sophisticated questions are more likely to give sophisticated answers. If you want more sophisticated answers, then you should model more sophisticated questions in your teaching. The students learn from us first!
I’d love to hear about how you use questioning techniques in your class. Please leave a reply below.