Before Christmas I wrote about teacher responsiveness and differentiation – here. Since then I have been considering the importance of responsive questioning, of how we respond to the unpredictable – and sometimes downright bizarre! – verbal feedback we receive from our students. Once again, this is about our on-the-spot agility, our knowledge of our students and our subject expertise. We are actors in a forever unscripted play; planning can only get us so far.
It is helpful to consider the purpose of questioning in the classroom before we begin. It often seems a vague area. Is it to check learning or is it to springboard further learning? Even though both are relevant, I am more interested in the latter than the former. For me, it is about helping students to formulate new perceptions, about challenging lazy preconceptions and, in English at least, about encouraging nuanced interpretations. When successful, questioning will lead to discussion, and it is in these episodes that we build our relationships with our classes and cement the ethos of our classroom. Perhaps the crucial point is that questioning, I think, is about initiating and sustaining a high level of academic rigour; the more we probe, the more we push the discussion forward, the less we leave unchallenged, the better our students learn. For me, this is just about the toughest skill to master. I struggle along, if I am honest, failing at it every day.
When it comes to this kind of questioning, I am wary of ‘silver bullets’. The current thinking tends to advise the following:
• Questions should be thoroughly planned before the lesson.
• We should avoid hands up.
• We should avoid too much praise.
• We should avoid repeating what our students have said.
• We should use random-selecting strategies – such as the lolly stick – to avoid allowing some to dominate and others to remain passive.
• We should use PPPB. Pose a question, Pause, Pounce on a student and then immediately Bounce it to another student without interfering.
• The teacher should keep quiet and let the students do the talking.
All of this advice is useful, but only partially so. Our complex classroom environments are far more fluid than some would have us think; more than anything else, we should listen to our students.
I remember hearing the ex-England goalkeeper, David James (he of the ‘Calamity James’ sobriquet), describing how he would spend hours in the shower visualising penalty saves over and over again. He found that this helped to hone his reactions on the pitch. In this manner, I have attempted a ‘visualisation’ of a short questioning sequence to demonstrate the kind of sharp thinking required. I am asking the class about Curley’s Wife from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
ME: So, what do you think Curley’s Wife’s role in the novel is? You have twenty seconds to think about it…
ME: Josh, what do you think?
(My question was deliberately vague; I am after divergent thinking here. I pick Josh for a reason – like some others in the class, he jumps to conclusions too quickly. This is my chance to challenge these pre-conceptions from the off.)
JOSH: I think she is meant to be the evil character because she destroys the dream.
ME: When do we see her behave like this?
JOSH: Well, when we first see her she cuts off the light in the doorway.
ME: Is that enough to call her ‘evil’?
JOSH: No, not really. She also treats Crooks badly and flirts with Lennie which leads to him killing her.
ME: Interesting. Matt do you agree with Josh?
(I have probed Josh to give evidence, yet remained non-committal about his response. Matt’s thinking is more refined and I know he will challenge Josh. If I had used a random selector at this point, there may have been the potential of the discussion finding itself in a repetitive cycle without the degree of insight I am searching for. The PPPB system is working well, but I do feel you have to pick your second student wisely. Most likely, students will all be rehearsing their answers to the initial question in their minds, so to ask for feedback on Josh’s opinion too takes a degree of multi-tasking; this may have an impact on the working memory of some leading to a muddled point.)
MATT: To an extent, but the way Steinbeck describes her death makes her seem weak and defenceless.
ME: Do you remember how Steinbeck described her?
MATT: No, not quite.
(Emily’s hand goes up. I nod to her. If I did not allow ‘hands-up’ at times this useful addition would not have occurred.)
EMILY: She was “very sweet and young.” (I look back at Matt. He is used to my body language. He knows I expect him to say more.)
MATT: So ‘young’ shows… (I shake my head; ‘shows’ is a banned word) illustrates that she is just an innocent child.
ME: Right everyone. Josh suggests that Curley’s Wife is evil, yet Matt feels she is innocent. Have a think about it. Where do you stand?
Pause. Choose Sian.
SIAN: Well, I think she has some of the characteristics of a villain but she’s also a victim. Steinbeck was making a comment about women in those times: Curley’s Wife is a victim of a masculine society who has no choice but to be the villain.
ME: A* answer, Sian. Wow. That’s the kind of balanced interpretation we’re looking for everyone.
(Because, for me, class discussion is about searching together for the best ideas, I think it is important to stop and draw attention to quality answers. If praise is over-used, I find it can put a stopper on the discussion; you can inadvertently send out the message that that was good enough, no more need be said. )
ME: So, Sian, are you sure there were no other choices available to her?
(All assumptions, even the best, can be challenged.)
The sequence above certainly represents a good day at the office (and, yes, my students rarely speak as incisively as Sian). Responsive questioning requires knowledge of the student, knowledge of the subject and lots and lots of listening. When students are less forthcoming, I often try the following:
• Give the student the answer you are looking for and ask them to explain how you got there.
• Give them two options, and get them to explain which they agree with most.
• Scaffold the sentence for them. ‘On the one hand, Curley’s Wife is the villain of the story, yet on the other…’
• Revert to hands-up mid-discussion. I tend to bounce a question round and when it begins to dry-out, I will listen to some hands-up. Is it right to leave great thinking unshared?
• Turn the tables. This is one of my personal favourites. The teacher takes on a role and the students question you in this role. On many an occasion I have found my meagre dramatic skills pushed to the limit in the role of a character or an author.
• Embark on a round of quick-fire closed-questions to cue memory and then go back to the original question.
• Stop the discussion and teach. I often find myself frustrated when the discussion has not elicited the level of perception I am after. I probably should not feel this way; it is entirely normal. As the expert in the classroom it must be the right thing to stop wherever we are to explain the learning they have not yet grasped.
I am dubious about hard-and-fast rules for classroom discussion and questioning. Listening sharply lesson after lesson is a tough ask, yet it is in the glow of these moments that I enjoy being a teacher the most.
Tom Sherrington on probing questioning – here. Lots of great probing questions in this post.
Old Andrew on alternative ways to use hands-up – here.
My post on using a stimulus – here.
11/01/14 – Alex Quigley has written a great practical blog on conducting class discussion – here. Make sure you read the comments too.