Back in the misty past of teacher training I was introduced to two golden nuggets of wisdom:
1. Closed questions are the devil.
2. Open questions are the apotheosis of virtue.
We green-behind-the-ears newbies were encouraged to observe the lessons of experienced teachers with a clipboard so that we could tally up the ratio of closed questions to open questions. I left many a classroom shaking my head in disbelief! Why were teachers still wallowing in the ignominious shame of when, what, who and where?
In my quest to become the all-conquering teaching equivalent of Genghis Khan, I vowed to build my empire on the solid ground of why and how, and in doing so consign their backward cousins to the windswept steppe of deepest, darkest teaching Mongolia…
Recently, however, I have come to think of the closed question as a really quite wonderful thing. I would now go as far to say that lists of closed-questions, especially in the form of quizzing, are amongst the most dependable and useful of everyday resources. Not only do they have multiple functions in the English lesson and beyond, but they pave the way for analytical thought rather than stand in its way.
Quizzes are like raincoats – unfashionable and effective in equal measure. (Apologies in advance if this post points out the bleedin’ obvious!)
The evidence collated by Dunlosky et al (2013) – nicely summarised here – asserts that retrieval practice is one of the most effective learning strategies there is. If students are encouraged to actively recall information from memory they are more likely to remember it in the long-term than if they are encouraged to re-read their notes or other material. Re-reading creates ‘illusions of fluency’ – it feels secure as we read the material, yet it quickly decays from memory. I use short, low-stakes quizzes at the starts of lessons to encourage students to recall information from the last lesson and further back. If I have not got time to write out a quiz before a lesson, I will write a list of answers on a piece of paper and make up the quiz verbally as I go. Read this post for more.
A quick assessment tool
A quick closed-question quiz at the start of a lesson, or indeed at any point during the lesson, can double up as an assessment tool. The great advantage of quizzes held during lessons (rather than at the end) is that we receive student feedback there and then. We can quickly ascertain misconceptions and knowledge gaps and act fast. I find it best to create a dialogue as answers are fed back so that I can re-explain material when necessary or encourage students to elaborate.
A five-minute quiz is a great way of testing the temperature and retrieving in-the-moment data. I cannot hear every students’ answer during feedback (and hands-up are not always trustworthy) so I simply circulate the classroom and peer over a few shoulders as they are writing.
Any densely-packed piece of writing – or indeed verbal or media presentation – presents a problem. Many children will scan the words but fail to digest the finer nuances of meaning. Closed questions encourage close reading and also allow us to guide students towards the key information. Questions can be provided before reading – to prime students for what to look for – or later if you would prefer them to establish the gist first. Whenever I teach a poem now, students complete a closed-question short answer quiz. I used this one only on Monday with Ted Hughes’ ‘Bayonet Charge’:
1. What was the soldier doing just before the poem started?
2. Which ‘r’ is repeated in the 1st and 2nd lines?
3. What is coming from ‘a green hedge’?
4. What simile is used to describe the rifle he is lugging?
5. Which ‘p’ is used to describe the tear that he once had?
6. What does he ‘almost’ do?
7. What is he said to be running like?
8. What simile is used to describe his foot?
9. What creature brings him back to reality?
10. What are this animal’s mouth and eyes doing?
11. Which four items drop from his mind?
12. What does he want to escape from?
These questions help students to target key evidence and break down complex and dense meaning into manageable chunks. As they feed back the answers, we elaborate together on the greater significance of this information.
Closed questions encourage comprehension and more acute understanding. Students will almost always perform better in later open-ended tasks when they have time to build their knowledge of basic meaning first. Some would argue that this kind of simple quzziing is not challenging; I would argue that on the contrary it makes challenge all the more possible later down the line.
Most students struggle with research. When we say “Go and look it up” rather than tell a child a piece of information we are relying on their existing world knowledge to pull them through. Let’s say I asked a child to look up ‘volcanoes’ for homework. Here’s Wikipedia on the topic:
“Earth’s volcanoes occur because the planet’s crust is broken into 17 major, rigid tectonic plates that float on a hotter, softer layer in the Earth’s mantle. Therefore, on Earth, volcanoes are generally found where tectonic plates are diverging or converging. For example, a mid-oceanic ridge, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, has volcanoes caused by divergent tectonic plates pulling apart; the Pacific Ring of Fire has volcanoes caused by convergent tectonic plates coming together….”
The vocabulary here – converging and diverging for instance – is very tough for novice learners, as is discriminating between the important and less important information. Such tasks are simply inaccessible to most but the very able. However, a series of very simple questions to research before the lesson can help to manage focus so that they arrive with something useful and concrete. The question “How many major tectonic plates are there on our planet?” means that all can find the answer (17) and will come to the lesson primed and ready for an explanation of just exactly what a tectonic plate is.
Last of all quizzes are highly efficient. Children know how to complete them and no time is wasted explaining unnecessarily complex tasks. They allow for total focus on subject content and so fit comfortably with Daniel Willingham’s now-famous maxim, “Memory is the residue of thought.” Questions cut away the unnecessary.
I would argue, too, that children genuinely like doing them. Even the most restless of classes can be pacified with a list of twenty-five juicy questions – and, yes, on those Thursday afternoons in November too! If, like me, you are sometimes sceptical of collaborative tasks, students are usually well-focused when answering quiz questions in pairs.
Children answer questions at different rates, so it is always worth your while to have an extension question planned too. I tend to choose an open one that hinges on developing the closed question answers – e.g. Now that you have answered these questions, which of the three pigs has the qualities to become the leader of Animal Farm?
They are great, too, if you use exemplars as a modelling tool. How many quotations does the exemplar use? Which word is used instead of ‘walk’? Does the writer use a topic sentence? Once again, you are ensuring a close reading that will ensure that students identify the writing techniques you would like them to emulate themselves.
I am not in the least suggesting that we dispose of open questions, just that they are often best answered when a child has mastered the basic knowledge beforehand. Quizzes provide a simple, effective and powerful tool to bring this about and ensure that every student is compelled to take part.
Come into my lessons with a clipboard and I will happily disappoint you.