Research School Network: Getting to the heart of questioning What do we need to focus on if we are going to ask better questions in our classrooms?

Getting to the heart of questioning

What do we need to focus on if we are going to ask better questions in our classrooms?

by Durrington Research School
on the

Here at Durrington, we have six evidence informed pedagogical principles that drive our teaching:

– so that students have the highest expectations of what they can achieve.
– so that students acquire new knowledge.
– so that students know how to apply this new knowledge
– so that students get the opportunity to rehearse and refine this new knowledge.
– so that students are made to think hard with breadth, depth and accuracy
– so that students think about and further develop their knowledge.

There is of course considerable interplay between each of these principles and this is especially the case when it comes to questioning. When we are explaining new knowledge, we ask questions to elicit what students already know, so we can support them with grafting this new learning onto what they already know i.e. schema building. Then when we model, we might question students on the steps we are taking, so they completely understand why we are doing what we are doing. When students are participating in purposeful practice, we support their self-regulation by asking them how they will plan, monitor and evaluate their approach to the task. Finally, during feedback, we might question students on where they think they might have gone wrong and what they need to do to address it.

We know from the evidence that questioning works:

Less successful teachers ask fewer questions and almost no process questions”
Barak Rosenshine, Principles of Instruction

Instruction which includes posing questions during lessons is more effective in producing achievement gains than instruction carried out without questioning students”
Kathleen Cotton, Classroom Questioning

We are also increasingly familiar with some great approaches to questioning, such as cold calling’ (from Doug Lemov) or elaborative interrogation. However, in a review of research on questioning in education, Mikyeong Yang makes a very strong point:

There is no type of teacher question which can be performed mechanically. If the characteristics and stages of the learners are not considered appropriately, the impact of a teacher’s questioning will be meager or negative.

This has implications for leaders who are trying to improve the quality of questioning in their classrooms. Sharing questioning approaches and/​or even prompt questions is a starting point, but on its own is not enough. If teachers are really going to improve the quality of their questioning, as well as knowing the type of questions to ask and when to ask them, they also need to develop these two aspects of themselves:

1. Their own subject knowledge of the topic they are teaching.

2. Their understanding of the students they are teaching.

The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.”

What makes Great Teaching’ The Sutton Trust

If we don’t know our subject inside out, we can’t untangle student misconceptions through careful questions or challenge them by asking them questions that will link ideas together or think really deeply about what they are learning. We also won’t fully understand how the knowledge fits together and needs to be sequenced, so that we build a strong schema for that topic. As a result, our questioning won’t support the careful construction of this schema. Furthermore we won’t be able to respond to those brilliant left-field questions that students ask. It’s hard to be responsive and have a good flow to your questioning, if you are not confident with your own subject knowledge. When this is the case, the frequency of the questioning is too low and the focus of the questioning is constrained by the limited knowledge of the teacher. This is not conducive to learning.

Similarly, an understanding of the students we are teaching is key to successful questioning. For example, we’ll know the students who we can really push with probing, elaborative questions, who will positively thrive on this challenge, rather than feeling overwhelmed. On the other hand, we will also be aware of other students who will lack confidence. Our questioning of these students will need careful scaffolding, to build their confidence. We’ll also know of others, whose response will always be I don’t know’. Rather than letting them off the hook though, we’ll be prepared for this and adopt another approach. This might involve recapping the facts, and re-asking the question again or giving them two possible answers and asking them which one is right and why. Understanding our students in this way and using it to frame our questioning, not only ensures that students feel sufficiently challenged, but it will also help to build their sense of self-efficacy.

In summary, whilst it’s important to know what the research says about effective questioning and what this might look like, if our questioning is going to fly, we need to really know the subject we are teaching and really know the children who are in front of us.

Shaun Allison
Director of Durrington Research School

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