This week I would like to focus on questioning. I don’t intend to go over what you have already had offered to you about questioning on the course (Bloom’s taxonomy, higher order questions, how to get different pupils answering, …) though I would encourage you to revisit these ideas if they don’t leap straight into your head. Instead, I would like you to think about what your current practice is in relation to creating sequences of questions and what you might add to this.
Whilst not a great fan of Wikipedia, this quote jumps out if you google ‘questioning’:
‘Questioning is a major form of human thought and interpersonal communication. The thinker employs a series of questions to explore an issue, an idea or something intriguing. Questioning is the process of forming and wielding that series to develop answers and insight.’
Whilst this refers to an individual thinker posing their own questions, doesn’t the ‘forming and wielding’ make you think about what your role could be as a teacher?
Many times student teachers have said to me they think of questions on the spot enabling them to react to a situation, and that is why the questions aren’t written into their plans in detail. Whilst a laudable rationale, I would like to challenge this – I would suggest that it is only with a lot of experience of teaching any given topic or concept that this might really be possible!
To be able to ask sequences of high quality questions, that drill down into conceptual understanding, I need an in-depth teacher knowledge in relation to the topic I am teaching. However strong my personal subject knowledge is, I don’t think this teacher knowledge can just appear at exactly the right moment for me to form a good sequence of questions without a great deal of experience in teaching that given topic.
With your tutors you will have had many discussions by now of what a teacher’s knowledge might be and how this is different to purely knowing your subject well. Remember Shulman’s idea of a teacher’s knowledge base:
- content knowledge
- general pedagogical knowledge
- curriculum knowledge
- pedagogical content knowledge
- knowledge about the learners
- knowledge of educational contexts
- knowledge of educational ends, purposes, values
(Shulman, 1987, p1-22)
I would suggest that, without this knowledge firmly in place, I am going to struggle to ask good questions, and in particular a series of good questions, without planning them first.
So, where do you go from here?
At the planning stage, you really need to think about the purpose of a sequence of questions and then decide what you need to plan to enable you to ‘form and wield’.
What do you want the end point to be? Try working backwards from there – instead of asking one ‘end point’ question that lots of pupils, incorrectly, try and answer (and it turns into ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’), try and create a series of questions that build up to the end point. At each stage think about what answers/partial answer/words you are looking out for that will enable you to move on to the next question.
For example, if I was planning a question and answer session with a group of trainee teachers where I wanted to develop their understanding of scaffolding and contingency (if this rings no bells, look at David Wood’s work which we introduced you to last term!) then my opening question might be:
Can anyone explain to me what they understand by the term ‘scaffolding’?
The sorts of answers I might get could be:
‘the teacher provides successive levels of support’
‘it’s what teachers do when a pupil is in the zone of proximal development’
‘the teacher simplifies something then gradually builds up the difficulty’
The words in bold highlight the things I might be hoping to hear and then build upon.
Having decided what I want to hear, I can now plan more than one route through my series of questions that enable me to reach my planned end point.
For example, I can have a plan for what to ask next if someone mentions the ‘zone of proximal development’ and this route take a slightly different direction to if I used the response ‘successive levels of support’.
What might those routes look like? Can you think of what my next question might be? What words would I then be looking out for?
The key point I am making is the teacher needs to decide how they want to structure the knowledge they are hoping pupils will engage with in a lesson and thinking about questioning is a key way in which you can do this. Knowing my purpose (and end point) of a sequence of questions and planning a route, or routes to it, will enable me to make decisions within my lesson based on pupils’ responses and ensure my questions are of a high quality.
Still not sure about how you might go about planning a good sequence of questioning?
Observe an experienced teacher and focus purely on sequences of questions:
- What question does the teacher ask?
- What responses do they take?
- Which responses do they use?
- How do they use the response?
- What do they do next?
Record the sequences (perhaps create a form to do this on?) then take some time to look at what you have observed and try and work out how the teacher has structured the knowledge and what decisions they have made along the way.
How have they formed and wielded the series of questions to ‘develop answers and insight’?