Great questions are the answer!

question

“Judge a person by their questions, rather than their answers.”

Voltaire

“Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.”

Tony Robbins

Substitute ‘person’ and ‘people’ for teacher and you come to the crux of my post – the crucial importance of questioning for outstanding teaching and learning. Right, that is pretty much a given I hear you say – nothing new here, move along…and you would be absolutely correct. Questioning is the oldest teaching strategy known to humankind – Plato and Socrates could have told us that a long, long time ago. Core pedagogy doesn’t come more core than asking questions of students. Agreed – it is the age old principle of logic, thought and good teaching. All that being said, questioning does often go unmentioned; lazy assumptions are made and new, glossier teaching strategies with fancy acronyms become the vogue. Questioning doesn’t get the time and care devoted to it that it deserves. The one thing I have learned above all about teaching in my role as a subject leader this school year is the paramount importance of good questioning. In every lesson observation, or ‘drop ins’, I have undertaken it has crept up on the rails as a central factor in my judgement of the teaching and learning (I am not here looking to obsess about OFSTED or value judgements, but simply to recognise good teaching and help teachers I lead do their job even better!)

So many things shift in teaching that we are often dazzled by the pace of change. New labels for teaching and learning are created from the powers that be (most often for the purpose of simply changing the label of the previous government and little more!), or the dizzying myriad of training providers, booksellers and educationalists. External judgements upon said teaching changes too – ‘satisfactory’ defies it’s dictionary definition and becomes ‘requires improvement’ overnight. I like to stay on the ball, and with the likes of Twitter and through blogs you can share a wealth of great ideas, both new and old. Something about questioning being so, well, obvious, makes it a bit unexciting and underwhelming. However, when I hone in on focusing on the core principals of what I humbly think is outstanding teaching and learning, questioning would be at the very heart of the matter.

In my last school year (which seems like an age ago!) our school embarked upon OLCs – Outstanding Learning Communities. These were undertaken every month. Underpinning all the training was the work of Dylan William (http://www.dylanwiliam.net/ ). He was undergoing a moment of wider fame on a television show at the time, ‘The Classroom Experiment’, where he was busy exposing some of the core habits of teaching, such as ‘hands up’ for answering questions etc.

Initially I was surprised by the actual simplicity of the OLC training. I felt like I had done it when I trained to be a teacher – things like questioning, or setting effective learning objectives, appeared too simplistic – I wanted more challenging strategies to develop. I wanted newness, to learn that magic panacea that actually inspires interest in teenage boys; the golden strategy which has every student standing on their desks shouting ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ because of the sheer joy of learning! What I didn’t realise immediately that it was the grooving of the most basic habits of my teaching that would make me become a significantly better teacher and enable me to pursue outstanding status and help coach others to attain that hallowed gold standard.

As a school we too adopted the ‘no hands up approach’ propounded by Dylan William well over a year ago. Initially there was the expected scepticism and determined obstinacy. I do believe that teachers, including myself, are easily hardened into habits, sometimes habits we learned from our own teachers. What I grew to recognise was how it made a significant difference to my teaching and the learning with my classes. I became more conscious of whom I was going to ask a question, and therefore exactly how I would word that question. My questions became better – the answers became better too. I am sure I differentiated in this manner regularly (at least I hope I did) before, but this systematic approach had me shift entire habits for the better more consistently. It seems very small a change, but it made the biggest difference to my teaching since I trained to teach a hazy eight years ago!

This year I have also been crystallising the quality of my questioning, making myself more systematic and habitual about the strategies I employ to harness questioning to promote and enhance learning. Many of these strategies were actually not new for me at all, but were central to my new focus on good questioning. Firstly, I wanted to reinvigorate my own approach to ‘key questions’ (a departmental policy). We use ‘key questions’ instead of learning objectives, as we feel it promotes an atmosphere of enquiry and gets students engaging in where the learning is going, rather than a fixed objective. I therefore aimed to target rich, open questions related to the ‘key question’. My lesson planning focused not just on the resources or the ‘task’, but on the types of question and who they would be targeted at with greater rigour. I revisited another staple of educational theory – Bloom’s taxonomy – to frame my questions with real precision.

The following website is really useful on that topic: http://www.teachers.ash.org.au/researchskills/dalton.htm )

I then wanted to ensure that my questioning was well distributed amongst the class and, crucially, had the students respond critically and independently amongst one another – not simply relying on my questions and answers. I used the TSSSTSSS model of questioning (teacher, student, student…). Again, nothing new, but strategic and targeted. Dylan William again came up trumps with his example of what one teacher calls “Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce”: The teacher poses a question, pauses to allow pupils time to think, pounces on any pupil (keeps them on their toes) and then bounces the pupil’s response onto another pupil.

The ‘bounce’ was the crucial bit. I have been doing this for a few years now, but it became a more consistent habit. Students became better trained and better focused because they expected to feedback and question one another. Students were able to constructively critique one another, feedback became consistently stronger, and students therefore became progressively more independent with their learning. Only a week or so ago, on Twitter, I was introduced to a brilliantly simple acronym (sorry, had to use at least a couple of these – I am a teacher!): A, B and C feedback. Offer the students the chance to ‘Agree’, ‘Build upon’ or ‘challenge’. Thank you to @davidfawcett27 for this little gem. By using this approach students are soon asking questions of one another that would make Bloom proud! So simple, but so effective.

I have learnt lots of new things about teaching and learning this year, but definitely one of the most important things I have learnt is that great questioning is always at the heart of outstanding teaching and learning. I admit, nothing much new there…it always has been and most likely always will be.

Can I make an honourable mention for the fantastic blog post on questioning:

http://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/2012/05/ofsted-2012-questioning-to-promote-learning

Alex Quigley

I am an Assistant Headteacher and English Subject Leader at Huntington Secondary School, York. I like to read, write and talk about teaching and learning. I blog regularly about my main interests: successful teaching strategies, coaching, teacher improvement, with some political arguments and miscellany along the way. I am currently writing a book for new English teachers, to be published next year.

1 Comment

  • […] 5) Great teachers ask great questions: These principals of great teaching are deceptively simple. Socrates could have told you great questions were essential to great teaching and it will remain an eternal verity. How great practitioners go about it varies, but there are common principals. Great questioning knows the students in front of you: their skills, levels of understanding etc. Questions are targeted with precision. They are not bounced back with tennis balls, but passed around the classroom like basketballs; students build on the answers of others, challenge them where appropriate (ABC questioning – Agree…; Build Upon…; Challenge…), creating learning that is richly shared and developed in nuanced ways. Students have time to digest those questions, but are not allowed to be excused of the responsibility to answer (however limited that answer may in fact be). Great teachers have useful frameworks for questioning, like Bloom’s Taxonomy, but they are not beholden to them. Finally, a great teacher creates an atmosphere that is ‘questioning’, sometimes even of the knowledge of the teacher, but within safe boundaries where debate flourishes but arguments are controlled. Note – my previous blog on questioning fleshes out these ideas: http://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/great-questions-are-the-answer/ […]

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