Is questioning the number one skill of a teacher?

For the past few years I have set a target to myself each academic session to improve my use of questioning. Realising that I have set this goal every year with little progress has made me dig a little deeper, into my own practice and into the research on questioning techniques in classrooms.

Research tells us that teachers can ask up to 400 questions in on particular day but it also tells us that a lot of these questions are factual and not necessarily promoting thinking in our pupils. In Tom Sherrington’s blog (www.teacherhead.com) he has spoke a lot about the power of questioning and has shared his views on questioning several times. He says that ‘in my experience questioning is the hallmark of a really effective teacher and sits right at the top of the things teachers can and should improve’.  I now completely agree with him with regard to questioning. Previously I placed too much emphasis in planning on the what and how of what we will DO in my lessons and not necessarily how I will elicit evidence of learning, the WHY of what we are doing in one particular lesson. Dylan Wiliam’ Embedded Formative Assessment (2018) dedicates a full chapter to eliciting evidence of learning and speaks of how teachers must know where children are with their learning before they move on. How often in the past have you asked ‘does everyone understand?’ and after a few nods and blinks you move on with the next task in your plan? I know if i reflect on some of my lessons this is very much the case for me. Perhaps why questioning sits firmly at the top of my to do list.

In Alex Quigley’s blog ‘The Confident Teacher’ he started a post in 2012 with this sentence ‘ Questioning is the very cornerstone of philosophy and education’ and he also says that asking questions is ‘central to our development of thinking and our capacity to learn’. With this in mind it is becoming clear that questioning is one of our most important assets. You could argue that a teacher who is excellent at questioning will be an excellent teacher as they cause thinking and therefore learning to occur. Knowing this has lead to me digging deeper as i mentioned into my own questioning. A key takeaway i took from Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam (2018) was that an effective teacher should never allow a pupil to respond with ‘i don’t know’ and then move on. I have been guilty of telling pupils that i was ok and simply moving on and not going back to them. This is poor teaching from me as I have not challenged that young person to think. Wiliam (2018) offers some suggestion to tackle a pupil who says that they don’t know. One technique could be asking them ‘ok, but if you did know what would you say’ by doing this you are not letting them off the hook. You could use other strategies like phone a friend or offer a 50/50. However the techniques i now use that has had some success for me is telling the pupil that I will come back to them, after taking a few other responses i will return to the pupil and because they have had time to listen to others they more often than not have a response for me.

Other techniques that i use quite a lot have came from Doug Lemov’s excellent book ‘Teach Like a Champion’. This book also has a video resource which shows practical examples of his technique sin action. I would highly recommend for new teacher, student teacher and even experienced teacher in need of a refresh. The key techniques i use from this are ‘Cold Calling’ and ‘No Opt Out’. It is important to note that as a teacher you should promote a safe and encouraging environment where it is ok to get answers wrong and where you always give pupils opportunities to gain confidence by consolidated correct or secure answer (I’ve already provided an example of this in the previous paragraph where i no longer accept ‘i dont’ know’ from pupils, i have to note that over time in some classes i have had my pupils have stopped offering it as a response as they know they don’t get away with it). Lemov encourages a ‘no hands up’ approach, this isn’t always easy to embed as there is always a few students who love to answer questions but over time they do resist and contribute to the no hands up culture. Dylan Wiliam (2018) did mention in his book that by using ‘Cold Calling’, where a teacher poses a question, offers think time and then asks a pupil at random for a response, it is not always possible to be truly random. To combat this many teachers around the world have embraced randomisers such as lollipop sticks and online randomisers. Personally i use a randomiser that is included in an app i use a lot, iDoceo4. I push the randomiser and the iPad tries its best to say the pupils name correctly, this often provided great amusement to the young people, but it also ensures i am without bias when asking for a response.

Another technique I rely on a lot is pose, pause, pounce, bounce. I first tried this after reading Ross Morrison McGills book (100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Lessons). In this approach the teacher will pose a question and then pause for a chosen amount of time (I often count to 7! as its my birth date!!) after which they pounce on a pupil for their response. After this response they bounce the ideas to another pupil often asking ‘what do you think of xyz’s answer?’. This technique is great as you can bounce the answers to as many pupils as you like creating a dialogue around your questions and engaging every learner in the process.

As mentioned in my previous blog post I am beginning to use mini whiteboards a lot in my lessons both in the classroom and in the gym hall. This helps me see quickly what every pupil is writing and allows a quick diagnostic assessment of who is required more support to help them get to where they need to be in their learning. I’d recommend using mini whiteboards ,or show me boards as they are often called, with your classes as it encourages a response from every learner without having to ask them all individually for a verbal response.

For a teacher to really understand where a pupil is with their learning they will have to ask questions, to generate a class discussion a teacher asks questions, to investigate a teacher will ask questions which makes questioning a key skill for teacher. I am by no means an excellent practitioner with regards to questioning but I am now finally getting to grips with good questioning that encourages thinking and generates evidence of learning in my pupils. There is, however, a long way to go and much more to learn.

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