The focus of this week’s Teaching Forum is questioning, an essential element of the craft of teaching. I sat down with Alex Mohammed, assistant leader in science, to learn a bit more about how to do it successfully.
For Alex, questioning is the most crucial part of being a science teacher. It enables him to understand where his pupils are so that he can extend them even further. Alex has spent the last four years honing and improving two types of question: those he asks while he is modelling and explaining a concept, and those he asks to check understanding.
Let’s start with the modelling. Unlike many teachers, Alex usually introduces new concepts from a blank screen – he rarely relies on pre-designed slide-shows. While he models and explains these concepts with simple drawings and diagrams, he repeatedly questions the class, helping them to link and extend their knowledge.
Alex gave me an example from a recent lesson on the structure of a leaf. He was teaching the class about the waxy cuticle, the protecting film that covers the epidermis of leaves. Alex wanted the class to understand the function of the waxy cuticle and the role it plays in the overall structure of the leaf. Alex’s question sequence went like this:
Alex: What might the waxy cuticle stop which the leaf might want to keep in?
Alex: How would the water be leaving the leaf?
Student: Through evaporation.
Alex: Why is water important to the leaf?
Student: Because plants need water for photosynthesis.
Alex: What is photosynthesis for?
Student: To make glucose.
Alex: What is glucose needed for?
Student: To make proteins and cellulose.
Alex: Why do plants need these?
Student: To ensure healthy growth and development.
The advantages of this approach are manifold. Firstly, it allows for useful retrieval practice – the regular linking-back gives students the chance to practise the knowledge and concepts they have studied before (in this case, photosynthesis and glucose). It also means that new learning is always connected to what is already known. This encourages the building of rich, interconnected schemas of knowledge, something that is very hard to do with isolated facts.
The overall goal of Alex’s questioning technique is to help the students to internalise the questioning process. Over time, he finds that many of his students become ‘self-prompting’. He sees this when a student extends an answer independently without needing a prompt. This dialogic approach also helps to prepare students for good scientific writing – in particular, exam questions that require greater elaboration. Alex suggests that it takes a few weeks, even a whole term, to create this culture, but once students start to see the benefits to their written work and their progress they tend to buy into it wholeheartedly.
Alex also uses hinge questions in almost every lesson. He uses these to identify when and why students are stuck. Sometimes these questions are designed to check understanding; at other times, they are about deepening understanding. Recently, Alex was teaching a group about decay. He asked:
What features are going to cause decay to be at its optimum? Think particularly about the enzymes that are being used.
This was a think-pair-share question. As the groups discussed, Alex nipped around and listened in. He was checking for the right answer – the higher the temperature, the better the enzymes work (until you get past 40 degrees when they start to denature). Alex then intervened with the individuals who were struggling or had developed misconceptions.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things to come out of our discussion was Alex’s description of how he had developed these questioning skills. In his first year of teaching, he had relied too much on PowerPoint slides. The lessons had felt inauthentic and there had been little interaction with the students. To combat this, his mentor told him to ‘just use a pen’ and insisted that he taught for a whole day without a PowerPoint. This was the making of Alex as a teacher – it changed the way he taught for good.
What struck me most about my discussion with was Alex was the careful and deliberate way that he helps his groups to build their subject knowledge and, in turn, their confidence. It seems to me that Alex’s two questioning techniques combine in helping his students to construct strong and interconnected mental models of the subject.
It is no wonder that so many develop such a love of science.