Setting up for successful questioning

This week’s Teaching Forum focuses on how PE teacher James Crane has worked to create a classroom climate conducive to successful questioning.  During our conversation he revealed how he identified and developed three key components that work together to provide an atmosphere in which questioning works.

He has defined the three elements as preparation, culture and knowledge of your students.  While these inter-dependent elements distil his personal thinking on questioning, they also tie-in with much of the research evidence in this area.

questions

Preparation:

In a relatively unusual step James limits his questioning during the teaching of new material.  His uses strategies based more in direct instruction as he develops students’ surface understanding of knowledge being studied for the first time.  This could take him up to three lessons depending on the topic and its complexity.  Then, he will spend almost an entire lesson interrogating and deepening this newly acquired knowledge largely through questioning and discussion.  James recently read the Rosenshine paper,  Principles of Instruction, and, without wishing to make an assumption, Rosenshine may advise a similar structure to this but with more regular interruptions for bouts of questioning as new knowledge is acquired.  However, this system has worked for James, in his subject, in this context.  He plans carefully for the lessons that will involve the discussion and questioning.  He priorities open questions, that particularly focus on linking ideas together.  Students will begin by writing down the tier 3 vocabulary linked to the topic on a blank sheet and finding their own connections between them.  In this way he uses the principle of elaboration (as explained by the Learning Scientists) to deepen students’ understanding of the concepts they have been learning.  The success of these lessons is based on the culture he has created.

Culture:

In order for the preparation to yield successful outcomes, James has worked hard to establish a classroom culture in which all of his year 11 PE studies students feel confident to contribute.  This has been a long-term venture and has only been possible by involving the students in the process and having clear expectations.  James varies his questioning techniques using a combination of cold-calling and hands-up.  He finds both have a place in his classroom as when he wishes for particular arguments to be challenged or supported students self-selecting through hands-up can lead to a better discussion than if using purely cold-calling.  However, all students answer questions, no matter their predisposition to contributing in class.

Knowledge of your students:

James puts substantial stock in having an in-depth knowledge of the characters in his class.  He believes it is essential to know his students beyond the undoubtedly important aspects such as prior ability, disadvantage, SEN status and all the other columns we include on our seating plans and mark books.  He believes questioning works best when you know the character of your students and their strengths and weaknesses within each topic.  For example, there is one student in the class who he knows is by nature oppositional.  Therefore, he will drawn on this when he wishes to stimulate a debate.  Similarly, he ensures that he knows which topics students are most well-versed in, through the assessment he does and the feedback he gives.  This allows him to know where in the class he can go to for elaboration of a basic answer, and also where he needs to probe to help undo a misconception.  He believes in setting up his students to succeed rather than fail and will use his knowledge of the students to do so.  The question I posed was whether this may mask a lack of knowledge and understanding as students would only be asked questions that they could confidently answer.  However, James said that he questioned areas of weakness as much as strength, but used scaffolds within his questions to allow the respondent to answer.

Ultimately, James’ approach is largely based on his own intuition and experience supplemented with some initial reading and engagement with research evidence.  It is context dependent and based more on a long-term investment than strategies that can be dropped into a lesson tomorrow.  What is clear though is that for questioning to be effective we need to have a coherent strategy for how we wish to use it in our classrooms.  We need to know, when, why and how we will question, and like James’ year 11 class, our students need to be prepared to give the answers.

Posted by Chris Runeckles

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