Some Reflections on Questioning

Questioning is the bread and butter of teaching. But it’s really hard to get right, and is something I think about every lesson – I have a constant barrage of thoughts going on in the back of my head whilst I am standing at the front of the classroom:

“remember to give wait time”

“ask the question, then say the name, not the other way round”

“don’t allow them to say that they don’t know, remember to come back to them”

“don’t always pick the ones with hands up”

“am I asking for formative assessment purposes, or behaviour management purposes?”

“insist on good explanations”

“ask higher order questions”

And so on. Over the years that I have been teaching I have been praised for my questioning during lessons, which was flattering at the time but thinking back now I am sure I still have a long way to go. I even remember one lesson observation with an A Level class where the feedback was “you didn’t tell them anything, it was great!” which I am concerned about now – would it have been more efficient if I had taught them the new material rather than relying on them discovering the advanced trigonometric identities for themselves? Did discovering by themselves lead to more misconceptions along the way? Did I really support the slower graspers or was my lesson just a success with the high flyers? I think I must have spent the entire lesson just asking “why?” which might have looked great to the non-specialist who was observing me at the time but I am not sure I would teach the topic the same way again now. There are a wealth of great resources on questioning out there including the strategies in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2.0. These have all made me change my practise in various ways in recent years, but here I will concentrate on three aspects which have made me think and that I am currently trying to keep uppermost in my mind.

  1. Asking the right questions: concentrating on the Key Concept

I think it is relatively easy to ask questions in Maths. Even when going through a long example there are bits on the way that the students can answer, mostly connected with the arithmetic involved. It can look good from the outside, like the students are doing all the work and they are not being told any of the answers. However, after reading many books, blogs and articles and also through my work on teaching for mastery and cognitive load theory, I now feel this is not generally a good questioning strategy, particularly in the early stages of learning new material. In teaching for mastery we concentrate a lot on sticking to one key concept during a lesson, and we try to think hard about what that key concept is, and find small steps to help all students get there. For example when teaching how to solve simultaneous equations, which is quite a complicated, multi-step process, I might be concentrating on the key concept of “should we add or subtract the equations to eliminate a variable?”. In this case, my questions should help students to specifically understand this key concept and not distract them by suddenly asking them to do the additions or subtractions. At least initially, my questions should be along the lines of “Add or subtract? Why add? Why subtract?”. I think this topic particularly lends itself to poor questioning as the mechanics of solving the equations only requires quite straightforward arithmetic, so it can look like students know what is going on, when the understanding of the process is much more difficult. I am trying increasingly to direct my questioning away from arithmetic not directly linked to the key concept, and towards understanding.

  1. Using true and false and looking at boundary conditions

Another aspect of my questioning that has changed is that I now spend much more time at the start of a topic discussing examples and also non-examples: what it is and what it isn’t. True or False questioning lends itself particularly well to this as it is easy to elicit a whole-class response by using thumbs up and down or fingers in a tick or a cross. Using boundary conditions when introducing a new key concept is really useful in helping students to develop their schema around a topic. When looking at parallelograms yesterday in my year 7 class I included a picture of a rectangle. When I asked whether it was a parallelogram one student answered “false, because it is a rectangle” and we were then able to refer back to the definition of a parallelogram that we had already discussed, and apply this to the rectangle and therefore ascertain that it was in fact also a parallelogram. Which brings me to my final point:

  1. Eliciting answers that generalise

After reading Dani Quinn’s recent blog post about the importance of good answers I have been thinking about this in my classroom in the context of teaching for mastery. In the rectangle example above, my aim was for my class to know that a parallelogram has opposite pairs of parallel lines and opposite sides the same length. A rectangle satisfies these conditions, so it is a parallelogram, and it also has four angles of 90 degrees, which is what makes it also a rectangle. Because we were discussing general properties this was quite easy in the case above, but when we move on to area I want to continue getting them to answer in this way: “I know the area is ??? because to get the area of a parallelogram I multiply the base by the perpendicular height”. This generalisation is important, much more so in fact than just knowing how to do the arithmetic. This reinforces the method to all students as well as getting the correct answer to the question.

Rather than getting snowed under with trying to remember all of the questioning guidelines at once, I’m concentrating on these three aspects at the moment and trying to get them really embedded in my practice.

By Deb Friis

 

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