Have you noticed how, just after you book a holiday, you see information about that location everywhere? It’s like it has suddenly appeared on your radar. The same could be said for answering your own questions. It wasn’t until I read a statistic that suggested teachers answered up to 70% of their own questions that I became actively aware of how much I was guilty of this too, and so my journey into exploring questions in the classroom began.
Questions are, I believe, a key factor in the success or otherwise of a classroom. Asking the best questions can encourage children to be inquisitive, think more deeply, progress further; even improve their own questioning skills themselves. Bad questions operate merely to confirm something a teacher assumes and doesn’t embed learning in a way a good question can, and does. Here are my top five tips for questioning in the classroom.
Avoid question widows – These are questions, either without a purpose or an audience. Challenge yourself – before you ask a question in class, ask yourself, ‘what is the purpose of this question?’ Is it to test the children on something you’ve taught them? Is it to hear what you want to hear, or is it to offer a small incremental step toward greater understanding? If a three year old shows you a messy smudge of paints, is it better to ask ‘what is it?’ or ‘tell me about this.’?
Decide if you want open or closed answers – Closed answers seek simple answers generally speaking. Open questions challenge assumptions, and force students to justify their stance. The best closed questions are quickfire and recap, and the best way to force open questions to be deeper is to be tenacious and keep asking ‘Why?’ like a four year old!
Never say the same question twice – If they can’t understand the question the first time around, they probably won’t the fifth time either. I call this reframing. Use the key words again, but reframe the question, directing the students toward the sort of answer you are seeking.
Use names carefully, if at all – If you say a student’s name before asking a question, you are mentally letting everyone else off the hook. I use potato fists in this situation – everyone else puts one potato out if they think they have the answer, two if they are definite. Saying a student’s name at the end however is sometimes used to admonish someone who isn’t concentrating, which is not the purpose! Try not using names, and instead ‘look’ for someone to answer. Hands up or down doesn’t matter – thinking about the right answer does.
Audit your questioning skills – This takes confidence. Have a colleague sit in one of your lessons and note down on your table plan the people you ask questions to, and have them note down open and closed questions, and how many times you allow others to answer your questions, and also the ones you answer yourself. Look carefully at what you find out – and change your practice!