Questions, Questions, Questions

Professor Guy Claxton proposed that “good learning starts with questions, not answers”. As my own learning and teaching approach has developed, over time, I think this sentence has become more and more central to how things work in my classroom.

I have a large display on the wall of my room to remind me and my pupils of the different types of Socratic questioning, in order to constantly help us all clarify our thinking; to challenge our own assumptions; to provide evidence for our arguments; to offer alternative perspectives; to extrapolate what the potential consequences of our answers might be; to question the initial question – overall, to engage in a process of critical thinking.

In parallel with this, and often hand-in-hand in my classroom, the rapid advent of digital technology plays a major role. Initially, this was almost entirely teacher-controlled; standing at the front, with the IWB a mere extension of my laptop screen, a little like that OHP had been when I first qualified… Increasingly, via the ‘bring your own device’ or BYOD, where schools allow pupils to use their own smartphones or tablets in class. BYOD process has evolved as close as possible to 1-to-1 (mainly with my older classes, though not exclusively). My school does not have a huge array of its own ICT equipment, whereas increasingly many of my older pupils have 3G-enabled devices, and happily, the school’s leadership has a relatively forward-looking approach to their usage in the classroom. (I know this will dismay some – but I happily invite you to come and watch us in action, if you need convincing…)

There is an almost bewildering array of web-tools and apps available for harnessing questioning in the classroom, and it is possible to pick and choose the most appropriate one for the task at hand, or indeed, to stick to low-tech approaches if they work best in a given scenario.

The following are my current ‘Top 5 free questioning tools’, and are in no particular order (but ask me in 6 months time and this list may well have evolved somewhat):

Socrative.com is a tool which can either be used via the recently-upgraded website, or downloaded for free as an app on teachers’ and pupils’ smartphones or tablets, which certainly makes sense as it is optimised for smaller screens. It offers four main features: firstly, a simple “quick question”, which can be in three forms (multiple choice, true/false or short answer – therefore allowing not just closed questions, but shortish open ones too). These can be off-the-cuff, spontaneous questions, requiring no advance planning – but crucially, still allowing the answers from the whole class to be downloaded as a spreadsheet or PDF, saved to Google Drive, or emailed for AfL purposes, to help with planning further lessons on the basis of how well the pupils have taken things on board so far.

Secondly, you can string a pre-planned series of questions together into a quiz. Again, the answers can be in all the above forms, and the answers collated for further attention after the quiz is completed. This works well in a mid-lesson/mid-topic setting.

The third type of activity is called a ‘space race’, and is a competitive version of a quiz, where pupils answer questions in a race to get their little spaceship across the screen first. Once again, various question types are possible. This element is appropriate for the end of a lesson or topic.

Finally, there is the ‘exit ticket’ feature, allowing pupils to demonstrate the extent to which they have grasped what they have learned for that lesson/topic.

Put these four features together and you have a very useful tool indeed. It is simplicity itself to use and it provides teachers with very useful data to show where he/she needs to add more detail, explain something better, and so on – an example of a powerful feature that educational technology adds, which traditional approaches cannot do. Teachers can also share quizzes with each other via the website or app.

The second app/site I am playing around with at the moment is InfuseLearning.com, which in addition to the features mentioned already, allows questions to be answered in several other forms: firstly, as a drawing or sketch, which can then be projected, discussed and annotated by the teacher and pupils; secondly, as items to be sorted into the correct order; thirdly, allowing pupils to submit longer, open-ended text answers (which can also be annotated and discussed afterwards); and finally as a Likert scale, either from 1-5 or 1-7, giving the teacher the means to establish how sure pupils are about a new topic, or how strongly they agree or disagree with something which is wonderful for debates.

Kahoot at getkahoot.com offers a similar approach to quizzes and questions, in a slightly younger-skewed format. Once again, there is a free app, or one can simply use the website itself. Teachers can share quizzes and Kahoot allows students to create and share their own quizzes. There are, of course, pros and cons to this: the act of creating a quiz is in itself a tremendously powerful activity – but beware of allowing pupils to create quizzes full of incorrect or even inappropriate material. Indeed, a more generalised health warning should perhaps accompany much of the material shared online – by educators as well. Do check for errors, as contributors’ generosity is not always in direct correlation with their accuracy.

One exciting new experimental feature of Kahoot is the ability to base questions on video extracts pulled from YouTube, which opens up a huge wealth of material. Speaking as an MFL teacher, this is potentially a fantastically useful way of creating valuable listening material (with visual support provided by the clips). This feature is still in Beta mode and Kahoot are keen for feedback on how they could improve it… Let them know what you think!

Fourthly, Plickers.com. This first emerged onto my radar last term and, as is so often the case nowadays, I became aware of it via Twitter. I quickly saw the value of incorporating it into my regular rotation of tools. From the Plickers website, I printed off 40 individual bar codes, printed them onto laminated cards about 20 cm square, and now each pupil can use his or her card to vote A, B, C or D in answer to any question asked in the lesson. They register a vote by rotating the card around so that the letter they want to use is at the top. Using the free app, the teacher simply scans the whole class, registering each pupil’s vote in a single sweep, thereby requiring only one device per class. This removes the need to rely on BYOD or iffy school wifi networks. Once again, the answers can be studied afterwards via the projector, picked apart and discussed as necessary. Because the pupils cannot tell what each other is voting, it removes the tendency to wait until everyone else has voted, look quickly around the room and “follow the herd”, as can happen with simple A, B, C, D cards or a colour coding RAG system, but in my experience, has also removed pressure on the individual pupil, as everyone votes in complete confidence. Until the teacher employs the feature which allows the votes of the whole class to be displayed on the screen, of course!

Of course, with all of these tools much of the learning will happen via the questions AROUND the questions – often utterly unplanned, but deriving from discussions resulting from the planned questions set by the teacher
using the above web-tools.

Having said all this, it still has to be said that the devices use most often in lessons are my trusty class-set of mini-whiteboards, erasers and pens. The flexibility of these – which have after all not really evolved all that much since Roman wax tablets, via Victorian slates – is second-to-none, and in conjunction with projector-based task generation tools, such as those contained within another favourite tool, Triptico (triptico.co.uk), they can be hugely powerful.

Whilst putting this post together, I have also been studying posts such as the one below, from Chris Harte (@charte) on real-time use of learner analytics using Google Forms to speed up the ability to gather, analyse and act on data within the classroom, which would tie in well with the data produced by the web tools mentioned above – See bit.ly/uked14sep01.

If we tailor our questions ever more precisely to the requirements of our pupils, we can really turbo-charge the learning process, and I believe that the tools highlighted above can really help us to do so. Give them a try – and let the #ukedchat community know how you get on!

Read this article in the September 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine by clicking here


Alex Bellars has been teaching for nearly twenty years, in both state and private schools, and from KS2 to KS5, mainly teaching French and German, but also ICT and PE! His blog about teaching and anything else that grabs his attention is at alexbellars.com, and you can find him on Twitter at @bellaale.


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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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