Brad's Blog

Asking the right questions

Tuesday 2nd May 2017

Questions are the primary way we gauge student understanding as lessons unfold. The answers give us immediate feedback and in the most effective lessons prompt a mix of restatement, reframing or extension of key learning points to help identify and correct misconceptions. Ideally we seek to build a dialogue to help students assimilate new information and by probing assumptions and evidence promote reflection and deeper thinking. There is considerable research evidence underpinning the beneficial impact of questioning from the much quoted Kathleen Cotton's meta-analysis survey in 1998, Black and Wiliam's research, Wiliam on formative assessment, Hattie in respect of the dialogic classroom, Rosenshine's principles, Sutton Trust Great lessons, Dynamic School Model, Robert J Marzano's questioning sequence and Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching which states, "Questioning and discussion are the only instructional strategies specifically referred to in the Framework for Teaching, a decision that reflects their central importance to teachers' practice." In each case it is about asking the right questions at different stages to identify misconceptions and in the longer term to secure learning. We might consider:
• 'Big' questions to stir curiosity and interest above and beyond immediate curriculum goals.
• Thunks to build confidence in speaking and engaging in discussion.
• Questions as well as narrative within advance organisers to cue and direct independent learning and to 'scaffold' for the less able and to offer stretch for the more able students.
• Questions in place of or alongside lesson objectives to chunk the lesson and to clarity expected learning outcomes
• Recap questions that often involve 'spaced practice' by returning to past topics and applying short multi-choice test papers, quiz approaches or short paragraph answers.
• Questioning strategies within the lesson to gain full engagement, to check for misconceptions and to extend into dialogue to deepen responses
• Plenary questions that offer a final check on the lesson outcomes plus a measure of student self-assessment to progressively prompt meta-cognition.
• Bridge questions as a bridge to the next lesson and/or to extend the topic into independent learning. Essentially lessons with soft edges to build blended learning.
Most of the above are 'scripted' approaches to Q&A which we can plan for and apply. The more difficult part is managing the classroom interactions, applying differentiation and gaining useful feedback from the responses. In terms of classroom interactions. Wiliam emphasises the importance of regularly applying a 'no hands-up' rule to prevent more confident students from dominating responses followed by Pose, Pause, Pounce and Bounce. Wiliam also recommends punctuating the lesson with 'hinge' questions which involve all student responses to multi-choice questions to inform how far all are on track and whether to take a step back or to move forward in 'real-time'. This does not confirm learning but learning is more likely to arise if any misconceptions are identified and corrected. Differentiation most often involves Bloom's Taxonomy but Marzano describes the shift from using the taxonomy from its original purpose to fame objectives to framing questions as a distortion of Bloom's work and a 'misapplied framework.' The blogger and author David Didau goes further and states that Bloom's cognitive hierarchy was 'essentially plucked from the air' with no known research base. The primary concerns are the difficulty of differentiating and rising through six levels of questions and the research evidence that a high level question does not necessarily produce a high level answer. If you know something you know it. In that regard the common differentiation approach of posing high level questions to a student perceived as more able and the reverse for a student perceived as less able fails to advance the learning of either group. The most effective differentiation approach is a firm link to the course standards with two levels of questioning 'pass' level and 'challenge' level as proxies for lower and higher order. The pass level should involve regular 'fact checker' questions to ensure all have a sound factual knowledge base ( spaced practice regularly applied) plus regular challenge questions to extend responses to match higher course outcomes. This is despite the considerable conflicting research evidence as to how far there is a link between question types and achievement. However, the higher level exists within the course objectives and therefore all should be asked higher level questions but with structured support to tease out and extend the answers and to lead into paired, group and class discussion to probe evidence and reasoning often using Socratic approaches. Marzano recommends a four stage questioning sequence: details, categories, elaboration and evidence. The sequence moves from basic factual reasoning to conceptual but encourage a mix of lower and higher order questions at each stage rather than rising through a hierarchy. The questioning sequence can be used to structure enquiry within a single lesson or a sequence of lessons as student move through a topic from factual to conceptual. Danielson's also offers a useful 'base' hierarchy to gauge effective application of questioning strategies from unsatisfactory to distinguished as well as teaching and learning as a whole.
Asking the right questions is the title of my new CPD programme for in-house delivery and will not only bring your staff up to date with the latest evidence-based research but present 50 practical questioning strategies for immediate integration into lessons. If of interest email bradley@collegenet.co.uk or mobile 07919557053.