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4 Ways for Teachers to ask Better Questions

Make sure you get the most useful responses when interrogating learners, by using David Spendlove’s sensible strategies...

  • 4 Ways for Teachers to ask Better Questions

1 | Pause, Pause, Share

Research has shown that teachers typically leave little more than 1.5 seconds for pupils to respond to a question.

We also know from research that the use of a ‘wait time’ after asking a question can increase the amount of thinking time and the level of participation of pupils; and a second wait time increases both even further.

A simple way to remember this is Pause, Pause, Share (PPS):

  • P – Teacher asks a question and pauses without giving or taking an answer.
  • P – Teacher then signals they will take an answer from a targeted pupil, but instead of indicating if the answer is correct, asks the group if it is, or if anyone can expand on it. There then follows a second pause without taking the answer.
  • S – Teacher takes a final answer from a targeted student and shares and expands upon it with the group.

2 | Hands down, heads up

The normal ‘hands up’ routine, where the teacher asks a question and any pupil who knows the answer shoots their hand up immediately, is actually unproductive, as it often means the same students are answering over and over again, whilst not allowing time for others to think about the answer.

Instead, try a ‘hands down heads up’ strategy: inform the class that the question you are about to ask requires thinking about and will require everyone to have an answer (not just the usual suspects).

After asking the question, give a sufficient wait time to allow everyone to think through his or her answer. Then use a random name or targeted name strategy to choose who you want to answer the question.

3 | Plan to succeed

Pre-plan your questions, and target them to specific groups of learners to be most effective. An often-quoted example of good practice is that of Japanese teacher planning, where groups of colleagues plan questions together.

The jugyou kenkyuu or ‘lesson study’ allows teachers to pre-plan and discuss deep, probing questions designed to enhance learning.

Central to this concept is that assessment is built in to the process of learning and not at the end. Using ‘question plans’ as opposed to a ‘lesson plan’ to structure a lesson prioritises the learning above the functional aspects of planning and ensures learning is prioritised by remaining the key focus.

4 | Use wicked questions

Questions deliberately designed to provoke thinking whilst demonstrating evidence of learning and deeper understanding are sometimes known as wicked questions. They are:

  • used to challenge assumptions that may not be sustainable
  • questions where there is more than one answer
  • questions that deliberately provoke or divide opinion
  • Questions that may present a paradox

Examples include:

  • Is there more love than hate in the world?
  • Is it okay to bully a bully?
  • If your brain were to be put into another person’s skull, and vice versa, which person would be you?
  • Does charity simply increase the need for charities?

David Spendlove is Professor of Education and Director of Teaching and Learning at the University of Manchester and an expert in AfL, research and teaching methods. These suggestions are taken from his book, 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Assessment for Learning (Bloomsbury Education, £14.99).

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