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Effective questioning – Ditch your quick-fire questioning culture

A more reflective hands-down approach pays dividends, says Jon Tait...

  • Effective questioning – Ditch your quick-fire questioning culture

Ever since the dawn of time, teachers have asked questions of their students.

But thinking back to my teacher training year, I can’t recall much, if any, quality training or advice about how to question students effectively.

Having observed hundreds of lessons in multiple schools as a senior leader walking in and out of classrooms on a daily basis, it’s clear that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get this training.

In far too many cases, we ask questions that have little impact on deep thinking and learning. The most worrying thing about this is that if conducted effectively, questioning can be one of the most powerful tools in a teacher’s armoury.

With hardly any extra planning or work, it can be the perfect vehicle for pace, challenge, deep thinking and assessment.

If we can question more effectively, the impact on learning is significant. Let’s explore two of the areas that you can use to increase the quality and effectiveness of your questioning and bring about deeper thinking in your classroom.

Hands down approach

If you do a Google search for the word ‘teacher’, the first few images will show teachers at the front of their class, standing in front of students with their hands up.

This is a trademark of the teaching profession, but has never done much, if anything, to promote high quality learning in the classroom.

Think back to your own days as a pupil in the classroom. If you knew that your teacher was always (and only ever) going to pick people to answer questions with their hands up, then you could quite quickly work out that if you didn’t want to think or participate, you just had to keep your hand down.

Worse still, if, as teacher, you judge whether to move on in your lesson by asking a couple of questions and getting a correct answer from one enthusiastic or knowledgeable student, then your formative assessment can hardly be classed as robust or inclusive of all students.

This is where a ‘hands up’ strategy of questioning really fails in the classroom. It should be your job as teacher to judge what everyone knows about a certain topic, question or problem; not just what a few enthusiastic children want to tell you.

By employing a consistently implemented ‘hands down’ approach to your questioning, all students need to be thinking about the answers to your questions all of the time, in case they are picked to contribute to the classroom discussion.

Thinking time

The reason you ask a question is, of course, because you want an answer. So when a child thrusts their hand in the air enthusiastically the second you’ve asked one, it can be extremely tempting to take a quick answer from them.

This happens far too often. In fact, studies have shown that the average time between asking a question and getting a response in the classroom is less than one second.

This presents us with many problems. Firstly, how can anyone give you a well-thought-out answer in less than one second? Secondly, everyone in the class needs time to think about the question that you’ve just posed.

By taking an answer so quickly, you’re depriving the vast majority of pupils any time to think before the answer is given. Allowing for short periods of wait time before you ask a child to contribute an answer makes a significant difference to the quality of answers that you receive.

Dangerous ramifications

Through his significant and extensive work on formative assessment over the past two decades, Dylan Wiliam has found that a lack of effective wait time when questioning students leads to a culture of children quickly raising their hand to answer questions. More importantly, teachers only ask for responses from students with their hands up.

This quick-fire culture of rapid questioning means that pupils who don’t want to think don’t have to, because they know that the answer or another question will come along almost immediately.

To lots of students, this signals that there is no point trying in the first place. They can just sit back and leave the most enthusiastic pupils to answer.

For many children, this approach also minimises the risk of potentially getting an answer wrong in front of their peers.

Therefore, not only is this unproductive questioning the catalyst for a lack of cognitive engagement from many students, it also has potentially dangerous ramifications for us as teachers if we base our dynamic formative assessment on it.

If questioning is only actively engaging a minority of children in your classroom, then any responses you gain from them are not a good enough sample size to determine the knowledge and understanding of the whole class.

By consistently combining wait time with a new ‘hands down’ approach to your questioning, you can empower yourself to use questioning as a highly effective formative assessment tool. Now you can get a handle on what the whole class knows, rather than just a select few individuals.

You can then use this information to inform your dynamic and responsive teaching strategies.


How to manage hands-down questioning

Start by explaining to pupils that you’ll be using a hands-down approach from now on. You’ll be in charge of who will be answering the questions, so that means everyone needs to be thinking and listening because they never know who is going to be asked next.

Make sure you select different children to answer for different reasons. You may want to start with a higher or lower ability student for a specific reason, or you may choose to target some of your pupil premium students. There’s also the classic reason: “I’ve picked you because I saw you weren’t paying attention.”

To ensure pupils don’t feel threatened or anxious about being picked, give them a nod or have a quiet word to tell them you are coming to them next. This way they can get themselves mentally prepared, switched on and ready to answer.


Jon Tait is deputy headteacher of a secondary school and author of Teaching Rebooted (Bloomsbury Education). Find him on Twitter at @teamtait.

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