The question is…..what’s the question?

The view from a helium balloon launched by our STEM group under the leadership of James Curnow, thanks James.

Apparently the average time between a teacher asking a question and taking an answer from a pupil is 0.6 of a second, you know the kind of thing, quick fire questions and hands shooting up all around the class, often accompanied by waving, strange noises to attract your attention and sometimes jiggling up and down in the chair.  I am guilty of doing the same thing, have a think about that first statement for a minute. If you are a teacher you will also know that from time to time you pick a pupil to answer who, it then emerges, has no clue what the answer is.  There are several things wrong with this picture; shallow questions lead to shallow thinking or none at all, everyone gets asked the question but only a small percentage get to answer it, some of your pupils may have no clue about what you have been teaching and you will never know that.

Teachers use questions in a number of ways.  For some the question is a moment of reassurance as they roller coaster ride through their teaching, the same kind of thing happens with those who find it impossible to speak without turning every clause  into a question by means of an upward inflection at the end of it.  The unspoken question is, “does what I am saying matter to you?”.   Some teachers use questions to check that their class is still awake if not concentrating, classic trick, spring a question into the middle of what you are saying and ask it of the student you think is asleep.  (At this point it would be good if you read an earlier post, Design sketching – why doodling is good for you.)   Some teachers use questioning to revisit and review prior learning and some use it to move children on to analytic thinking.  So how do you use questioning to best effect?

It is worth thinking about the type of question that you are going to ask and then work out how you ask it and take answers.  The  well known Bloom’s taxonomy of questions goes something like this; first order questions are factual recall ones,  then come ones based on comprehension followed by application questions then analysis, synthesis and evaluation.  For this model the first order questions are simple to ask and to answer and are the lowest level.  As a design technology teacher this all come very easily, anyone who is familiar with designing will recognise that all of these types of question occur quite naturally and regularly in the business of doing designing and making, good teaching in the subject will provide pupils with opportunities and strategies for all of these levels of questioning.  It came as something of a shock when I sat with a mixed group of colleagues who were asked to identify where they used each type of questioning in their subject, some of them found it very difficult to think of any use for the higher order questions.  If you are curious to develop this type of thinking check out Philosophy for children and ‘thunks’, try this link:  http://www.independentthinking.co.uk  Bags of useful stuff.  At this point I should say that all of these levels of questioning have their place, I worry that some teachers use only the earlier types and therefore train their children to be excellent pub quiz participants. ( Perhaps that is why the pub quiz is so popular?   We have really changed the future.)   Well go on then, challenge yourself.  How many questions of each type do you ask in your teaching?

For too many of us the principle is that we have done the high order thinking and found the answers which we are then going to tell our pupils and expect them to remember, don’t ever forget that learning is fun when you manage to make your own connections, answer the questions for yourself.  And if learning if fun then the chemistry of the brain cements the learning.  Now on to how you ask the questions an equally importantly how you work with the answers.  Whatever you do it is going to take a long time to break your students of the habits of their young lifetimes, you can easily prove this by telling them very clearly not to put their hands up and then asking them a simple question; you will not be surprised that several hands will go up automatically.  So have a no hands up rule, ask your carefully thought out question and give them time to think about the answer, you will need to tell them that they have a certain time to respond.  When the time is up you can either pick at random and ask for an answer or you can carefully pick so that you are asking everybody in the room or you can call the class register and take answers in that order or you can use a handy little piece of software called The Hat which will pick at random for you from the class list.

Any of these methods mean the following things; every child knows that you might ask them so they had better have a go, they all have time to work on an answer so you are not just getting the quick fire thinkers, you will get a clear picture about how the class as a whole have grasped the teaching that you have done.  Some children find this quite threatening at first so you must build a climate of trust with the class, wrong answers need to be handled with care but also with integrity, one trick I use is to immediately get anyone who is mocking to explain why they think the answer is wrong or how they think it might have made sense.  Of course if nobody gets the answer then you might want to reconsider your teaching for that topic.  When ever you get a chance ask questions that demand opinions and justifications not just right or wrong responses.  One strategy that I use is to show pupils a classic design and ask them to visualise the object in a TV advert or a film, I ask them to visualise the kind of building it will be in and the people who are moving around in the space, prompt them to think about the clothes, the music, the style, the class.  You would be amazed at how much can come from a class discussion based on the students all saying one thing from their visualisation.

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