Asking the right questions in a classroom is hard. It’s one of the many things for which teachers should be applauded. The ability to ask the right question, quickly analyse the student response and know what to ask next. All of that for multiple students, sometimes at once. It’s hard stuff. But something that we need to get right.
Asking the right question to elicit a greater depth of student thinking is something upon which I place a high value. I try to ask open-ended questions, to honour student answers, to ask more questions about thinking rather than content and to elicit student questions. Often, my lesson planning revolves around the questions I’m going to ask students. But, it’s not something that you just get right. You have to keep working on it, in every lesson.
Over the years, I have continued to keep questioning at the forefront of my mind, analysing my questions via video or peer observations, planning my questions carefully. I’ve discovered that having post-it notes stuck in various places around my classroom serve as useful reminders of particular questions until they become habitual, just a part of who you are as a teacher.
As I have fine-tuned my questioning, I’ve come to the realisation that often the simplest questions are the best. They are the questions that turn it back around onto the student and encourage them to do the thinking. I believe that students are the ones who should be doing the most thinking in a classroom; that our questions should simply serve as a launching pad for their thinking. Some of my favourite questions are:
- What makes you say that? (this also happens to be a Project Zero thinking routine)
- How will you find out?
- What do you think about ___ ?
- What could you do next?
- What questions do you have?
- What do you think about what ___ said?
Many teachers work so hard asking questions and mentally ticking off student answers as they are fired back, often only from the brightest or most confident students. Dylan Wiliam talks a lot about how teachers receive an answer to a question and assume that, on the basis of that one response, all students understand. It is difficult to elicit responses from all students and gain a broader feeling of each student’s level of understanding. But, it can be done. Some of my favourite strategies to use to, again, put the learning back on the learner, are:
- Wait time. I call this the ‘Ten Second Silent Think’ (it used to be ‘Five Second Silent Think’ but students decided that it wasn’t enough time). I count the ten seconds on my fingers.
- Turn and talk. After some thinking time, all students turn to the person next to them and talk about the question. Not only are students getting a chance to refine their thinking and listen to someone else’s perspective, they are also able to feel that their answer is heard, even if they are not selected to share with the whole class.
- No hands up. You don’t see many hands go up in my classroom in response to questions. When students have a response ready, they put their thumb up in front of their chest to let me know. Or, depending on the question, I might ask them to show me on their fingers the number of ideas they have or how confident they are to answer the question.
- Icypole sticks. Instead of hands up, some students are selected to share their response with the class. There has been some discussion at our school about how this strategy may contribute to student anxiety, but my feeling is that if it is used in a non-threatening way and developed as part of the classroom culture, students are quite comfortable sharing their thoughts or asking for extra thinking time.
- The basketball strategy. This strategy really deepens the discussion. I love Dylan’s analogy with this strategy – ‘Less ping pong, more basketball.’ My basic version of the basketball strategy is this: One student responds to a question. The next student is asked to respond to the first student’s idea and a third student sums up the previous two thoughts. This is the simplest method, but there are many other variations to tweak this strategy. As you become more familiar with using the strategy, you can adapt it to make it work for you, your students and the specific situation.
In my classroom, there is an expectation that students will participate in a discussion. “I don’t know” is not an acceptable response to a question. “I’d like some more thinking time” or “Can I talk to someone about it” are acceptable responses to questions. Students are always given options to help them get out of the “I don’t know” mindset. Some options are:
- “Would you like some more thinking time?” If the answer is “yes”, I ask students to give me a little wave or a thumbs up when they are ready to respond.
- “Who do you think you could ask?”
- “Would you like to sit on the couch and have a chat to your partner about it?”
- “Do you think you could summarise/repeat what … just said?”
Questioning is such an important part of what we do as educators, yet often we don’t spend as much time on it as we should. I say, “less activity planning, more question planning”!
What are your favourite questioning strategies?