Classroom Questioning …

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?


Feedback from students …

We’ve all been there. Planned an incredible lesson and been so excited about how wonderfully it is all going to unfold.  Only to have the lesson flop. The students just weren’t as excited as we thought they would be. They didn’t seem to get the explanations that you thought were so clear.

It is after lessons like this that we really need to reflect on what happened and why. But often this reflection occurs in private, or perhaps during a debrief with a colleague. Almost certainly only with adults. What if we asked the students? What if they told us what went wrong and their theories on why? What if they told us what excites them and what doesn’t?

The idea of student feedback has been playing on my mind over the past few weeks as I have participated in Pernille Ripp’s online book club and as the teachers gathered at school before the students returned. Sure, we do a once, perhaps twice, yearly student survey. But what if we were checking in with students on a more frequent basis? What if students were providing us with feedback on a weekly basis? How might we structure this so feedback becomes a seamless part of the classroom culture?   So, for Term 1, I’m going to experiment with a weekly feedback form through the platform, Socrative.  Anonymously, students can provide responses to several short questions that will remain the same for the term.  I don’t want it to be an arduous process; but rather an integrated part of our class culture; just something that we do. The questions I’ve decided upon are:

  • List three words that best describe our classroom this week.
  • What is something you enjoyed about our classroom this week?
  • What is some thing you didn’t enjoy about our classroom this week? What could we do differently?
  • Give Miss Davidson ‘Two Stars and a Wish’ – two things she does well and something you’d like her to work on.

I tried this for the first time on Friday, after a week at school, and the results were interesting, albeit relatively unsurprising, which I suppose it the goal of something like this (after all, when we hand a parent a report card, we know we haven’t done our job if they get a surprise at the results). I jotted down the common ‘least enjoyed’ experiences and have begun making plans to improve these – differentiating our morning puzzles and discussing/exploring how we can support students who feel the need to call out and interrupt all the time.

Another question that I want to ask my students on a regular basis this year is ‘What do you want me to notice about you?’ I did this several times last year and the feedback was incredibly interesting.

  • I want you to notice that I always try my hardest.
  • I want you to know that I find it hard to listen sometimes.
  • I want you to know that I don’t understand Maths very well.
  • I want you to know that the classroom is sometimes too noisy for me to concentrate.

This year, I plan to weave this question into our newly established Reflection Journal.

What questions would you ask your students to gather feedback on your teaching?

2015 Global Read Aloud

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.  Albert Einstein

I’ve thought about this quote a lot as I have reflected upon my first experience participating in the wonderfully engaging, collaborative project, Global Read Aloud (GRA).  If you haven’t already heard of this incredible project, the concept is relatively simple yet incredibly rewarding for all involved … you choose a book from a pre-selected list, read it aloud to your class over a six-week period and connect with other classes around the world.

The reason this quote popped into my mind is because, in the current education world, such strong emphasis is placed on assessment and data collection.  We, as educators, are continually being asked to collect, analyse and report on data and about student progress.  Don’t get me wrong, data collection and accountability (both for educators and students) is an incredibly important part of what we do.  But, as Einstein points out, not everything that matters can be measured.  And so was the case with my first GRA experience.  Participating in the GRA helped me to ‘tick off’ only one of the outcomes on students’ Semester Two reports, but it rewarded both myself and the students in my class with so much more than tickboxes on a report.  Rewards that can’t necessarily (and you wouldn’t want to) be measured.  As I talked enthusiastically to my colleagues about the GRA , I found it difficult to explain the impact I was noticing in my classroom.  Most of the time, I simply said, “Pop in some time and see the energy in the room.” And that’s what it was … a beautiful energy in the room as students listened to the story; drew their visualisations; shared their predictions, inferences and questions; discussed big questions and wrote blog posts with their reflections.  And that’s just the reading side of the project!

The most powerful part of the GRA occurs when you connect with classes on the other side of the world.  This was a new experience for me and at first, I was a little unsure about how it would all unfold, which only added to the excitement of the adventure.  Twitter proved to (yet again) be a fantastic way to connect with others and I was fortunate to connect with a couple of teachers in the USA, one (big shout out to you, Sarah Guy!) with whom my class made (and will hopefully continue) a beautiful connection.  You maybe wondering, what kind of ideas did we share and how did we share them?  Well, the collaboration seemed to evolve naturally over time, with new ideas for learning experiences and connection ideas normally arising through Twitter or email conversations along the lines of, ‘Hey, I thought we could use this thinking routine in chapter X.  What do you think?’  Here are just some of the collaborations we made:

  • Students wrote blog posts in response to questions and commented on other people’s posts.
  • Students explored various concepts in the novel using different thinking routines.  I wrote about that here.
  • Students responded to discussion questions using a Padlet on our class blog.
Screenshot 2015-12-20 17.09.36
One of the collaborative Padlets we created
  • Students explored our buddy class’ home town and school using Google Earth.
  • Students asked and answered questions about life in another country.
  • Students tweeted (via my account) their predictions, questions and thoughts on the story.
  • We (the teachers) filmed ourselves reading several chapters so that our students could hear part of the book read by another teacher (with a different accent!)
  • My class thought that it would be fun to send our buddy class some Australian items, which launched the ‘Culture Box’ project.  We sent off a box filled with Australian goodies such as Tim Tams, a football, a favourite picture storybook and Australian flags and in return, we received a box filled with American goodies such as Halloween candy, a picture storybook and some sporting memorabilia.
The 4D Culture Box ready to be sent to America
Room 23’s box arrives in Melbourne!

The book that I chose to read for our first GRA experience was the incredible story, ‘Fish in a Tree’ by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.  The story boasted a powerful storyline (girl with learning difficulties develops strong friendships and a stronger belief in herself) as well as realistic characters to whom students could relate easily.  The story was a perfect fit for my Year 4 classroom, where we place a high emphasis on growth mindset, persistence and friendship.  At the end of the book, I asked students to rate the book out of five stars.  The overwhelming consensus was 4.5 stars.  The reason it didn’t get 5 stars?  They wanted the book to be longer!  The students (and teachers) loved the book so much that we have decided to kick the 2016 school year with ‘Fish in a Tree’.  It’s the perfect book for setting the tone for the beginning of the school year.

If you haven’t ever participated in the GRA, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It is an incredible way to add greater engagement, dialogue and global collaboration to your reading program.  Also, since the GRA occurs in Term 4, it’s the perfect way to finish the year on a high.

What is something you do in your classroom that counts but can’t necessarily be counted?

Setting the tone on Orientation Morning …

In his book, ‘Intellectual Character’, Ron Ritchhart talks about the importance of the messages, both explicit and implicit, that we send to the students in our class.  Are you sending messages that imply a culture of working or a culture of learning and thinking?  He encourages educators to think about the messages that they are sending students in the early days of the school year.

At my school, the first opportunity I have to send messages to my 2016 students came a week or so ago on Orientation Morning, where I got to meet and spend 90 minutes with my new class.  The planning of this 90 minute session always takes a while because I want to think very carefully about the messages I send to the students.  What do I want them to leave the morning thinking and feeling?  There are so many messages I want to impart to students, but primarily, I want students to know that 4D is a place where:

  • We know each other on a personal level.
  • Time for thinking and discussion is important and not rushed.
  • Reading and talking about reading is valued.
  • Technology is an important part of our daily life and we use it in purposeful ways.
  • We persist and help each other out when we are stuck. (growth mindset)

These are such key ideas that it is hard to do justice to each one in 90 minutes, however, it is possible to give a taste of each point.  This is what I did:

We played some name games where we all had a laugh at the creative and sometimes silly alliterations that we came up with.

We completed a ‘Getting to Know You’ survey using Socrative, a tool that is used a lot in Year 4.  The questions asked were:

  • What is the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?
  • What is your favourite story (book or movie)?  Why?
  • What is your favourite thing to do at school?  Why?
  • When you are not at school, what do you spend most of your time doing?
  • What is something you like about yourself?
  • List three words that best describe you as a learner.

We read and discussed two books, both carefully chosen for their message about thinking and growth mindset.  The books were ‘The Extraordinary Mr Qwerty’ by Karla Strambini and ‘The Dot’ by Peter Reynolds.

We used a Chalk Talk thinking routine combined with a modified Compass Points routine to explore and then discuss our feelings about moving into Year 4.  The questions we explored were:

  • What excites you about Year 4?
  • What worries you about Year 4?
  • What do you need to know about Year 4?
  • What are your expectations for Miss Davidson as a teacher?

Throughout the session, we had some laughs, I felt like I got to know a little about each student and they all left with a smile on their face … and hopefully a message about what Miss Davidson values in her classroom.  Roll on 2016 and the imparting of positive learning messages in those early days of the school year.

How do you set the tone of your classroom?


Assessment for learning using Kahoot …

There are so many technology tools around that sometimes, it’s hard to know which ones to use in the classroom.  My thinking is that it’s good to try them all and then figure out which ones best suit you as a teacher and the class with whom you are using the tool.  I also believe that it is important to use a range of tools to maintain student engagement.

A free tech tool I recently discovered is Kahoot, an online quiz tool.  The website (go here to create a Kahoot and the students go here to complete the quiz).  The website has three options – quiz, survey and discussion.  So far, I’ve only used the quiz.  Each quiz provides a competition-like atmosphere, which students love.  Each question has a time limit (you can set the time limit) and students win points for each correct answer. After each question, a leadership board appears on the screen, much to the delight of students.  Normally, I am not a fan of class competitions as I worry about the anxiety they induce in some students as well as the students who sometimes struggle and need extra thinking time.  However, adding two extra ‘tweaks’ to the Kahoot experience can turn a simple quiz into a much more powerful learning experience.

The first ‘tweak’ is to pause after each question (especially the questions that many students got incorrect) and ask students to prove their answer to the person next to them.  This simple addition not only means that students are articulating their thinking, but for those students who had an incorrect answer (the quiz provides immediate feedback), they are hopefully able to rectify any misconceptions.

The second ‘tweak’ is to allow students to write their own Kahoot questions.  During or after a unit, students work by themselves or in pairs to create questions for a student-created Kahoot quiz.  Students write their questions and multiple choice answers in their book and I use them to create the online quiz.  Allowing students to create the quiz questions automatically differentiates the learning experience because questions of various complexity are able to be created, as can be seen in the examples below where the first example simply imitates the sample equations and the final example uses two different operations.

Screenshot 2015-12-04 12.03.18

Screenshot 2015-12-04 12.03.42

Screenshot 2015-12-04 12.03.33

Screenshot 2015-12-04 12.03.56

Allowing students to create their own questions gives a useful insight into their ability to not only answer questions, but write the question and provide appropriate answer choices.  It is easy to see the level of sophistication of their thinking by looking at the answer choices they provide.  Are they able to predict student misconceptions or have they simply used random numbers?

When making decisions about technology use in the classroom, I am interested in choosing the right tool for the right purpose, not using technology for the sake of using technology.  I want the technology to help me be a better teacher, not simply engage the students.  Student engagement is the cherry on top but not the essential ingredient.  I am more interested in how I can use the technology in a meaningful, purposeful manner.  I am in interested in how the technology can help me understand students and their thinking.

How can you tweak a technology tool to make it work better for you?




The case for continuous online reporting …

It’s that time of the year.   Teachers have finished writing reports and are catching up on all the other teacher related tasks that have been neglected for the past 5 weeks (as well as reclaiming their weekends!).  I calculated that I have written nearly 20,000 words in report comments.  Do parents read those comments and understand how well I know their child and the growth in their learning throughout the year?  Or, do they just look at the grades with no perspective of what their child did to demonstrate mastery of that concept?   Of course, portfolios help here but do parents really know how to cross-check between the portfolio and the report? I wonder if the time that teachers spend writing reports is in equal balance with the time that parents spend reading the reports?

Report writing time is a lovely time to reflect on the growth of students throughout the year as well as identify gaps that need to be addressed in whole class and individual learning.  But, is there a better way?

Many schools have ventured down the continuous, online reporting path.   Some are further along than others and some are just beginning to dip their toes into this new world, one in which teachers and parents develop even closer partnerships in the quest to further student learning.

There are are so many benefits of continuous online reporting:

  • Parents receive information about their child’s learning in (almost) real time.
  • It encourages more regular dialogue between parents, teachers and students.
  • Report data is more readily available to be used by teachers to inform the next steps of student learning.
  • Students can act on the feedback from summative assessment and use it to inform future learning.
  • The report and its process is more meaningful when compared to end of semester reporting because of the ongoing nature.
  • Although it consists of the same amount of work for teachers (perhaps more at the beginning), the workload is spread out across the year.

As with any new system, particularly one involving technology, there are many aspects to consider but there certainly seems to be a plethora of ready-made options out there.  Which begs the question, why aren’t more schools diving into the deep end with continuous online reporting?

What does reporting look like in your school?

FlipConAUS 2015

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be part of a team of teachers headed to sunny Queensland for Australia’s very first FlipCon (for those not in the know, FlipCon is a conference about Flipped Learning).  At any conference, I hope to learn new things on two levels – firstly, I like to leave the conference with my thinking about teaching and learning altered or challenged, ie.  I want the ‘big idea’ stuff.  But, I also like to leave a conference with something I can do the next day in my classroom.  FlipCon ticked both these boxes.

What is the best use of class time?

This question was, for me, the big idea I left the conference with.  This is the question that I want to have at the forefront of my mind as I finish the year off and move into the 2016 school year.  In an ideal world, collaborative learning, discussion, and problem solving are the three key things that I’d like to use class time for.  Flipping the classroom allows for all of these things.  But, what is flipping and how do you do it?

I used to think that flipped learning only worked in classrooms, mostly secondary, where the traditional lecture takes place.  Ie.  Watch the lecture at home, do some problem solving etc. at school.  I was curious about how the flipped concept could be applied at the primary school level.  Enter the ‘in-flip.’  In-flipping is where students are introduced to content via video in the classroom.  This could be done after a pre-test, with different students watching different videos, as a way of revising concepts or as part of literacy/numeracy rotations.  Flipping in this way effectively means that there are two teachers in the room – real life you and virtual you.  There are so many ways that the primary teacher can tweak their current teaching to include flipping.  Benefits of flipping?

  • More time for 1:1 or small group teaching,
  • More time for collaborative learning and group discussion.
  • More time for problem solving.
  • Allows students to progress through concepts at a more flexible pace.
  • Greater differentiation is possible.

The recurring take-home message from many of the FlipCon sessions was this – make a start but expect it to take time.  So, make a start I will.  For the remainder of the school year, I plan to create a couple of videos addressing common grammar errors in Year 4 as well as some maths videos.  I’ve also flipped a dictation assessment so I don’t need to continually repeat myself for the slower writers.  The conference introduced many of the ways to create screencasts, including Screencast-O-Matic, eduCanon, Explain Everything and Office Mix, so I plan to have a play around with all of these over the next few weeks.  My goal over the summer is to prepare videos for all the major Maths topics in first term as well as videos introducing different genres of writing and some of the mechanical aspects of writing.  Another area of interest worth exploring is the idea of flipping parent information.

Upon return from the conference, I used Storify, another suggestion from the conference, to archive my notes (written as tweets) for future reference.  You can check out my #FlipConAUS story here.

How does or how could flipped learning look in your classroom?