You know when you’re sat in someone else’s classroom and the discussion just flies. It’s like liquid gold flowing throughout the room. And you want to somehow capture the essence, bottle it and quaff deeply before doing something similar in your own room with your own classes. That.
The aspect of ‘Questioning’ I wanted to focus on for #TLT14 in Southampton recently was the quality that alerts me that I’m seeing and hearing candid interaction taking place in a classroom: enquiry, debate, deliberation. It’s clear a teacher is mastering their craft when they hold the reins of lucid discussion that probes, engages, activates, challenges, connects and lifts the centre of gravity of the room amongst the assembled minds. I chose an image from the 1970s film of ‘Marathon Man’ to introduce the session. Good discussion in a classroom requires classic technique – epitomised by Laurence Olivier. But great discussion sees the teacher slip into that pond of uncertainty and become part of the divining, enquiring, learning fluidity too – the ‘Method’ acting of Dustin Hoffman. Not just orchestrating it; but inhabiting it.
It’s pretty clear when attempts to provoke discussion are falling flat. The mis-timed cold-calling, unguarded disparaging reaction, the ‘guess what’s in my mind’ -gaming.
The effect of not getting it right is, unfortunately, that it means students are less likely to participate when you try to revive the process. Once stricken; twice unprised.
But I really wanted to examine where we can go in opening up this area and sought the answers to three key questions.
- 1.Can we ‘see/hear’ effective Questioning occurring ?
- 2.Can we identify the characteristic features of effective Questioning?
- 3.If we can, are they transferable to other teachers?
Some I’ve spoken to believe that good questioning technique is a matter of individual character and you’ve either ‘got it’ – or you haven’t. I don’t agree. There aren’t many of us who came into the job perfectly formed in the art of managing effective classroom discussions. What skills we later possess we develop through dogged practice and reflection. So it’s about distilling and seeing if we can make them transferable.
Much of the criticism of classroom discussion has centred on too much of it being shallow, low-level questioning instead of moving into deeper questioning of higher octane concepts and models. Having a clear model of subject progression to slide that framing along is essential. Some use taxonomies such as Blooms or SOLO, or develop hierachies of question categories:
Whilst of value, they can have hidden elephant pits of anomalies to catch the unwary. Taking a fairly typical question hierarchy we think it’s fairly easy to spot the ‘shallow’ from the ‘deeper’ questions.
One of the hardest tasks for students at A level in Geography is ‘describe a distribution’. It foxes them. Unless they’ve been equipped with well-rehearsed procedural steps to follow to describe a pattern, then it’s hard. Even when they have been so supplied – it’s not a ‘low-level shallow’ procedure that the ‘Describe…’ question stem suggests.
Similarly at the other extreme, the supposed higher level, deeper thinking ‘evaluation’ depends on what needs evaluating and what you need to be able to do to get your head around the concepts involved.
Developing a Culture of Participatory Behaviours
There are discussions I know I’d like to hold with groups, but they are not ready for; not so much in their handling of the ideas, but their acclimatisation to the necessary behaviours. Getting the timing right matters as much over the year as it does within the topic, or within the lesson. Do it too early and it’ll fall flat. And that’s because it takes time to create a culture of participatory discussion behaviours. Actually, it’s through the trialling, the stopping, the re-emphasising of how we do this that, eventually – some months into term, we can have those in-depth, widespread, intellectually tense debates and discussions. But they have to be consciously worked towards and constructed through reinforcement.
Students are more likely to involve themselves in discussion if three areas of needs are met:
CLARITY – of speech, of question, of vocabulary
AUDIBILITY – of responses
VISIBILITY – of participants
VALIDITY – The question is valid, and my response will be valid
REASSURANCE – not belittled or embarrassed
ASSISTANCE – I’ll be moved from wrong to right
RESPONSE VALIDATION – positive feedback
GROUP NORMATIVE – what my peers are doing
RANGE – within my zone of stretch
PURPOSE – my contribution will move the discussion from A-B
QUALITY CONTROL – being pressed to contribute something of quality
ACCEPTABLE PERSISTENCE – being ‘made’ to be involved, but in a way I can accept
What’s key is practising effective questioning techniques and moulding the behaviours of students in ways that open up further participation. It serves two functions – it allows us, as teachers to clarify what is really going on in their heads: that which they understand fully, partially, or lack; those misconceptions that are obstacles in the road; the pitch, sophistication and challenge they are operating at. And it enables us to help them crystallize, assert and give due weight to those aspects we know they need for the next stage in the process.
Orchestrating classroom question and answer benefits from exercise. But even when it’s bounced and pounced around the room it can still be sequential interrogation rather than committed discussion:
Encouraging a Culture of Curiosity
It’s a given that toddlers have a disposition towards asking innocently profound questions (as Hywel Roberts quotes of his own); and it’s similarly a feature of some of the sharpest experts in their field – the ability to pose piercingly simple questions that get to the heart of their research. Developing this (or, maybe, encouraging divulgence of -) this quality in 9-19 year olds is a little more challenging. But I like Zoë Elder’s line:
Encouraging an emergence of curiosity in a classroom and managing the unfolding exploration of ideas is when questioning for deliberation attains greater sophistication. Promoting that requires more dexterity – encouraging challenge, counter-challenging and promoting a supportive tension of views. How to enable? It’s questioning technique, it’s behaviour codes that have become well- and comfortably worn, and it’s the sense of ‘we’re all in this exploration together and we’ll see where it takes us’.
John Sayers’ Question Grid is a creative option for starting conjectural discussion and Socratic questions probe those who are more confident in having their arguments challenged.
Developing students’ willingness to participate calls for a selection of reactive statements, supplementary questions, supportive body & facial cues that can hone and sustain the arena of curiosity towards an appropriate exit point.
“Chivvy and chase learning around the room, in and out of learners’ brains..” encourages Zoë. That’s exactly what it feels like when you sit watching it in a classroom performed by a teacher-questioner who has honed the craft, and the group.
Can we do this on our own? Sure, but it’s one of those aspects that’s more swiftly developed if we engage with a colleague. Whether that’s organising a camera videoing our lesson for us to analyse later in privacy, or asking a colleague to sit in to make a note of the questions we pose, the reactions we offer, their distribution throughout the lesson… they can mirror what we are doing in a way that is sometimes lost when we are amidst the process. In ‘Full on Learning’ Zoë offers a suggested recording sheet and graphical summary that can form the basis of collaborative working between pairs of teachers.
Generating curiosity from managed deliberation can be an ephemeral will-o-the-wisp that doesn’t always conjure an appearance when called upon. But when it does emerge it allows us to watch viable discussion capture students, embroil them in the subject, urge them to probe deeper, and pitch higher the level of erudition we are seeking. It’s not an end in itself, it’s but a stage in the process and the best teaching will grab the tendrils and tie them into follow-up activity . But when a student sidles up the following day and says “Y’know….I’ve been thinking about those things we discussed in the lesson yesterday and I reckon……” Magic. Captured.
Recommended further reading on Questioning Techniques:
(hyperlinks take you to the Questioning section of the blogs listed
David Fawcett @davidfawcett27 has written widely on Questioning techniques
Doug Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion’ blog addresses Discussion techniques
Zoë Elder’s ‘Full on Learning’ website includes a number of posts on Questioning
Tom Sherrington poses some exemplar Probing Questions in his @headguruteacher post
John Sayers demonstrates how he uses his Socratic Question prompts and his Question Grid in this post
The full powerpoint presentation from the workshop is here