The art of questioning

Questioning is, without competition, my favourite pedagogical tool. It is fun, energetic and allows us to assess, engage, challenge and progress students in a quick fire or in depth barrage of well thought out ideas.

Questioning is probably also the tool in our pedagogical belt, that stands out the most to spectators from the profession. If I am sat in on an interview lesson, questioning is the thing that stands out the most to me because it shows so much at once about the relationship a teacher has with students, their subject knowledge and passion. For all those reasons, plus the fact that as teachers we ask up to 400 questions a day (Hastings, 2003), this is one thing that is well worth practising and learning as much about as we can.

One of the best bits of advice I have heard being given to people who are seeking to improve their practice is to plan specific questions in before this. To do this I would consider the following key questions yourself before planning them.

  1. Who are the key students who struggle with your subject/this topic? Keep them engaged by asking them questions but also bouncing those questions to other students to support where needed.
  2. What are the most important nuggets of knowledge from this lesson you want to get students to retain?
  3. What are the key discussion points for this topic you would like students to engage with and begin to debate or analyse?
  4. How does this lesson link in to the bigger picture? Does it tie to lessons that have gone previously, how can you ask questions to tie in prior knowledge for that? Does it link to future lessons? What lines of enquiry could you focus on now that you will build on in the future?
  5. How can you get the students to respond using academic language and prompts? What skills are you wanting students to learn? In history we have our key concepts, how can you link them in?

After answering these questions you should be in a good position to start planning questions for your students as well! When you walk into some classrooms it may feel like the teachers know the above questions instinctively but that is probably the result of having thought about it in advance, sometimes for years.

The next wonderful thing about questioning, is the different styles have different purposes. Decide what you want to achieve above and then choose the questioning style beneath to help you. They usually have stems that I will show as well. Note – you don’t have to stick to one style. I try to use all of these styles in one round of questioning and frequently bounce the questions out as the lesson continues to keep everybody on their toes.

Quick note before this – embed a routine of hands down questioning. Our Head of English does this wonderfully well, in that students are so comfortable and aware that anybody can be asked a question at any time that nobody has hands up when a question is posed and wait to be asked the question. They always answer so much more confidently as a result of this well embedded routine. When it comes to classroom norms, no opting out of questions and no hands up questions are key.

Question styles

  1. Quickfire knowledge – the favourite and the classic. This is a simple, “what” stemmed question usually. It should be short, snappy and allow students to recall the information you believe should be firmly embedded. Other examples include,How many…”, “List…”, “Who said…”, “Who did…”, “When was…”, “What is…” You will probably use more of these questions than any other but they are not necessarily the most powerful.
  2. Understanding above recall questions – these are designed to test that students have an understanding of the knowledge you have taught them that is above simple recall. “How did… affect…”, “Why did… do…”, “Why is that significant?”, “How did… cause…”, “What was the consequence of…”, “How does that show change/continuity with…”, “Why would they do/say this?”, “What evidence proves…”
  3. Deep, analytical questions – these are designed to prompt debate. They can be counterfactual, hypothesis based or more. The GCSE and A level specifications are based around this type of thinking, as is all good history. The more we use this the better our students will engage with the real core of history and beyond. “How far do you agree with the idea that…”, “How similar/different are…”, “Which is the most significant…”, “What was the most/least effective…”, “With all this in mind, what would you conclude about…”, “Overall how useful is this and why?”, “what would happen if…”
  4. Bouncing questions – personal favourite. I was taught about these in one of many excellent sessions ran by Sir Iain Hall in my NQT year and he called it the Triple Whammy. Like pose, pause, pounce but with an added bounce. Pose a question to the room, wait 10 seconds for think time or maybe give the students a chance to discuss in pairs for 30 seconds, ask one student (no hands up) a question, start with a student who struggles perhaps, ask the room if they agree, ask a student why they agree/disagree, ask who can add to that answer, go to them and find out more (can repeat this part a few times), before going back to the very first student you posed a question to and asking them to improve upon their original answer with the work of the class. Students can never switch off with this style. I’ll include a sample dialogue of this at the bottom.

Overall, questions are the most diverse teaching technique around and help to serve so many purposes at once. A practitioner skilled in the art of questioning will have a classroom that is both engaging and an effective learning environment.

Key tips:

No hands up questioning is a routine worth embedding, even if not used exclusively

No opt out is a must. I have banned “I don’t know” in my classroom.

If an answer is vague, ask the student to expand on it

Get the students to answer in academic language where possible.

Triple whammy:

Teacher: What were the main reasons for Hitler’s rise to power from 1929-1933?

Pause 10 seconds

Teacher: Student A, over to you.

Student A: Uh, propaganda sir.

Teacher: Thanks Student A I’m going to be coming back to you so pay attention to the next answers. Who agrees that propaganda was one of the main reasons for Hitler’s rise to power?

Class hands up

Teacher: Student B, why do you agree with that in a full sentence please?

Student B: I agree because he had his Minister for Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, write speeches for him and create his Hitler over Germany campaign which made him more popular.

Teacher: Excellent, who can add to that for me? (brief pause) Student C!

Student C: They also had the work and bread scheme to appeal to the working classes who didn’t have jobs at the time.

(You can repeat this a few times if you want, for the sake of this, I’m not going to)

Teacher: Excellent Student C thank you. Now, Student A, back to you. Improve your initial answer using what we’ve heard from the rest of the room. Remember, I want full sentences here.

Student A: Um. Hitler was able to come to power because he used propaganda such as the Hitler over Germany campaign and the work and bread posters to appeal to the working classes.

Teacher: And who organised a lot of this for Hitler according to Student B?

Student A: Josef Goebbels wasn’t it?

Teacher: Excellent! Much better answer, write that down in your book for me.

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