Questions about questioning: just how important is it?

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Nietzsche

It’s a little tiresome, but I feel I must preface this by saying that these are just my thoughts. I’m not claiming anyone is wrong (or right for that matter) just that it always pays to question anything that passes as conventional wisdom.

And what could be more conventionally wise that the assumption that teachers need to commit time and resources to improving their ability to ask questions of their pupils? The research suggests that teachers, traditionally, aren’t that great at asking questions. We often answer our own questions; we give less than a second for pupils to answer questions; we accept incorrect answers, and then ask, ‘Did you mean…?’ and we allow pupils to avoid participating by accepting the answer ‘I don’t know.’ All this being the case, surely it’s imperative to spend time instructing teachers on how to question better?

As ever, I need to confess that the importance of questioning is something I’d unquestioningly accepted (Oh the irony!) It wasn’t until I read this and this from Kris Boulton that I really started to think about why questioning has come to be so fetishised a facet of teaching.

Here are three of the questions about questioning Kris poses:

  1. Could there be a cost to asking questions?
  2. Does answering questions lead to better understanding?
  3. What are the purpose of the questions we ask?

Here are some tentative attempts at answers:

1. Questioning is inefficient. It takes far longer to ask questions it does to just say something. In the normal run of events we only tend to ask questions to which we don’t already know the answer; we ask for information or clarification. But in the classroom, it’s considered both normal and desirable for teachers to ask questions to which they already know an answer, if not the answer. Why is this? Possibly it’s because we believe that by asking questions rather than just giving answers will make pupils think more deeply about the information we want them to learn.

Seeing that questioning is an inefficient way of communicating information, there must be an opportunity cost to all these questions we ask. If we just told pupils what they needed to know, would we be able to get on with something more useful? In order to answer this we need to consider whether asking questions is a better means of communicating concepts than simply explaining them. Because if it’s not, we’re wasting valuable time. Imagine what else we could be doing with this time. Could it possibly be the case that sometimes it’s preferable to just tell kids stuff?

2. This leads us to the idea that asking questions is better than ‘just telling’ because pupils will get a deeper understanding of an idea or concept. This sounds like one of those ideas that’s obviously true. How could it not be better for pupils to have a deep understanding? The theory suggests that if we interrogate pupils’ understanding by inducing cognitive conflict they are more likely to take ownership of what they’ve learned and therefore it will be more memorable. But is this actually true? Well, one consideration is that a clear and relevant explanation will be memorable. In our rush to get kids to understand, we can, at times, be guilty of failing to concentrate on making sure they remember what we’ve taught them. Clearly there’s no point in understanding something which you then forget, so it makes complete sense to make every effort not only that something is understood, but that it is also remembered.

3. Understanding why we are asking a question is pretty fundamental. Kris suggests that there are two main purposes for asking a questions in the classroom: to teach or to assess. I’m open to the idea that there might be more than just these two purposes, but I’m willing to bet that most other purposes are sub groups of ‘teaching’. If we want to assess what pupils know or can do, it’s probably most sensible to ask closed questions. But if we want to use questioning to teach we suppose that asking open questions which require pupils to think will always be a good thing. But one of the most provocative features of Kris’s posts is this table from @redorgreenpen:

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 19.48.49

This grid is a very useful tool for helping us think about whether the questions we’re asking are actually worth asking. The benefits to some of these purposes may not be worth the cost incurred by committing the time necessary to tease out what pupils think. If it’s right that we remember what we think about, then maybe questions have a useful part to play in prompting and provoking thought. but thinking depends on knowledge. There’s little point in trying to think about something you don’t know, so unless you’re sure pupils already know something worth thinking about, we might be better off not asking them what they think.

And we’re certainly better off not blithely telling teachers that it’s always preferable to ask questions. If we’re determined to commit time to training teachers on the art of questioning, maybe it might be more profitable to examine how effective questioning might differ across subjects. Is questioning different in maths, geography, art and PE? It might also pay us to pay a lot more attention to the content of questions instead of focusing on the methodology of how they’re asked. Maybe teachers could be asked to think about some of these questions:

  • What are the most interesting questions to ask about x?
  • When could you usefully avoid asking questions?
  • How much do pupils have to know about a subject before it’s worth asking them to think?
  • What would you have more time to do if you asked fewer questions?
  • When might it be better to ask closed/open questions?

Whatever you do, and whatever you decide to believe, please remember that what you do is irrelevant. It’s what your pupils do that matters. Just in case you’ve misinterpreted anything I’ve said as meaning “questioning is bad”, it doesn’t. I’ve got absolutely nothing against asking questions, I just think it always to question anything we believe as ‘obviously right’.

To conclude:

  • Asking questions is always good. The more awkward and problematic your questions are, the better.
  • ‘Questioning’ as a pillar of pedagogy is more troubling and we fetishise it at our peril.

Related posts

How effective learning hinges on good questioning
Questions that matter: method vs practice
Forget the answer, what’s the question?

18 Responses to Questions about questioning: just how important is it?

  1. I’m very interested in this issue and will follow up the links you provide to read more. Many thanks for raising it.

    I’d like to relate this to my field – phonics provision.

    I discourage teachers from drawing out words from children by questioning which is so commonplace along these lines:

    “Today, children, we are going to think about the /air/ sound. Who can think of some words with the /air/ sound?”

    The reason I discourage this very common teacher-behaviour is multi-fold:

    Firstly, this can take a very large proportion of the allocated time for phonics teaching.

    Secondly, it is likely that the children who tend to respond the best are already knowledgeable about words (more than other children) so they don’t gain anything per se and the other children don’t necessarily contribute so just sit there.

    Thirdly, many of the sounds of English language (as people know) have many spelling alternatives. It is extremely common for the children to suggest words with the focus sound – but not the focus grapheme. This means, invariably, that the teacher (be it teacher or teaching assistant) may spend ages confirming that the word offered does indeed include the focus sound, but that actually the word offered is spelt ‘this way’ and then proceeds to write the word offered on the board to demonstrate the alternative spelling.

    And then the next word might not be a correct example either – and so it goes on…and on.

    Fourthly, there are so many letter/s-sound correspondences to introduce/teach/learn that time is precious and everyone needs to ‘get on with it’. So, very shortly after introducing the focus sound and grapheme, model a word or two for decoding and encoding – and then give each child his or her own list of cumulative, decodable words with the focus correspondence to blend independently – ultimately to recall the bank of words as a spelling word bank.

    This provision of paper-based information and decent opportunity for each child to practise the three core skills (decoding, encoding and handwriting) independently is not guaranteed in schools.

    The reason that I’m bothering to write so much detail here is because it is so very commonplace that teachers in phonics spend time asking questions to draw out information from children that most of them simply don’t have instead of spending time extremely productively to put the information in place with the maximum opportunity to apply the accompanying skills.

    After a sequence of work, however, it may well be fitting to ask the children to summarise which words are spelt which way:

    “Children, this last two weeks we have been focusing on the /air/ sound and all the different ways of spelling that sound. This has meant that you have been asked to remember which words are spelt which way. Let’s see if you can recall which words are spelt with these four main ways of spelling the /air/ sound….”

    I hope this posting doesn’t present as just a boring phonics message (I know that phonics gets a lot of negative press sadly) – I am simply trying to give an example of questioning which is bordering on a waste of time for so many children rather than getting on with the teaching and then summarising with questions – in other words, the subject of your blog posting about questioning (when to, whether to, and how to) touched upon something I try to raise as an issue routinely – that is, fit-for-purpose questioning and is there a better alternative sometimes.

    Kind regards,

    Debbie

  2. sonia says:

    Hi my thoughts about questioning is that although questioning is of course a useful tool to stretch a child at an appropriate time, in RE I tend to use blooms high order questioning but this is when students have the knowledge so questioning aids in learning as In RE/RS questioning is important in class to allow other views to be discussed and explored.

    The main issue I have is using questioning is as a source to demonstrate progress, students are being questioned within an inch of their life to evidence their learning in such a short space of time within a lesson and this is almost always for the benefit of an observer, not the child and not the teacher. In my experience some students are like rabbits in the headlights feeling enormous pressure as the teacher asks a stream of open ended questions to ensure data dialogue takes place.

    Kind Regards
    Sonia

  3. […] Questioning, Questioning […]

  4. […] “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Nietzsche It’s a little tiresome, but I feel I must preface this by saying that these are just my thoughts.  […]

  5. Gill Hitchin says:

    As a tutor in FE, perhaps subject, level and learner impacts our use of questioning? On reflection, I use questions quite a lot but for different purposes and often linked to an activity. My learners are trainee practitioners working with children and young people. I teach level 2 – 5 and age range 16 – mature adults! I use questioning to determine prior knowledge where learners may then write responses on post its for example. I use to assess, prompt discussion, debate and challenge assumptions. I also get learners to ask questions of eachother and me! I use their experiences to scaffold learning, share practice and develop a questioning, enquiring nature. My subject has theoretical underpinnings but apart from legislation, little can be interpreted as absolute fact. We relate to what we observe and the diversity of developing children. I don’t feel I have to have all the answers. Perhaps we do use and understand questioning in different ways depending on our subject and stage of education? Hope that makes sense and contributes further to the discussion.

  6. I think the key point is how efficient is questioning. I do recall at one time inventing a game called the “differentiation game” whereby I found a spurious reason to ask each learner a question in turn so that I ticked the “differentiation box”. Clearly you cannot ask every learner a meaningful question and get a meaningful answer back. The box got ticked anyway.

    I suppose apart from the obvious aspects of assessing knowledge, the key purpose of questioning is to transfer ownership of learning to the group so that the group can re-conceptualise the learning into whatever context is meaningful to them. That has obvious cognitive benefits. It’s also useful to create scenarios whereby conflict occurs (as described above) for the very reason that cognition looks to resolve conflict.

    Of course those reasons occur at group level and you assume that the group share some common understanding. If not then you can try and use some group activities so that those who know can explain to those that don’t.

    This is somewhat hit and miss and depends upon a high level of expertise by the teacher and also a high level of commitment from the group.

    The alternative is the notional “good explanation” but again the point here is that explanations are only as good as the person who is listening to it. I think that a well designed session factors in all these different issues and what you end up with is learning that is accessible to each learner with a number of approaches that attempt to balance each other out.

    The truth is that there are no magic bullets. Good practice will depend upon each teacher having a high degree of pedagogic knowledge and applying it as appropriately as possible.

    Again it seems reasonable to re-iterate that it seems almost impossible to imagine the level of pedagogic expertise required, in an environment where OFSTED attempt to grade practice using a banal tick box list and where institutions are full to the rafters of administrators and micro managers peddling pedagogic gibberish.

    No one (who matters) yet seems to accept that OFSTED is the problem and not the solution. The solution is really high quality assessment and the acceptance that nothing will ever be perfect and the constant cycle of change hinders a long term view, and development of the tools at out disposal. One of which is questioning but it is only one and no more or less important than a number of others.

    Phew that turned into a bit of an essay.

  7. […] “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Nietzsche It’s a little tiresome, but I feel I must preface this by saying that these are just my thoughts. I’m not claiming anyone is wrong (or right for that matter) just that it always pays to question anything that passes as  […]

  8. Rahul says:

    No doubt answering questions lead to better understanding. Questioning is good, it create the curiosity in the person who is teaching as well as in learner also.

  9. thom says:

    David, as ever a fascinating post that is both reassuring and provocative. For me the issue is always asking myself ‘Is it a good question? Does it move learning forward?’ If I cannot find sense in my answer, then is isn’t worth it. I m not sure if you are familiar with Peter Johnson’s two books, ‘Opening Minds’ and ‘Choice Words’ but I found them thoughtful and provoking. My problem with PD in general is that everybody is always trying to deliver the silver bullet, as if one thing with somehow improve the classroom immediately. There are things that make learning more likely, but I have never seen a silver bullet work yet.

  10. […] knowledge, but what about those things is making our students use their higher levels of thinking. This blog explains in great detail about the importance of asking the right questions to get your students to […]

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  13. […] David Didau recently reminded me of an early post I wrote, challenging the obsession in teaching with ‘questioning.’  So the reasoning would seem to go, asking questions somehow fundamentally makes kids learn more.  It’s something to do with how it gets them to think.  If CPD cycles are to be believed, we must speak only in questions, never expositing or explicating anything. […]

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  15. John says:

    The table covers many of the reasons for asking questions. I can think of a few other reasons:

    (a) identifying prior knowledge, not only for your benefit, but so that you help members of the class connect new information to existing knowledge. Sometimes pupils can generate good analogies and examples that help rest of the class understand. It can also help you identify and correct misconceptions they may have.
    (b) as a method to retain attention/engagement of pupils whilst you are giving an exposition. Firstly because it involves them and secondly because the knowledge they might have to ask a question makes them more attentive.
    (c) as a method of consolidating pupils’ knowledge. The act of them retrieving the answer itself consolidates the knowledge.

    Obviously like any other technique its success depends on how well questions are used and who is involved in answering them.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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