When I began teaching, I used to use questioning for two main reasons. Firstly, as a way of eliciting ideas I desired pupils to construct. For example, if I was teaching pupils about experimental design, I might ask them why they thought we have only one independent variable in an experiment and lead pupils to build on previous answers – or ‘snowball’. Secondly, I used questioning to check whether pupils had learned the key concepts I intended them to learn that lesson. For example, I might ask pupils at the end of a lesson on compounds, to identify which was the element and which the compound from a list. Today, my questioning is quite different. This is a post about how my style of questioning has evolved since I started teaching. It’s the third in a series of posts on the evolution of my pedagogy; the first focussed on behaviour, whilst the second post focussed on teacher talk.
There are two reasons I now believe the questioning described above is flawed. The first, snowballing questions, is a time inefficient method and probably does not produce the learning gains I intend. The second, is not a poor teaching method, but a poor inference. Inferring learning has occurred at the end of a lesson based on plenary questions is not valid.
What makes an effective question?
Effective teachers are always asking questions. But not all questions are effective. Snowballing is a technique where you ask a pupil a question they probably do not know the answer to, persuade them to guess, then get another pupil to ‘build’ on the answer and so on, until the answer is good enough. I was, when I began teaching, persuaded that this is a great technique for two reasons. Firstly, it appears to develop pupil’s ‘thinking skills’ – they are after all thinking hard for an answer, or critiquing the answer of a previous pupil. Thinking hard and being critical surely develop critical thinking, right? Secondly, I was told it is a great way to show progress in lessons. (It’s great for observations, particularly graded observations). I know.
All of these reasons fall flat on their face. Skills are not generic – they depend on a body of knowledge. Simply being critical does not develop critical thinking. Furthermore, getting pupils to guess and criticise answers when they clearly do not have knowledge to do so effectively is just a waste of time. It does not result in learning because there is so much uncertainty and so little guidance for the novice pupils. Finally, the opportunity cost is huge: consider the alternative scenario, where I tell pupils the answer immediately and they practice recalling or applying the knowledge instead of guessing? This is what I do now, and my pupils are measurably better at using scientific language accurately. (I won’t bother dismantling the argument that snowballing shows progress. This is a clear example of high-stakes accountability in the form of graded observations encouraging poor teaching practice).
What inference can I make from pupil response to questions?
The cognitive science definition of learning is a ‘change in the long-term memory’. Questioning elicits answers, and the act of retrieval strengthens learning (this phenomenon is called the testing effect). The inference that my questioning is strengthening learning is therefore likely a valid one. However, when I started teaching, I was under the naive illusion that if a pupil could answer a question at the end of a lesson, that this was evidence of learning. Of course, I quickly realised that pupils do forget… but it took me a long time to research, find and actually implement strategies that make learning stick*.
This tells me that these fundamentals in cognitive science must become part of ITT – if I had known that spaced retrieval practice is the key to embedding learning, I would have started every lesson with a short recall quiz from day one. This would have been easier than using the ‘starter/plenary generator’ to come up with a new starter/plenary each lesson, and of course, yielded better outcomes.
Teach Like A Champion also contains some great strategies for questionimg such as cold calling a strategic sample of pupils to make a reliable estimate of whether the class has understood a concept. This is what I am spending time refining at the moment.
These techniques have become central to my questioning toolkit, and were essential ideas that I incorporated into my teaching practice, allowing it to evolve.
I do believe my practice has evolved for the better, and hope that it continues to do so. I know that as long as I continue to be critically reflective, and remain research-informed, my pedagogy will continue to evolve.
*Two key sources I have learned a lot about improving pupil retention are: