Classroom practice - Our love of questions needs the third degree

Too many teachers turn classrooms into interrogation chambers hoping to engage pupils – but it's more likely to lead to a dead end
19th December 2014, 12:00am
Don Skinner


Classroom practice - Our love of questions needs the third degree

Each week, a teacher will typically ask their students some 1,000 questions, whereas a pupil can easily get away with asking the teacher just one knowledge-seeking query. You may be wincing at this gross imbalance. It is a big problem, of course, but it's worse than that: the whole idea of teaching by questioning is flawed.

Teaching by questioning rests on three assumptions: that questions are the best way to make young people think; that it's hard to encourage participation and engagement without them; and that you need questions to assess understanding. All three assumptions are unsafe.

1 Broken concentration

Research by University of California academic J T Dillon consistently shows that learners think more deeply and make longer contributions in response to statements than they do to questions - and that this holds in varying contexts and at different stages.

Effective learning in open discussion, Dillon argues, requires not improved questioning but the tactical avoidance of questions. Teacher questioning leads pupils to abandon their emerging line of thought and adjust to that of the teacher, with the student trying to guess what the teacher is looking for. By carefully examining the evidence from classroom exchanges, Dillon demonstrates that even skilful questioning foils rather than fosters genuine discussion.

Yet the questioning habit is so deeply ingrained that teachers don't know what to do when they're told to avoid it. Dillon recommends six alternative approaches:

  • Repeat what a pupil has said.
  • Contrast what two students say.
  • Use fillers such as "mmm", "uh-huh", and expressions of feeling ("I'm shocked", "That's surprising") to oil the flow of discussion without taking it over.
  • Use non-verbal signals such as hand gestures to invite others to speak.
  • Adopt an appreciative silence for about five seconds, waiting patiently for pupils to contribute.
  • To start, instruct one student to kick things off and make sure you are not the first to respond - and certainly not with a question.
    • You'll find it hard at first but it will work, and you'll get genuine discussion rather than teacher-led question-and-answer. You can round off with some direct teaching, briefly explaining, informing or throwing out challenges.

      2 Other ways to connect

      You may believe you need questions to encourage participation, yet many reports show that such questioning can be like drawing teeth - see work by the Center for Instructional Development and Research and Robin Alexander's Essays on Pedagogy. Few students engage, and rarely those whom the teacher is trying to reach. Far from igniting pupil thinking, the barrage of teacher questions often stifles it.

      Many activities - measurement, writing, painting, experiments - engage young people without the need for teacher questioning. Clear instructions are what counts, together with explaining how students will be supported and challenged.

      Admittedly, teachers typically begin with questions to help a class to recall existing knowledge, which is important. But this could be achieved in other, often more effective, ways: for example, pupils can discuss topics in small groups and then report back.

      3 Poor assessment technique

      Probing, cumulative questioning obviously has a role in assessment. However, it is by no means the only strategy, nor always the best. A pupil's poor response may indicate a lack of knowledge or understanding, but interrogations by teachers often inhibit learners and prevent them showing off what they do know. Nominating a student to explain and inviting others to comment is an excellent way of gauging learners' understanding. Application tasks are another reliable route.

      Behind the dominance of teaching by questioning lies an unfortunate assumption: that direct teaching is anti-educational and will result in dull transmission teaching and passive rote learning. Several teaching textbooks don't even index "explaining"; others suggest that explanations are best delivered through sustained questioning and neglect to mention standard presentation skills.

      Being able to deliver clear, brief explanations and present information effectively should be central to every teacher's repertoire. You will encounter plenty of good examples outside school every day: television and radio programmes include first-rate explanations about topics ranging from science and nature to money matters, for example. Just consider the brilliant explanatory comments offered by Darcey Bussell on Strictly Come Dancing.

      But what about Socratic questioning? Socrates was a great teacher - of ethics. Unfortunately, Socratic questioning is often proclaimed as the core of all good teaching. Few other great teachers copied him, however, and the portrayal of the methodology in popular films such as Legally Blonde is largely a myth. It is rarely used in physics, history or literature.

      Admittedly, the Philosophy for Children movement has had some success in schools. But as the educational philosopher R S Peters long ago noted, the Socratic manner is not a game that two can play.

      I should be clear that I am not ruling out questioning altogether. Rather, I am stating that it is counterproductive to rely on it too heavily. Dillon says the same. If we do use questioning, he argues, we need to prepare a few questions carefully, ask them slowly (implying a good wait time) and listen to the answers - a far cry from common practice amid the pressures of whole-class interactive teaching.

      And we need to move away from an obsession with distributing questions fairly around the whole class within each lesson. Alexander's book on teaching in Russia, Culture and Pedagogy, shows that with a collaborative ethos, where pupils listen to a few children being questioned at length, cumulative teacher questioning can provide deeper learning for all.

      Alexander developed this approach further in Britain as "dialogic teaching" (collaborative, cumulative exploratory question and answer) - an approach that shows great promise for teacher questioning. Neil Mercer's compelling research on exploratory talk adds to this.

      However, many advocates of dialogic teaching seem strongly tied to questioning alone and focused on pre-set learning outcomes. They acknowledge a repertoire of classroom teaching talk but give little attention to enquiry and learning through action and experience.

      They also fail to address the different means of learning in such modes, where straightforward supportive and challenging comments in each phase of the planning, doing, reflection cycle are both possible and desirable. The potential of open discussion and Dillon's alternatives to questioning have been unfairly sidelined.

      Quality questioning has vital role in dialogic teaching and exploratory talk but this is far from the whole of teaching. It is time for a much wider view of classroom interaction.

      Don Skinner is a former maths teacher and freelance educational writer. He is the author of Effective Teaching and Learning in Practice

      In short

      Effective alternatives to teacher questions exist for encouraging thinking, assessing learning and interacting productively with learners.

      More attention to open discussion, enquiry and learning through direct experience is required, employing non-questioning interaction styles.

      The ingrained bias against direct teaching needs to be challenged and explaining restored as a teaching skill.

      What else?

      Keep this toolkit handy to help structure class discussions.

      If that's the answer, what's the question? Use this PowerPoint to lead a workshop on questioning.

      Help students get the most out of group discussions with this glossary of useful phrases.


      Center for Instructional Development and Research, University of Washington (2000) "More and better class participation", Teaching and Learning Bulletin, 1:4

      Alexander, R (2008) Essays on Pedagogy (Routledge)

      Alexander, R (2001) Culture and Pedagogy: international comparisons in primary education (Blackwell)

      Dillon, J T (2004) Questioning and Teaching: a manual of practice (Wipf and Stock)

      Skinner, D (2010) Effective Teaching and Learning in Practice (Continuum)

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