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7 tips for improving your questioning

These techniques will improve one of every teacher’s most useful tools

Questioning

These techniques will improve one of every teacher’s most useful tools

Questioning is central to a teacher’s daily practice.

So having been centrally concerned with questioning for the past 16 years, as a facilitator of philosophy in classrooms, here are what I consider to be some of the most important practical questioning strategies for the primary classroom and beyond.  

1. Question without questioning

It is worth distinguishing between three kinds of questioning: making a request (eg, "Would you mind turning the light on please?"), asking a question and putting something into question.

The last of these can be done in all manner of ways, from a provocative statement ("It’s better to be happy and unfree than unhappy and free") to a method I call "quote/discuss", or even just a quizzical look.

Possibly the most famous question in the world, "To be or not to be, that is the question", has us questioning the nature of our own existence, yet it does not have a question mark in sight.

To use this well, check your questioning mindset (see below).

2. ‘Anchor’ back to the question

This is the discipline known to anyone who has tried to write a good essay. It is also a discipline that can be taught from as early as nursery.

Anchoring is done most simply when you have a good, clear task question that you re-ask after a contribution.

For example:

Question: "Is the gorilla free?" 

Response: "He’s angry."

Anchor: "So is the gorilla free?"

questioning

3. ‘Open up’ answers to closed questions

As the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed, "Is the gorilla free?" is a closed question. These are great for eliciting intuitive responses from children (especially the very young or the unconfident), but they can result only in yes/no responses or short phrases.

This is easy to deal with: simply "open them up". For example, "Can you say why you think the gorilla is free?"

Remember that you can also open up tacitly by waiting in silence for a few seconds or prompting with a simple "Because…"

However, when more precision is needed, ask:

  • "Can you say why?" (Justification)
  • "Can you say what it would depend on?" (Conditions)
  • "Can you say how they are different?" (Comparison)
  • "What do you mean by that?" (Clarification)
  • "Can you say more about that?" (Elicitation)

Note also that these strategies are "contentless". This helps you to fulfil a purely structural role in discussions without getting too involved or providing too many of the ideas.

4. Remember this: anchor it, then open it up

In many cases, the best thing to do is to combine the above two approaches: anchor what someone says, then open it up. Here’s an example of a teacher opening up further to develop a pupil’s argument.

Question: Should you always help people? (A closed question that hides an open question: it’s grammatically closed but conceptually open.)

Pupil: It’s not always good to help people.

Teacher: Could you say why not? (Justification)

Pupil: Because sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind.

Teacher: Can you say what you mean by "cruel to be kind"? (Clarification)

Pupil: When you do something to someone that they don’t like because it’s good for them.

Teacher: Can you give an example? (Exemplification)

Child: When a parent shouts at their child to stop them from getting run over.

5. Testing for salience

One of the roles we often see as ours, as teachers, is to somehow curate the pupils’ responses to bring them to what is relevant among all the things they’ve said.

However, if this is true, we end up doing the most important work of all for them, and that doesn’t seem right.

So the opening-up strategy, testing for salience, helps confer this skill to students. When a student asks a good question, before asking for someone to answer it, ask the one who asked it why they asked it, or if someone says something important in answer to a question, ask them to say what matters, why it matters or what is important in what they said.

This ability, to hone in on what is important, to find what is salient among what is relevant, is one of the most important of the intellectual virtues – and one of the most difficult to develop. This strategy is a good start.

6. Make sure you have the correct questioning mindset

All the questioning strategies and techniques and types count for nothing if your mindset is wrong. I have previously distinguished between an open questioning mindset (OQM) and a closed questioning mindset (CQM). The simplest way to explain this is that an OQM is where you ask the student what they think and then why they think it. A CQM is where you ask the student to say what they think you want them to say then take little interest in what reasons they might have.

7. Ask closed questions that ‘contain’ open questions

If you wanted to ask an open question such as "What is poetry?", it would instead be more engaging (and easier to manage) to ask a question such as "Is rap poetry?" or "Is this a poem?" Once opened up ("Why is rap not poetry?" or "If this is not a poem, then what is a poem?"), the open question that lies behind it is revealed.

Peter Worley is the co-chief executive and co-founder of the Philosophy Foundation and a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London. His latest book, from which this article has been adapted, 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Questioning, is out now from Bloomsbury

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