It is hard to deny that questioning is a central part of any lesson. And questioning is also one of the few easily observed parts of the teaching process.
However, there’s a problem: unless you are clear about what the question intended to achieve, it is very hard to know if you, or the person you are observing, is using questioning well.
So what should questioning aim to do?
Two reasons to question?
Rosenshine’s Principles of Instructions has questioning as Principle 3, stating that effective teachers “ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all pupils”.
He goes on to talk about the purpose of questioning being twofold: to enable pupils to practise their responses verbally and to check that pupils have understood what they have been taught.
I discussed those two functions of questioning in a previous column (Questioning: when and how to use it in the classroom) and mentioned how these two functions of questions would lead to very different forms.
The first, rehearsal of responses, would benefit from open, Socratic questions, where follow-up questions are used to deepen understanding.
Checking for understanding might benefit from much more targeted questions where you are looking for a specific response in order to diagnose exactly was has, or has not, been learned.
Fine, you might think, that is simple enough.
However, I would add a third function of questioning to Rosenshine’s list: retrieval.
Questions for learning
As teachers, we often ask questions because we want pupils to try and recall something from a previous lesson. We do this for a couple of reasons:
Retrieving things from our long-term memory makes them easier to recall in the future (often called the testing effect).
We want pupils to link something they have learned in the past to what we are now teaching them. This helps their schema (their web of knowledge that helps them understand a topic and the world) to develop.
For example, when starting a topic looking at why volcanic eruptions have different effects, I might ask a pupil what we mean by a development indicator.
My hope is that this will make them retrieve the answer to the question (strengthening the retrieval strength in the future) and help them to make the link between development indicators and the factors that affect the severity of hazards.
I also hope that by asking this one pupil the question, the rest of the class will also hear the question, hear the answer and have the same benefits.
A look at the evidence, though, suggests that this hope would be in vain. Indeed, when we use this technique, we may all be getting it wrong.
Research by Magdalena Abel and Henry Roediger on The Testing Effect in a Social Setting (2017) found that, in most situations, only the pupil answering the question, the one going through what they term "overt retrieval", benefitted from the testing effect.
Those who heard the answer did not.
This was true even if those listening to the answer were instructed to closely monitor whether they thought the person was right in their answer or not.
It would seem that the person monitoring the person answering simply didn’t need to think hard enough for the retrieval to take place. The only way in which the other person benefitted was if they also had to form an answer to the question themselves and monitor whether they themselves got it right.
Adapting the technique
This has some interesting implications for the classroom where we are likely to be asking a large number of questions for various reasons. It would suggest that asking pupils to listen to what others are saying isn’t enough if the purpose of our questioning is retrieval. We need to do something to make sure that everyone is having to think of the answer to a question and then think about whether they were right or not.
One way to achieve this is to subtly alter the way you ask questions. Rather than our questioning process being:
Calling on a pupil.
Asking the question.
Getting their response.
We could shift it so that we:
Ask the question first.
Give all pupils a chance to internally form an answer.
Go to two pupils to see if they had the same answer.
Before revealing/discussing the answer ourselves.
As pupils don’t know who will be called upon to answer, and are given time to think, it encourages them to all go through the process of recall.
Having read this research a while ago I thought that it was something I already did. To check, I asked someone to observe me in the classroom and monitor how I asked questions.
Despite being aware of this person being in the room with this exact aim I still reverted to calling pupils first and asking the question second. It is a difficult habit to break and one we may not be aware we have.
As teachers we ask dozens of questions every lesson, and teach several lessons a day. Any bad habits quickly become ingrained. One of the ways that expert teachers become experts is by making the endless micro-decisions they have to make every lesson automated.
The problem can be that what we lump together as “questioning” is actually a range of highly specialised tools that each have to be used in slightly different ways. If we want to really see the benefits from questioning we need to select the right tool for the right job.
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book Teach Like Nobody’s Watching is out now. He tweets @EnserMark