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Questioning: when and how to use it in the classroom

Too often, we use questioning badly in our teaching – here's how to make sure that it deepens learning, says Mark Enser

In order for teacher questioning to have a real impact on learning, pupils need to have the knowledge to provide answers, writes Mark Enser

Too often, we use questioning badly in our teaching – here's how to make sure that it deepens learning, says Mark Enser

Questioning is a fundamental tool in the practice of most teachers. We ask questions for a variety of reasons, but most can be put under two broad categories: checking for understanding and deepening understanding.

Once we appreciate this, we can start to consider how we might use different types of questions in our classroom in a very deliberate manner, so that the right tool is used for the right job.

This is important, as too often we use questioning badly in our teaching.

Quick read: Why you need to question your questioning

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One of the most frustrating ways that questioning gets used in the classroom is when the teacher is avoiding simply telling the class something, and instead tries to get the answer from them through the use of ever more frantic questions. It quickly becomes a game of “guess what’s in my head”.

It is something I have often observed as a PGCE mentor and I still catch myself doing it.

You see exchanges like this.

Teacher: "OK, class. We are about to start a topic on Ghana. Does anyone know the capital of Ghana?"
Pupil 1: "Is it London?"
Teacher: "Good guess. But no. London is our capital."
Pupil 2: "I went to London once."
Teacher: "That’s interesting. But it isn’t the capital of Ghana. Anyone else?"
Pupil 3: "Is it Lagos?"
Teacher: "Closer!"
Pupil 3: "Bagos?"
Teacher: "No… I’ll give you a clue. It rhymes with Baccra"
Pupil 1: "I think London is a capital…"

And so it goes on.

The problem with this is that we are questioning pupils about things they haven’t yet been taught. This might work if all we are doing is reinforcing things pupils learn in their everyday life, but if we feel that schools should add something more than this, then this line of questioning is likely to be fruitless.

So what should we be doing?

1. Checking for understanding

When I started teaching, we were discouraged from asking closed questions as it was felt that these were too limiting and didn’t give the pupils a chance to think deeply. When it comes to checking for understanding, however, there are many advantages to closed questions over open ones.

One problem with asking open questions is that it becomes very difficult to know if pupils have grasped any particular point.

For example, if I want to know whether a pupil has understood the role that the high relief surrounding the village of Boscastle played in the causes of the flood and asked an open question like “Why did Boscastle flood?” I might get the answer “Because of the heavy rain”. That is true, but it tells me nothing about their understanding of the role of relief.

Did they not mention it because they didn’t know it or because they thought this factor was more significant? Or simply because it was the first thing to pop into their heads?

In this case, I might be better off asking questions with a much narrower range of possible answers:

  • What are the hills like around the village?
  • What do steep hills do to the speed of surface run-off?
  • What does fast surface runoff do to the risk of flooding?

The other issue with open questions is that you can generally only receive answers from one pupil at a time, as there are too many potential answers. With closed questions, you can ask the class the question and provide multiple-choice answers and use flashcards or mini-whiteboards to collect answers from the whole class. As such, you can make a better judgement about what has been understood.

2. Deepening understanding

Where open questions come into their own is in trying to deepen a pupil’s understanding and link together different ideas. In this instance, we can use what are called Socratic Questions.

These question stems are designed to probe someone’s response and lead to them thinking more deeply about their original answer.

I have outlined the stems and how they can be used in the below example.

Teacher: "Did heavy rain cause the flooding in Boscastle?"
Student: "Yes."

Firstly, we classify their thinking.

Teacher: "What do you know about the role of heavy rain in the cause of this flood?"
Student: "There was over a month’s rain in just 24 hours. This went straight into the river and caused it to burst its banks."  

Next, we probe assumptions.

Teacher: "What would change your answer about the flood being caused by heavy rain?" Student: "If there were other places that had as much rain and didn’t flood. Then I would have to look at other factors."

Thirdly, we demand evidence.

Teacher: "Did every village in the area flood?"
Student: "No. It can’t just have been the heavy rain."

Then we ask for alternative viewpoints.

Teacher: "So who might disagree that it was just caused by the amount of rain?"
Student: "People living in Boscastle. They might feel that there were mistakes made in managing the drainage basin and that this caused the flood."

Then explore implications.

Teacher: "What would be the implications of accepting that there might be some human causes of the flood?"  
Student: "It would mean that people could identify these other factors and then see if they could modify the vulnerability of the area and make flooding less likely in the future."

And, finally, question the question.

Teacher: "Why do you think we need to ask questions like this?"
Student: "If we accept that heavy rain alone doesn’t cause flooding then we might be able to prevent a flood like this happening somewhere else."

Notice, though, that for us to question like Socrates, we need pupils to have the knowledge with which to answer. Without this knowledge, they have nothing to think about and our questions will be, as Socrates himself might have said, like specks of dust falling through the fingers of time.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. His first book Making Every Geography Lesson Count is out now. He tweets @EnserMark


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