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Should we leave the questioning to pupils?

When it comes to classroom discussions, teachers should step back and allow pupils to lead with their questions, writes Yvonne Williams

English, poetry, questioning, interrogation

When it comes to classroom discussions, teachers should step back and allow pupils to lead with their questions, writes Yvonne Williams

For too long, teaching has been dominated by the systematic approach that derived from the national curriculum of 1989 and the national literacy strategy of the nineties. The programmes of study and national curriculum levels became a rigid framework in which it seemed that the only questions students were encouraged to ask were: “What level am I?” and “How do I move up to the next level?” 

But is linear teaching and learning really the best preparation for surviving the unknowns of the 21st century? With so much change in Ofsted’s curricular thinking, isn’t it time for teachers to quietly abandon the rusty mechanisms of the past and instead challenge the linear subject models by reviving their questioning skills?

Back when I was an insecure PGCE student, I felt safest when the lesson kept within secure confines, which ultimately meant taking control through interrogation. My first lesson contained more than 20 questions, which I rattled off at the speed of a steam train. When I arrived, somewhat rapidly, at the end of my interrogative journey, I was still in the middle of the lesson; this taught me one big thing: leave space for some answers.

When I asked colleagues and friends for help on how to avoid making this mistake again, the best piece of advice I received was not to use the questions as pegs on which to hang my own expected responses, but instead to understand that students may be frustrated by the expectation of guessing what's inside the teacher’s mind. When they're doing that, they're not concentrating on the subject in hand. 

Rethinking questioning

A few years later, Inset sessions were devoted to encouraging a more open-ended approach, as a means to advance student engagement and learning.   

Recent pedagogical thinking has portrayed “questioning” as a repertoire in strategic interrogative techniques. Lessons are often advanced by open and closed questions. The imagined teacher differentiates sensitively by directing, enabling and scaffolding questions while requiring more developed responses from very open or even evaluative questions. 

Meanwhile, democratic differentiation strategies can allow students to pick their own investigative strands, either for homework or class tasks, from a carefully structured menu. 

So what would happen if we took questioning one stage further – if questions were no longer solely in the domain of the teacher?  

In these days of rigid flight paths through the new specifications, with carefully sequenced lessons and PowerPoint presentations, an unexpected question can divert the class from the short-term destination. However, the consequence of just following the GCSE route map could deprive students of real learning opportunities. 

For police procedurals, the interviewing officers are reminded not to ask questions if they don’t know the answer. But the difference between pedagogy and policing is that, with the latter, you are trying to catch criminals and get convictions. The classroom’s a slightly different matter.

The act of questioning

Letting students set the agenda through, for example, asking questions about poetry in English lessons may not be an instant success. Some questions may appear quite basic, focusing on definitions of complex vocabulary, but it is still an inevitable part of meaning-making. 

Often, students will approach a poem as if it’s a code to crack; this isn’t quite as naïve as it might seem. After all, isn’t creative writing a way of using language to understand some of the issues and emotions that perplex, and even obsess, writers the most?  

Some students will imitate their teachers’ pattern of attack with questions about the use of sound, senses and descriptive-language techniques. Seldom will there be an attempt to uncover the form and structure of the poem as a whole – until someone asks a question about what happens at the beginning of the poem and where the writer has reached by the end. At that point, it’s possible to ask all kinds of questions about the sequence, reflection and even choice of rhythm. The act of questioning can become the means of paying close attention to the text, and these realisations can quickly follow once the class understands that.

Most rewarding of all is when the questions focus on uncertainties and ambiguities, and the knowledge becomes clear for the reader. Recently, when they were studying Carol Ann Duffy’s In Mrs Tilscher’s Class, by suggesting questions in groups of two, students questioned what the change in weather ("That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity") represented towards the end of the poem. 

It’s moments like these in which the way students have been taught to respond to literature becomes evident. On the one hand, it shows that students expect to live in a constant state of metaphor when entering an English class, where the multiplicity of meanings are tolerated or even embraced. On the other, it can make us question whether the process of literary study is an artificial one, in which students are always on the lookout for “hidden meanings”.

Encouraging adventurous thinking and interrogation can lead to penetrating challenges to understanding Duffy’s use of synaesthesia. One enterprising student wanted to know what electricity did taste like, which is a very good question – and not one for practical investigation.

Gradually students learn how to take the initiative, how to frame useful questions and deselect those that are not. They work together constructively and enjoy the freedom to investigate, and in the process, learn to tolerate uncertainty. 

So what are the next steps?  

With the risky venture of evaluating and questioning strategies, and the application of students’ past knowledge, they will review how they traced their route. When students encounter the next poem, the task will be to compare it with previous texts to find recurring patterns, and apply their knowledge and strategies. While they may not follow a structured lesson plan and they might not progress in a linear fashion, if deeper metacognitive learning emerges, style may just need to be sacrificed.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the south of England

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