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Talk and chalk

What's the question again? asks Phil Revell

Questions are tricky things. First-order questions are easy enough. "Where is the football?" is a good example. The answers are factual and simple, and deal with the who, the where and the what.

"It's over there, Sir," says Wayne. "In the corner."

Second-order questions are concerned with the why and the how. Answers can be perplexing.

"Why is it in the corner?"

"Brian kicked it, Sir," says Wayne.

"No I didn't. It were you," says Brian.

See? How and why are slippery. Teachers need to remember these problems during question-and-answer work. Too often the focus is on the answer, but a second-order question can have thousands of possible answers.

One teacher asked a group: "Why are drugs dangerous?" Answers ranged from, "'Cos they kill you," to "They cost too much", and the offbeat, "What sort of drugs?" Many experts would say the last response was the most interesting, but the teacher had just spent a lesson talking about the health risks and was in no mood to be distracted.

Children can be answer-oriented too, especially if they have never been taught the difference between fact accumulation and knowledge. Try them with some nonsense statistics. Tell them the Government has decided all Year 9s will have to get 20 per cent above the average mark in their SATs, or they will have to take the year again. Are they outraged or amused? (Encourage children to reflect before they leap in with an answer.) A good training method is the number guessing game, in which the teacher thinks of a number between one and 1,000 and the class has to guess what it is. At first, children will be answer-focused - they will shout out a number hoping to get lucky. After a while they will employ strategies - "Is it an even number? Is it between one and 500?" Tell them about open and closed questioning and supplementary questions. Tape Newsnight and ask them if the politicians answer the questions.

There are disadvantages. A thinking classroom is no place for a lazy or complacent teacher. And if you encourage children to ask "Why?" you have to be prepared occasionally to admit that you don't know the answer.

The payoff comes when someone asks an intelligent question that makes the whole class think. Just hope it isn't: "Why are we doing this?"

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