Hands up, mouths shut

28th October 2005 at 01:00
Shouting out answers affects other pupils' learning. Behaviour management expert Sue Cowley advises


"The quiet or less able children will start to feel that there's no point"

I'm keen to develop my questioning technique to help me keep my classes involved and interested. I need to use lots of questions to challenge them, to get them thinking, and also to assess their understanding.

My problem is with pupils calling out. However sympathetically I deal with wrong answers, all the benefit seems to get lost because pupils shout out.

I'm worried that the quiet or less able children will start to feel that there's no point in thinking about the question posed because someone is going to shout the answer out before they can get there.

As a student I spent a term teaching a quiet, unresponsive Year 10 group.

There was just one student, the brightest in the group, who was happy to answer questions. She insisted on calling out, despite being asked not to on many occasions. I took her aside and explained to her the impact that her calling out had on other students and on my teaching, but this had little effect. If I rebuked her at the time she would sulk and I'd get no response at all to my next questions.

With other groups I have ignored the person calling out and asked for the answer from another student. This has generally had a positive effect.

Unfortunately, in this class there was often no other student with their hand up. I am unclear if it was age or low motivation, but if I tried asking someone else they would repeat the same answer in a sarcastic tone, showing that they felt it was pointless.

There are several points that concern me about disciplining students for calling out. It feels wrong to sanction someone for knowing the answers and being enthusiastic, and if you rebuke students at the time then it is very public. When I've tried speaking to pupils after the event they find it difficult to appreciate the impact their behaviour has had on the learning of others. Also, this problem can cause some of the brightest members of the group to stop contributing.

Another difficulty is that I empathise with students who call out. They know the answer and want credit for it. They can get to the answer more quickly than others in the group and want to move the pace of the teaching along to one that suits them. I know that I can't let this happen or I will be leaving behind most of the class.

One of my key aims in my NQT year is to encourage the students to stretch themselves and to think. I aim to do this by posing questions and giving students thinking time. This is not going to work unless I can stop any calling out. Do you have any suggestions to help?

Beth Dennis is an NQT teaching maths at a secondary school in Birmingham


"Not every questioning session has to involve the pupils volunteering to give answers"

As Beth has realised, an effective questioning technique is a key strategy for promoting high-quality learning. On the surface it seems simple - the teacher asks the questions, the pupils put up their hands and give their answers. But there is more to running question and answer sessions than meets the eye. After all, even adults find it hard - look at the trouble the Speaker has managing a session of Parliament.

First, let's deal with the perennial problem of pupils calling out their answers, which is reasonably easy to handle. Beth is already using the classic technique to solve this - ignoring those who call out in favour of those with their hands up. It can take a while, and she will need to be persistent in setting her standards, but eventually this will pay dividends.

Beth can back up this technique with some additional strategies. When asking questions, she should cue her pupils in the appropriate behaviour, saying, "Put your hand up if you can tell me". When she picks a child whose hand is up, she should overdo her praise to reward the good behaviour:

"Well done, Sam, that's brilliant, you've put your hand up."

Sometimes the type of questions used are part of the problem. At first, new teachers place an over-reliance on closed questions - ones to which they know the answer ("What shape has four equal sides?"). Although these questions help test understanding, they don't get the pupils engaged and thinking for themselves. Experiment with using plenty of open questions:

"What ways can we use to test whether the sides of a shape are of equal length?"

Try using plenty of different approaches to questions, such as individual brainstorms, paired discussions and small groups answering a set number of questions within a time limit, and so on. Hand over the reins and be a bit experimental, for instance, asking the pupils what questions they want to investigate during the lesson.

In the case of unresponsive groups, Beth needs to make it fun and rewarding to be a pupil giving the answers. She might hand out a raffle ticket for every question answered, drawing a quality prize for the winner at the end of the lesson. She could give out post-it notes and get the pupils to post up answers on a QA board. If she's daring, she might use a TV format, such as the Trisha show, which requires participation from the pupils as the "audience".

Not every questioning session has to involve the pupils volunteering to give answers. You are entitled to ask that anyone in the class at least tries to give an answer, picking out individuals by name to give you their thoughts. Use this approach for sessions involving open questions so that everyone should have at least some response to give. Where you do need to assess understanding by using closed questions, this can be done with a quick written test.

When electing pupils to answer questions, it is best to wait until you know the class relatively well. Some children will simply be lazy, letting others do the work rather than thinking for themselves. However, there will be others who are struggling and who might freeze up if you put them on the spot.

When you ask an "anyone answers" question, give the class a chance to formulate their responses. "Thinking time" of 30 seconds or a minute will ensure that every pupil has something to say. This time might be used individually, or to discuss the question with a partner. You can spice up "thinking time" by using a giant stopwatch, or the Countdown music.

Finally, consider your own motivation for using questions in lessons. It can be as much about the teacher feeling in control of the class as about all the pupils actually thinking for themselves. Constantly question yourself about what actually works best for your children's learning, and don't forget to ask your pupils for their opinions as well.

Sue Cowley is author of 'Getting the Buggers to Behave' (Continuum)


* Use a mix of open and closed questions: Very little active thinking takes place if you are only looking for a single correct answer. Ask some questions that are open to a variety of different responses.

* Think laterally: Steer clear of too much teacher-led QA time, taking more lateral approaches instead. Find ways to put the questioning in the hands of your pupils, letting them take ownership of their own thinking processes.

* Set clear standards: No matter how tempting, try not to respond to children who call out. Set an absolute expectation of hands up and eventually you will train the class.

* Set a challenge: Motivate your pupils to get their hands up in the air, using plenty of targets, rewards and challenges to keep them keen.

* Question yourself: Consider how and when you use questions during a lesson, and the type of questioning technique you tend to employ.

Constantly ask yourself what is genuinely most useful for your pupils'


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