How to ask the right questions

2nd November 2007 at 00:00
There is more to a mere pebble or an autumn leaf than you may think. Jackie Cosh finds an answer.A child shows a pebble to his teacher. What is this? Where do pebbles come from? Do you like going to the beach? What kind of things do you like doing there?

A simple action is turned into a learning exercise at Glenbervie Kindergarten in Larbert, where staff underwent training recently on effective questioning and how it can be used to extend learning.

As in many nurseries in Scotland, effective questioning as a method to extend learning and vocabulary had been highlighted as an area requiring attention in its HMIE report. So nursery owner Helen Bell approached Lorraine Hamilton of SCOPE Coaching Services and together they developed a short workshop to be run out of hours on-site for all staff.

The result - improved interaction through effective questioning - sought to provide staff with ideas on how to use questions to extend learning, and how conflict can be resolved, providing a young team with the ideas and confidence to turn everyday questions into a learning experience.

Lorraine Campbell is supervisor for the two rooms for three- to five-year-olds. "The other girls had been coming to me, as supervisor, for advice on situations they felt they could have handled better. We started looking for ways to use the children's answers to take their learning and development forward and wanted ideas and ways to use questioning," she says.

"An example was when one child brought in some autumn leaves. So many things can lead on from this, but the problem was knowing how to encourage discussion."

The course provided ideas on how to provide the child with prompts. Ms Campbell says: "The training made us think about different scenarios and how we could handle the situation better and get more from them. So with the child and the leaves, we could have used leading questions to encourage discussion on the seasons."

The workshop also covered conflict resolution techniques, such as "chunking up" and "chunking down", she say. "I find it easier to resolve conflict because I know what my aims are. I am not telling the children what I am going to do, but instead am wording things in such a way that they are making the decision themselves to end the conflict."

Open and closed questions are two of the techniques used to extend learning. Ms Campbell gives an example of how this was put into practice in the junior room. "A child told a staff member that they couldn't do something. The staff member used open questions to allow the child to think how to perform the activity without being given the answer immediately."

For Helen Bell, the workshop proved cost-effective. There was no need to hire a venue as it was held on site, and all staff attended together, meaning no need for cover during opening hours. It also worked as a team-building exercise.

"Having the training course in the nursery was really good," says Ms Campbell. "It felt much more relaxed being in an environment where you know all the people and your surroundings. I really did feel that I retained more information because of this."

All the women agree that they benefited and learned from the workshop but, as Ms Campbell says, the learning is ongoing. "I don't think this is the type of course to do just once. I would like to see regular refresher courses where the material is updated. However many times you do it, you will always get something from it."


For Lorraine Hamilton of SCOPE Coaching Services, effective questioning is integral to the concept of coaching.

"Coaching is about thinking outside the box, and using our own resources to solve problems and achieve our goals," she says.

"Effective questioning is a vital part of challenging our children in a very supportive environment, and empowering them to develop their own solutions to problems with the facilitation of the questioner.

"By encouraging their natural inquisitiveness, the children's learning can be extended greatly."

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