I'm glad you asked that;Classroom practice

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Teachers spend so much time demanding answers, but the best skill we can pass on to pupils is the ability to ask good questions, says Alan Combes.

Under the national curriculum we live in an answer-obsessed world. The tasks we set students can be open-ended and call for some expression of opinion (supported, of course, by evidence), but there is little scope for students to hone their "asking skills".

When I was a young secondary teacher in the discredited Seventies, a section in a then influential book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity (now out of print) opened my eyes in a way few things have done since. The exercise it suggested for getting students to frame questions was practical, simple and effective.

I adapted it as a small group activity for an English lesson and have used it as an introduction to GCSE work ever since.

It uses two sets of questions, one as a filter for the other. Students have to reflect on apparently straightforward enquiries - such as "How are you?" and "Why do aeroplanes crash?" - before answering questions about the nature of those queries - such as "Which ones can you answer with absolute certainty" (see box, bottom right).

Each time I make use of the framework, classes finish their deliberations far too quickly. At the start of the session it is obvious that their work has been hopelessly hampered by lack of definition of terms: "absolute certainty", "factual information", "greatest amount of definition", "testimony of experts" and so on. Why did they not seek clarification? How could they complete an exercise of such complexity in minutes when a group of adults might take a day rather than an hour?

I believe the answer to those two questions lies in the same place - schools. We emphasise the importance of answers rather than questions and even when we do consider questions, all too often they demand a yes or no answer. The best skill we can pass on to our pupils is the ability to ask good questions. But how often do we compliment pupils when they do? How many of the teacher's questions are purely rhetorical? How often do we ask a question to which no one in the class responds? Are we then prepared to ride the silence or does it become so unbearable that, having given the class the question, we willingly provide the answer too? How often are we prepared to jeopardise our control as teachers by asking a question we don't know the answer to?

One good exercise involves going an entire lesson without giving an answer or making a definitive statement. It is so difficult because it goes against the grain of what teachers are trained to believe - that they are passers-on of knowledge.

There are lots of worthwhile activities based on questioning. Spending time doing it should not be seen as time misspent, for it will be through responding to questions that pupils will determine their exam results and futures.

Consider, for example, the question: "Who discovered oxygen?" (Can it be nailed down to one person? Is "discovered" the right word? Might there be more than one answer? and so on.) If something closer to home is required, why not analyse last year's GCSE questions? Is this not a more practical way of tackling the oft-made criticism that candidates do not answer the question?

Record the BBC's Question Time and consider whether the pundits actually answer the questions. If not, why not? What strategies do the politicians use to turn the questions asked into the ones they want to answer? Why do they do this? How do people stall for time when they do not want to or cannot answer a question? When was the last time you did this?

By key stage 4, most pupils are capable of recognising these tactics. Try recording a television news interview and encouraging the class to pay close regard to the question and answer format. Have a look at how Jeremy Paxman grills his victims on Newsnight. Personalities such as Brian Clough and Arthur Scargill were classics in the way they took control from the questioner. Which interviewees operate like that these days?

When we introduce new topics into our work, it is customary to take the reins immediately. We define the topic by reference to the curriculum, the examination syllabus, our own teaching experience. But what if we gave the students the opportunity to qualify the topic?

Take something as relatively limited as igloos. Ask each student in the class to contribute the 10 questions they would most like answered about igloos. Suppose they had to build an igloo and were limited to just 10 questions they could ask of an expert igloo builder. Develop the lesson by encouraging the pupils to look at the quality of the questions they have generated.

Some years ago, when I had to teach a unit of sex education, I created a questions-based syllabus by asking the pupils to come up with the questions they would most like discussed in future lessons. What came out of that became the basis for my teaching of sex education for subsequent groups. My feeling was that if a pupil was old enough to frame a serious question, it deserved mature consideration.

These are some of the questions they came up with:

* Where did HIV come from and how does it work?

* Is being gay unnatural?

* Should it be illegal?

* What makes people gay?

* Should gay people be allowed to act as parents?

* Is it right that schools should be discouraged from discussing homosexuality?

* Should you wait for somebody special before you have sex?

* Why are there so many jokes about sex?

* Is sex funny?

* Why are so many sex jokes told by men about women?

* Can you really "fall in love"? If so, does it mean that some people are meant for each other?

* Does the boy have to take the lead in a relationship? If so, why? How would a girl be viewed if she took the lead?

Getting pupils to make up good questions forces them to weigh each word and nuance. They can photocopy a newspaper or magazine article in which most of them will have an interest and be encouraged to formulate questions for the writer. They can underline words and phrases that require better definition (as in "What does the writer mean by...?").

The notion of questions and questioning is not merely something which should occupy teaching time for a certain part of the working week, it should pervade all our teaching. Young people are simply bursting with questions, and although they do have to be silenced at times, we should do so without murdering curiosity.

Alan Combes is a teacher and education consultant in Yorkshire


The questions:

* What is the name of this school?

* Are the children of permissive parents more creative than those of non-permissive parents?

* Who discovered oxygen?

* Who is the most beautiful woman in Britain?

* Are the people of Jupiter more advanced than the people on Earth?

* Will it rain tomorrow?

* How are you?

* Will you end up with the career of your choice?

* Is "love" a noun or a verb?

* 8 + 6 = ?

* Why do aeroplanes crash?

* Which creature has caused the most human deaths?

* What price life?

* What is the most effective way to punish murderers?

Questions about the questions:

* Which of the questions above can you answer with absolute certainty? How can you be certain of your answer?

* What information will enable you to answer other questions with absolute certainty?

* Which questions restrict you to giving factual information? Which do not? Which require no facts at all?

* Which questions require the greatest amount of definition before you try to answer them?

* Which questions require the testimony of experts? What makes one an expert?

* Which questions assume the answerer is an expert?

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