What makes a good question?

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Mike Gershon continues his series of practical guides to big teaching topics by looking at questioning techniques

Teachers ask thousands of questions each week. They are the prime means of finding out what pupils think and to get them to think in the first place. And there are a range of techniques you can use to develop questioning skills.

Here are five ways to avoid that frustrating situation in which you ask a question and receive absolutely no response:

1. Avoid questions that require a single, direct answer, such as: "What is the capital of Mongolia?" There will be times when they are useful, but questions like these will discourage many pupils from responding, because they will be thinking: "There is one right answer to this and I don't want to be seen to get it wrong."

2. Use questions that invite pupils to talk about what they think, such as: "What do you know about Mongolia?" This elicits information in a broader way and the stakes are much lower. This becomes about pupils sharing their thoughts with the teacher and the class.

3. Put pupils in pairs and ask them to talk to their partner first. This alleviates the social awkwardness of being the first to speak and the numerical imbalance between teacher and pupils. Giving pupils time to discuss in pairs means everyone in the class has a safe, easy setting in which to understand and share an answer.

4. Give time to think. Ask a question, then wait, allowing pupils time to analyse the question and consider their answer. Avoid the trap of expecting an immediate response or asking quick-fire questions. You could tell them that they have 30 seconds of thinking time, or you could count slowly and silently to 10.

5. Encourage pupils to write something down. This helps free up space in their short-term memory, allowing them to explore the issue in more depth. Also, it means they will have something in front of them that they can reflect on.

Differentiation through questioning

As a differentiation tool, questioning is second to none. The teacher can tailor questions to fit any audience. Here are examples of three structuring tools:

Concrete to abstract

This method involves a gradual transition from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. Here is an example:

1. How many ducks are in the pond? (The most concrete question.)

2. What colour are the ducks?

3. How are the ducks behaving?

4. What are the relationships between the ducks?

5. What might be influencing the behaviour and relationships of the ducks?

6. Why might they have come to be as they are?

7. Is all human life mirrored by the ducks?

8. If ducks could speak, would we understand them? (The most abstract question.)

Keep the concrete-to-abstract continuum in mind when you are asking questions. If a pupil is struggling with the topic, ask them a concrete question. If they are confident, use a more abstract question to push their thinking.

Show me, tell me, convince me

This method goes from simpler to more challenging questions - to convince someone requires knowledge, rhetorical skill and a sound understanding of the issue. Here is how it works:

Show me: use the phrase "show me" as the command part of your question to ask a pupil to show you what they have done, how they have learned something. The word "show" indicates that this activity will involve a basic level of thinking.

Tell me: the phrase "tell me" means you are making greater demands of pupils. "Tell" indicates that this activity will require a deeper level of thinking than "show".

Convince me: the phrase "convince me" will result in even greater demands on pupils. Ask them to convince you that something is the case or that a certain action is needed. "Convince" indicates that an activity will require complex thinking.

With this method, you can ask a number of questions based on each category. You could extend the strategy by using the command words "explain", persuade and so on.

Digging deeper

Here, your aim is to get to the bottom of what pupils think. Your questions will involve asking for explanations and justifications. You will need to be persistent. Listen carefully to what they say and latch on to anything that is not clear, plausible, supported by evidence, reasoned or explained. Here are some examples:

- What do you mean by that?

- How does that relate to the question?

- Why do you think that?

- What evidence do you have for that?

- How can you justify what you have said?

- Why should we accept your answer?

This approach differentiates because it helps pupils to explore the foundations underpinning their thinking. Whether a pupil is more or less able, any statement relies on some sort of justification and pupils can explore this in whatever depth they can manage.

Making knowledge provisional

We want to help pupils to develop critical thinking skills. One way of doing this is to present knowledge as provisional. This can be achieved through use of the word "might" in questions, which helps them to arrive at a reasoned answer built on careful thinking and discussion.

For example: What is democracy? What might democracy be? If you ask the second question, pupils cannot help but reason, analyse, assess and examine. This will not necessarily be the case if the first form is used. In the second case, pupils will be able to arrive individually and as a group at answers based on critical thinking.

With this approach, the teacher is able to elicit detailed information about what pupils think and why. They can then use this to adjust and improve their teaching.

It also means that answers and ideas are tested in a critical crucible, in which evidence, examples and reasoning must be used to justify ideas. Making knowledge provisional means placing it in relation to the criteria that have developed since the Enlightenment and underpin what we are prepared to accept as true. This type of questioning trains pupils to think critically by demanding certain types of response and by subjecting these to further analysis and evaluation.

Questions as a diagnostic tool

Teachers need to be knowledgeable about a range of things: pedagogy, learning, specific subjects, thinking and psychology (more lay than professional). Unlike doctors, they do not need to know about any of these in great depth. It is likely that they will know more about one area than the others, but their skill comes from a synthesis of the various elements.

This presents a quandary that must be clarified if a teacher is to use questioning for effective diagnosis: what is being diagnosed? We can put pedagogy aside because it concerns the teacher, not the pupil. But we are still left with four elements: learning, the specific subject, thinking and psychology. If a teacher is using questioning to diagnose and prescribe, they ought first to consider which of these they want to know about. This will ensure that they ask questions that are appropriate and that will elicit relevant information.

Here is some analysis of the four elements that can help a teacher to decide what it is they are looking to diagnose:

Learning: This refers to the general act of learning. It includes aspects such as how a pupil learns, how they interact with what the teacher is asking them to do, what they perceive learning to involve, their attitude to learning and any elements that might inhibit learning. If a pupil appears not to be grasping what is going, the teacher may question them to find out why. They may find that the pupil does not understand the task or how it will help their learning. The teacher can "cure" this by explaining and exemplifying.

The specific subject: This refers to the content of the lesson, including aspects such as knowledge of key terms and understanding of concepts. If a pupil says they do not understand the work, this may be because they cannot come to terms with the content. Here, diagnostic questioning would help the teacher to identify what, specifically, the pupil does not understand. Perhaps they have misunderstood a key concept and are now misinterpreting new material.

Thinking: This refers to the general notion of thinking, including reasoning, analysis and problem-solving. A pupil may give you an answer that does not include any evidence of how or why they have come to that conclusion. Questioning could then be used to draw out the thinking that led to that answer. It may be that the pupil's thinking was sound, but it is still better to make the process explicit. Or it may be that the pupil came to the correct answer through incorrect means. In this case, the questioning will have elicited the error and given the teacher a chance to correct it.

Psychology: This refers to the psychological factors at play in the classroom, including motivation, self-confidence, the influence of past experience and so on. If a pupil is reluctant to engage with a particular task, it may be because a psychological factor is inhibiting them. Diagnostic questioning can help to elicit what is causing the problem. The teacher can use information they gain to suggest alternative approaches. For example, a pupil might be reluctant to take part in group work that will lead to a presentation. Diagnostic questioning may reveal that they are scared of speaking in front of a large audience. The teacher could then suggest that they work on scripting the group's presentation but do not have to speak in front of the class.

Diagnostic questioning involves asking questions to elicit specific information. This will probably be problem-solving, identifying error or checking what is known or understood, so it stands to reason that it is useful for teachers to think about this in advance.

The key thing is to reflect on your questioning and review it week by week, to identify what works best for particular classes. This is a large topic and for more strategies and activities see my upcoming e-book, How to Use Questioning in the Classroom.

Mike Gershon is an author and sociology teacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds. His free teaching resources can be downloaded from the TES website at www.tes.co.ukmikegershon


Reasons why students may not respond to questions:

- They do not know the answer.

- They do not feel confident.

- They do not understand the question.

- They have not listened to the question.

- Social pressure is inhibiting them

- They are bored.

- They do not feel sufficiently comfortable to share their thoughts.

- They fear getting the answer wrong.


How to develop good discussion questions:

- Think big. It is easier to home in on specifics from the big picture than vice versa.

- Find something that could be at issue. This can act as a focus for discussion.

- Pitch your questions carefully. Ensure pupils will have enough knowledge and understanding to talk about them for a sustained period.

- Make your questions clear (or be ready to explain them).

- Imbue your question with purpose. What is it you want your pupils to get out of the discussion? Develop questions accordingly.


Questions to help develop thinking:

- What do you mean by that?

- What you just said, could you expand on that?

- How might that play out?

- For what reason?

- Could you give me an example?

- What other examples might there be?

- What has led you to think that?

- How did you come to think that?

- What else do you think about it?

- How have you come to that conclusion?

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