Surviving and succeeding in the first year of teaching: Asking effective questions

surviving-teachingAlex Galvin, Senior Education Lead, SSAT, writes…

In this series we are sharing advice for new teachers from Geoff Barton, former headteacher of King Edward VI School on how to make a success of your early months in teaching. This latest piece gives you advice on how to make your questioning as effective as possible…

Dylan Wiliam once suggested that teachers in British schools ask more questions than their counterparts in many of the world’s most successful countries… but the questions are less effective.

Teachers have always traditionally asked lots of questions: it’s what we do. Sit in many lessons and you will see a succession of closed questions (questions where there is a single right answer) with often the same students putting up their hands to answer whilst others watch on with detachment or boredom.

Yet questioning is vital if we are to assess students’ understanding and to help them to learn from one another. So how might our use of questions become more efficient?

  1. Plan your questions in advance. This means being clear about why you are asking a specific question. Is it to find out what students understand (assessment) or is it to get them thinking more deeply about a subject (learning)? It can be helpful to stagger questions – start with a very broad question and ask students to brainstorm ideas. Then, develop their thinking by providing them with three more analytical questions to discuss before opening the discussion to the whole class.
  2. Be explicit with students about how you are going to use questions. Help them to see the purpose of your questioning – “I want to see how much of that you’ve understood, so I’m going to ask three questions. I’ll give you time to think about each answer, but not to discuss it. I want to see what you now understand. Does that make sense? Right, question one…”
  3. One of the less helpful features of questioning in lessons can be the reliance on students putting their hands up. Instead, try giving students some thinking time. Even five seconds makes a big difference – it helps students to formulate what they might say. In practice it works as such – “I’m going to ask you to explain to me in a sentence what the experiment we have just completed tells us about magnesium. What have we learnt about magnesium from what we have just seen? Take five seconds to think of your answer and then no hands up – I’ll pick some of to tell me what your answer is. Does that make sense? Ok, what did the experiment teach us about magnesium? Five seconds to think… “
  4. Don’t just accept the first answer to a question. Take three or so, asking students to listen and then to decide which answer they agree with the most, and then to explain why. Try to avoid commenting on each answer that is given, instead give encouraging feedback and encourage others to respond: “That’s an interesting idea, does anyone else want to add to that? Does anyone have a different point of view?”
  5. Higher order questioning will help students to think more deeply. In general teachers ask lots of ‘What?’ questions – “What answer did you get for exercise 13, James?” Using thinking time and quick discussion time, ask ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ questions that take students deeper into learning: “You’ve just done three exercises. Talk to your partner for ten seconds, then be ready to explain to me how you approached the problem. How did you work it out? Ten seconds… “
  6. Remember that questions make a good ‘hook’ to grab students’ interest in a topic at the start of a lesson or scheme of work. “By the end of this half-term you’re going to be able to answer these two big questions: How did the Romans become the most powerful, confident, aggressive and civilised empire the world has ever seen? And why did they fall apart? By the end of this unit you’ll be able to give me first-rate answers to both questions. So let’s start by seeing what you already know about the Romans… “

Practice your questioning technique. Ask more open questions and allow the kids to hypothesise. Don’t be afraid to allow thinking time. Soon you will be able to move skilfully from lower to higher order questions naturally, recognising when to do so. Avoid using hands up. Picking names from the register keeps the class on their toes. Decide which questions you are going to ask before the lesson and put them in the lesson plan.
Darren, The Swinton High School

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What are your experiences of your first year in teaching? What worked for you? What didn’t work? Let us know via Twitter with the hashtag #SSATsurvive or in the comments below.

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