How Can We Question Better?

by Zoë Lynskey – Teaching Lead – English

Humans have been asking questions since the dawn of time, many of the first instances of learning was through asking questions, and whether we are aware of it or not, teachers ask around 400 questions each day. Presently, you may find yourself asking why this is and whether all these questions are effective.
Questioning is integral of the learning process: teachers engage students and challenge them to deepen their understanding and foster links between what they know and what they are yet to learn. Conversely, through questioning the subject material and the teacher, students build their own critical thinking skills, preparing them for life beyond the classroom.

Although humans are not strangers to the skill of asking questions, this crucial pedagogical skill requires practised knowledge (Cavanaugh and Warwick, 2001).  It is essential that educators use a range of questioning techniques in lessons and do not over-rely on closed, or instructional questions. Closed-questions have their place – I have found them excellent to use when building relationships with lower ability students, as students have a great chance of landing on a correct answer and are less likely to be discouraged – but closed-questions can be all too easy to fall back on, resulting in missed opportunities in challenging all students.
Wragg’s early study (1993) found teachers commonly use three types of questions:

1. Management-related, e.g. ‘Who is still working on the problem on the screen?’

2. Information recall-related, e.g. ‘Who wrote Macbeth?’

3. Higher-order questions, e.g. ‘What evidence do you have for saying that?’

You might be thinking that this isn’t so bad, as one out of three question types involve higher order thinking skills. In this case, however, 1/3 does not equal to 33 per cent. In fact, Wragg’s study found that only a dismal 8 per cent of questions, asked by teachers, challenged higher-order thinking, while 57 per cent were management related and 37 per cent required information recall. If we relate this to the 400 questions that teachers ask in a day, this equates to only 32 higher-order questions!
So, you may be asking yourself, how can I change this in my practice?

We are all familiar with Bloom’s, and in most subject areas there is still a place for the questioning stems that Bloom’s taxonomy provides, however I have recently branched out and tried a different tactic. The below question types have proven effective in helping raise the amount of open and higher order questions that I ask. In my experience, I have always enjoyed a challenge and found that the times, in which I have learnt more, it was because I was being challenged. Why should we not afford that same privilege to our students?  

References:

Cavanaugh MP and Warwick C (2001) Questioning is an art. Language Arts Journal of Michigan 17 (2): 35–38.

Wragg EC (1993) Questioning in the Primary Classroom. London: Routledge.

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