Wasting time on silly questions


I ask questions of my students all the time. Most of the time I love questioning; I think it is real art form and one of the markers of what make a great teacher great. This post is about questioning some of the questions we routinely ask, and thinking through what kinds of questions we should ask and at what point we should ask them to optimise student learning.

Perhaps the most unhelpful type of questions– the ones that I have often wasted a lot time with in the classroom – are those that asks the whole class what they already know about a topic. Usually this type of open-ended question would come at the beginning of a new unit, and was ostensibly designed to activate prior knowledge. On the surface this might seem pretty harmless, but more often than not, my students would either know very little about something they have not yet been taught or they couldn’t recall it. As a result the whole exercise would end up eating up valuable time, as I would then go through the motions of trying to do something with the flimsy responses I had been given.

If the rationale for my asking these kinds of questions was to find out levels of prior knowledge, then there were other more precise ways of getting this information. These might include asking targeted questions designed to test assumptions about current understanding, or better still setting a short quiz before I had planned the next sequence so that I could act upon the data I received in a meaningful way. I didn’t use to think like this, however, and so much of my questioning would turn into enfeebled brainstorming sessions. Far better for me to have delivered well-crafted explanations, than waste time teasing out what was unlikely to be there or so incomplete as it was hard to build upon.

It took me far too long to work out that this was essentially a filler – something that teachers did because it was just, well, something that teachers had always done. In my early years it seemed a priori that everything should emanate from the students’ own experience outwards, and not the other way around. It was wrong to think that the role of the teacher was often precisely the opposite – to take the student away from existing states into different, unfamiliar territory. And so ensued years of cognitive dissonance, in which I kept up the drawing-out approach to my questioning, in spite of the fact that what little my students offered was rarely of sufficient value to merit the time it had taken me to get it.

Of course, I attended many sessions on how to improve my questioning. Some were useful; others were less so. The focus was almost always the ubiquitous Bloom’s taxonomy. Whilst it is now more acceptable to critique Bloom’s, there was (and, perhaps, even still is) a time when his taxonomy was treated as gospel. I’ll admit there is some merit in using the hierarchy as a way of illustrating how different types of questions can challenge students’ thinking in different ways. The problem is, as James Theobald has expertly demonstrated here, too many people seem to see the taxonomy as a roadmap to outstanding teaching. It really isn’t, and adherence to this idea can have a negative impact on student learning.*

Perhaps the most undesirable consequence of an evangelical devotion to higher-order questioning is a rejection of all that is good and necessary in the commonplace, in this instance the use of simple questions designed to check factual understanding. These kinds of questions may not be terribly sexy, but they are actually very helpful in finding out what students know and what they don’t. They are quick and easy and provide immediate feedback on current levels of understanding. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan of more elaborate questioning, such as the Socratic model where two interlocutors close in on the truth together. The problem is that too often teachers are encouraged to get to this stage too soon, before students have acquired the requisite foundational knowledge to be able to make meaningful connections, think abstractly and see things from other perspectives.

As well as learning to be unafraid to ask more factual questions, I have also been trying to develop my tendency to avoid asking questions just for the sake of it. It turns out that it is surprisingly difficult to override your teacher default setting – asking students what they think whenever something new or unfamiliar crops up. Take the example of vocabulary. I consider myself very aware of the benefits of teaching vocabulary directly – I’ve written about it here and here. Yet, despite having a strong sense of the best way for students to learn new words, I still find myself wasting time asking them questions about the new language that we encounter in class, effectively asking them to take a punt on word meanings.

Only the other day this happened. I was teaching ‘The Horse Whisperer’, a poem about a horse whisperer who, after the advent of technology, is forced into exile and away from his beloved horses. The whisperer lovingly describes his horses and their ‘shimmering muscles’, ‘glistening veins’ and ‘stately heads’. We were analysing connotations of the language used but had reached an impasse because no one knew what the word ‘stately’ meant. Rather than just tell them and move on, I foolishly tried to elicit the meaning. Several minutes later I was still trying to get myself out of a tangle that had got considerably worse by my introducing the idea of a stately home. Rather than help clarify, the analogy had meant I had bamboozled my students and, worse, I had used up the remainder of the lesson. It was time to pack away and my lovely modelled analysis was in bits.

Nine times out of ten, I would probably just tell my students the meaning of new words and, as Doug Lemov and Katie Ashford write about here and here, use the time saved by cutting out the questioning on active practice to give students the opportunity to use the new vocabulary in sentences, thus leveraging the depth of processing theory and doing more to actually develop their language fidelity. I am not sure that I would go as far as to advocate scripts for lessons, but I do think that there is something very interesting and important to consider about how they might help guard against the kind of inefficient uses of time I have illustrated above. Personally, I think that checklists provide a better answer to this kind of problem – providing prompts to help develop change conscious desires into unconscious habits of classroom practice.

I am increasingly of the opinion that some of the ways in which teachers are trained in the nature and purpose of questioning needs a bit of a re-think too, or at the very least a bit of a shift in emphasis. In my admittedly limited sample, there is still too much attention being paid to the rush towards more abstract questioning. As I have already suggested, this is a fundamentally flawed aim as it often asks too much of students too soon in their learning – a particular problem for the novice.

Where else I think it falls down is in the way it often leaves new teachers with a potential misunderstanding about the way in which learning takes place. If you are led to believe that questioning is all about developing ideas, encouraging links and abstractions (which are all desirable in the long run) then you are likely to pay scant attention to developing your ability to use questioning to a) build up the necessary foundational knowledge and b) as a useful data point for gauging approximate levels of understanding. It might be better to dedicate the majority of training time in the initial years to honing the basics like ‘wait time’, ‘cold call’ and ‘no opt out’, which all help establish a base of core understanding.

Get these questioning techniques right and there genuinely is scope later on to take your questioning and your students’ understanding to a ‘higher’ level.

What do you think?

* For a more detailed discussion on the flawed thinking of those who map Bloom’s taxonomy onto areas where it is not welcome, I strongly recommend Eric Kalenze’s fantastic book ‘Education is Upside Down’, where he dedicates a whole chapter to the misuse of bloom’s taxonomy in education.


5 thoughts on “Wasting time on silly questions

  1. Great post Phil- I love reflective posts like these.
    I think questioning is so important- we’ve dedicated hours of CPD and practice time to it. One thing I am noticing in my own lessons and those I see at the moment is that you can have too much of a good thing. No Opt Out, Right is Right, Stretch It and Format Matters are all (TLAC) techniques which are good to use, but which have to be used at the right moments or they can sometimes suck the pace out of a lesson. There are times when I think unpicking what a word might mean can be useful and others where we should just tell them.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree there is a need for flexibility. The TLAC techniques are pretty important for new teachers to master, I think, and then to develop a wider repertoire. A lot also depends on the she of the kids. You can do more with KS3 than a year 11 class, which is often what I get lumbered with. Oh well. Thanks again for taking the time to leave some feedback.

  2. An excellent article. I am encouraging my department to use considerably more questions within marking to stimulate greater dialogue, but you are spot on in that it is often the lower order ones which are just as vital as the more open ones. So your principle applies to marking as well as in the classroom.
    Although the filler questions you mention using with a new topic you argue can be better sacrificed for teacher explanation, I would argue there is certainly a place for questioning at this start up stage. For example, enquiring of students whether there are any links they can make between the topic they are just starting with any others for them to see the portability of skills.
    Equally though, and in keeping with your focus on the importance of lower order questions, is the basic ones in the early stages of a module: Which exam is this going to be for? How long have you got to answer the question? etc. I am continually amazed at the vital need to recap this stuff even for the brightest of students.
    Finally, my belief that often plenaries are actually best used as starters in the next lesson to embed knowledge and understanding over time, bears your point out. Recap questions of a lower order, to begin with, eliciting the basics once again, after they’ve visited 8 other teachers/lessons since seeing you, is equally important.
    Keep up the good work!

    • Hi. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment and for your kind words. I pretty much agree with all your points about questions and marking – there is much cross over! Anyway, thanks again for the feedback. It’s really much appreciated.

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