Wasting time on silly questions

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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.

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Teaching knowledge through vocabulary: or why tier two words may not be enough!

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There are many great posts on how to teach vocabulary, including this one by Katie Ashford and this one by David Didau. Doug Lemov’s forthcoming book promises to add even more practical advice to our understanding of the best ways to improve students’ language fidelity. Whilst I commend these wonderful ideas and very much look forward to reading Doug’s new book, I wonder if these approaches fully exploit the potential for student academic achievement, particularly in schools where levels of academic attainment are low.

The relationship between academic achievement and high vocabulary levels is sadly all too noticeable in the classroom, particularly the further up the school you get where the language differential between the word-rich and the word-poor is often stark. It should surely come as no surprise to anyone who has taught in a school with any kind of broad intake that this correlation is well established in the research field. It is patently clear on a day-by-day basis.

At our school we certainly have a language discrepancy between our highest and lowest achievers. This gap strikes me every year I teach the GCSE language exam. Whilst I do my best to help students approach their interpretations and analysis as effectively and efficiently as they can, there is always the same elephant in the room: it is invariably students’ levels of background knowledge that determines how well they will do, and not how much they stick to the tight procedures I put in place for how they annotate their texts or structure their written responses. It is so frustrating (and upsetting) to get students really good at understanding one passage, only to go back to square one when the topic changes to something else.

Most of the superb ideas I mentioned above about how you can go about bridging this gap between the language haves and have-nots seem to concentrate on teaching tier two words. As you are probably know, the term tier two comes from Isabella Beck’s fantastic book Robust Vocabulary Instruction. In it Beck identifies three main word family groupings. Tier one refers to words children encounter on a regular basis and which are therefore common to most students’ vocabularies. Tier three are specialist subject terms, whilst tier two refers to high frequency words that occur across a variety of domains, but are unlikely to be experienced by children in the normal course of events. It is these tier two words that most advocate to leverage in an effort to counter the Matthew effect.

I am not entirely sure about this line of thinking; rather, I think that maybe tier two words should not be the main priority for those interested in addressing the underlying issue of student underachievement: low levels of academic background knowledge. If the propositions below are true, then following Beck’s advice to use precious teaching time on improving the breadth of students’ tier two vocabulary may not be the most efficient use of scarce resources, particularly in the short term. It might be better to focus on improving students’ learning of subject-specific tier three words and phrases – the very thing that Beck dismisses because she believes such terms are learned during everyday teaching.

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From my experience this is not always the case. A lot of the time students do not adequately learn the meanings of words that are integral to their different subjects. Every year, without exception, I have to teach my incoming exam class pretty much all the poetic terminology they need to be successful at GCSE level. You would have thought that for the past 11 years they had never heard of a metaphor, or were missing the lessons where monologue, imagery and sonnet were discussed. Maybe this reflects badly on my school, but since this is third school in which I have taught and in each a similar issue has occurred, I suspect not. If this is a more widely experienced phenomenon, perhaps it would be more sensible to focus on getting the teaching of subject vocabulary right first time before we tried to broaden our efforts on teaching wider academic language, which if we are honest is unlikely to make a big difference unless the full weight of the schools’ effort is directed towards making such an approach work.

If our main intention is to raise student attainment and we accept that increased levels of academic background knowledge are vital to achieving this end, then designing a programme of direct vocabulary instruction that focuses on teaching academic background knowledge through vocabulary instruction is probably the way to go. Robert Marzano certainly seems to think so, and in his excellent book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, he not only offers a thorough unpicking of the rationale behind such an approach, but also provides a step-by-step guide on how to make it work in your school.

Marzano explains how knowledge is organised in propositional networks. Drawing upon the framework outlined in Clark and Clark’s (1977) ‘Psychology and Language’ paper, he offers 8 different types of propositional statement. Below is what these statements look like for an imaginary child’s first trip to Iceland to go trekking across the countryside:

  1. I trekked. (subject performs an action)
  2. I was overwhelmed. (subject possess a characteristic)
  3. I ate from a smörgåsbord. (subject performs an action on something)
  4. I bathed in a hot spring. (subject performs an action in a specific location)
  5. I gave my crampons to the instructor. (subject transfers something)
  6. Night time came quickly. (action is performed or occurs in specific manner)
  7. Someone gave me some gaitors. (someone transfers something to subject)
  8. The Northern Lights impressed me. (Something has an effect on subject)

Below is a representation of the propositional network for this experience.

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Marzano explains how ‘our background knowledge is initially linguistic descriptions of what we have experienced’ and that over time these ‘linguistic descriptions shed their connections to a particular event and describe general forms of the event.’ This means that as the fictional child who went trekking in Iceland gets older, her specific one-off experiences of trekking become increasingly abstract until – with enough opportunities for deep processing and encoding – they take on the characteristic of more generalised forms of background knowledge. Such a decontextualized propositional network for the knowledge of trekking in Iceland might looks like this:

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What Marzano describes is essentially the process through which we gain background knowledge, and the excellent news is that this does not necessarily have to be experienced directly i.e. our imaginary child does not actually have to trekking in Iceland, but can rather still gain the knowledge of an authentic experience by reading about it in a book and learn the same things about the climate and the culture, though indirectly. This is one of the powerful effects of reading: it’s ability to build background knowledge and generate the kind of schema a student needs to read as successfully about global warming, as about the rainforests of Ecuador or trekking in Alaska during the gold rush.

Perhaps the most powerful point that Marzano goes on to make is that this kind of academic background knowledge manifests itself through vocabulary. The best way to illustrate this idea is through an example. If you take the term ‘port city’, a typical dictionary based definition may look something like this.

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For Marzano, different words require different definitions according to their role and function. Port city comes under the category of general man-made object or place, and as such any good description of the term requires details of its typical setting, specific physical characteristics, how it is developed or built and its typical uses. A description of port city might then look something like this:

Screenshot 2015-10-19 19.20.43

For me, thinking about words in this way was a bit of an epiphany. As you can see there is a considerable amount of knowledge and interrelated understanding that underpins just this one term: port city. This example helped me appreciate the extent to which individual words and phrases are the site through which vast networks of knowledge converge. I also see more clearly why students so often forget the meanings of subject specific vocabulary like ‘monologue’ or ‘genre’; it was probably never explained to them in this much detail or systematically returned to enough times for it to stick. Maybe we make far too many assumptions about what we think students have covered or already know.

It is for these reasons that we have decided to build a vocabulary programme across the school with subject-specific, or tier three words and phrases, at the heart. We will also teach some tier two words, as well as a concurrent root word programme in tutor time, which my wonderful colleague Josie Mingay has written about here. The focus, though, is more on teaching tier one words properly so that the interrelated networks of knowledge can develop and link over time. In my next post I will explain Marzano’s guide to the effective steps in a vocabulary programme and exemplify what this might look like using some of the materials I developed over the summer term with my year 10 class.

For now, I thought it best to avoid making a long post even longer and falling foul to the kind of abuse handed out to Kev Bartle by Stephen Lockyer in his keynote at the Teaching and Learning Takeover.

Thanks for reading and thanks to David Fawcett and Jen Ludgate for giving me the opportunity to present on this topic at TLT15!