To see, or not to see: that is the question


For much of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark skulks around Elsinore in a cloud of melancholy, questioning everything: whether he would be better off dead or alive, whether the ghost of his dead father really is the ghost of his dead father, and what, if anything, will happen to him when he shuffles of this ‘mortal coil’. These are big questions – some of the biggest we ask as human beings – so it’s unsurprising that despite its four-hour running time, the play fails to provide any definitive answers.

Such is the nature of drama, of course: to pose imponderables about existence, to set tensions and ambiguities in place that live on long after the curtain has fallen and the audience has departed. It’s a medium the genius of Shakespeare clearly understood: that the question is often far more revealing than the answer. His plays constantly question existence and show an appreciation for the absurdity of the human condition long before Camus wrote about the ‘fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe.’

Whilst there are a number of similarities between the theatre and the classroom – the performance, audience unpredictability and uncomfortable chairs – there is ultimately a world of difference between the questions posed by a playwright through the characters on a stage and the questions asked of students by a teacher in a lesson. The dramatist enquires away from the known order of things in search of new insight, whilst in the main the teacher starts from certainty to help construct that understanding for others – to teach the body of scientific and artistic thought that has been accumulated over time.

I have already written about how I used to waste lots of time asking silly questions. My orientation was too often skewed the wrong way; my questions tended to lean more towards the inductive like those of the artist, rather than deductive like those of the teacher. Too much speculation – why questions instead of what questions, or how questions instead of who or where questions. Too much; too soon. I was putting novice students in the difficult position of trying to grapple with ideas and methods that even Hamlet would have struggled to disentangle.

Andy Tharby has got the right idea when he argues we should focus more agreed interpretations first, as opposed to getting secondary school students to offer insights and judgements they are often ill equipped to make. I’m not advocating against developing thoughtful, enquiring minds; actually, quite the opposite. By focusing questions on building students’ understanding of what is already known (in this case about a text), it is more likely that in time, they will know enough to be able to ask about ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ themselves.

Emphasising the deductive has improved my questioning and, in turn, my practice. I don’t mean in the showy sense where style is valued over substance, where the emphasis is on the moves of the teacher, not the content the question is trying to get at. I mean in terms of precision. Carefully worded questions help isolate variables for students so they can see what gets threaded together to form the complexities of plot, character and theme, and the intricacies of rhythm, rhyme and staging. Well-honed questions reveal gaps in understanding, as well as providing the path towards achieving it.

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All this takes time, which means other things have to go – Powerpoint presentations, arty handouts, copious marking. All this becomes untenable. But that’s ok, because in the main, the questions are the lesson. The process also sharpens the subject knowledge, exposing strengths as well as weaknesses. When I’m struggling to phrase a question about Hamlet, Ophelia or Polonius, I realise I am probably not clear enough in my own mind about what specific aspect of their character I want to tease out. I read the passage again, perhaps around it too, until I know and then I have focus.

Almost all my lessons now consist of the text, a pen and a notebook, with all my scripted questions marked out for me in advance. I don’t always ask all of them, and they are still not as good as I would like them to be, but I think they make my lessons much more purposeful. There’s definitively still space to explore and, because that space has been created by the efficiency and precision of the questions and the speculations are stronger because they rest on a firmer base.

As Hamlet never said, ‘The question’s the thing that develops their understanding.’




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.