Asking probing, high-quality questions in the classroom

Written by: Tom Sherrington | Published:
Image: iStock

Questioning is the cornerstone of great teaching. Tom Sherrington looks at the key elements to good, probing questioning

When I first started writing my Teacherhead blog, a few years ago, I wanted to explore the idea of what “great teaching” might look like.

I often use the idea of teaching being “great” as an alternative to the hubristic hyperbole of “outstanding” (forever tarnished by associations with meeting external inspection demands) or the functional dryness of “effective” or merely “good”.

An early series of 10 posts was called Great Lessons. When I jotted down the list of features of what I see in great lessons, I was mentally surveying all the fabulous teachers I’ve known, imagining them in action and thinking about what they were doing.

Number one on the list was “probing” – the art of skilful, probing questioning.

My hunches about this were well-founded. As I explore in my recent book, The Learning Rainforest, skilful questioning features in numerous literature reviews and research summaries; it is at the core of good formative assessment and effective instruction.

Barak Rosenshine, in his excellent article Principles of Instruction, describes how effective teachers utilise questioning a central feature of their practice: “Effective teachers ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students: questions help students practise new information and connect new material to their prior learning.”

In one of my favourite education books, The Hidden Lives of Learners (2007), Graham Nuthall gives a vivid account of the way each learner in a class will assimilate knowledge content into their long-term memory differently, depending on their prior knowledge and the multiple unique interactions that they engage in during lessons – with their peers as well as with their teacher.

It is instructive to hold onto the idea that, unless and until you check, you have no idea whether any individual in your class has really understood what you are saying or whether they have a chance to remember it at some point later – i.e. to really have learnt it.

We can, of course, set up tests of various kinds to check our students’ knowledge and understanding, but the first line of assessment is questioning. Given that you cannot tell from superficial indicators how well the material in hand is being learned in real time, you need to maximise the degree of feedback you receive from your students during the teaching process to give you an idea of how well things are going.

Eliciting feedback from your students is just as important as any feedback you give to them and there are lots of effective questioning strategies that enable you to do this. I think two of them are especially important.

Checking for understanding

On any day I spend observing lessons, where teaching isn’t perhaps as effective as it could be, it’s common to find a teacher simply asking questions into the room – “anyone know the answer?” – then only inviting those with hands up to respond.

Sometimes you see a teacher ask the almost rhetorical question “is everyone okay with that?”, taking the subsequent nods and murmurs to indicate a green light to move on. Very commonly a teacher will take an answer from one student and assume that this represents the level of understanding in the room.

But, in truth, it is not much good just asking one student; their one response doesn’t tell you anything about what anyone else might be thinking.

Checking for understanding means that you take time to explore the extent of understanding around the room. It requires asking multiple students, deliberately selected, to share their understanding with you. This works well for multiple situations:

  • Asking students to rehearse the line of reasoning in a maths or science problem or any more extended question response. Even if you have already just gone over it, it is powerful to see if students understood what you meant. They might have got the gist but not picked up on a crucial step.
  • Asking students to clarify their understanding of a task, some practical work or even the homework. “Michael, tell us what the task is and how we will know when we’ve completed it.” If Michael, and then Jodie or Evan, can’t give a good answer, it will pay to re-explain.

The key is to try to ask for feedback – to check for understanding – from several students, using other strategies like “cold calling”, where any student could be asked to answer if selected, to ensure that nobody opts out. If one student gives a good answer, you then check in with someone else to see if they can too; and then yet another student.

Very often variations in their responses gives you important information in a way that a single response can’t. You can also insist that answers build on previous responses so students are fully engaged in what others are saying and referencing this to their own understanding.

Probing

As I suggest at the start of the article, great probing questioning is, for me, the hallmark of great teaching. What does it involve? Essentially, you see every questioning interaction with a student as a short dialogue; an exchange of three, four or five questions that seeks to deepen or widen their response instead of simply moving onto another student after hearing a simple or partial response.

Imagine a teacher discussing poem using probing questioning. Here’s what they might be saying – you can fill in Javed’s responses for yourself:

  • Javed, why do you think the author uses that technique?
  • That could be true but is that the main reason in this particular line?
  • Is there any other device that she uses here?
  • And where else does she use it?
  • What’s the overall effect on the reader across the poem as a whole?

This process makes Javed explore his understanding and recall of what he has learned in far greater depth than questioning where the teacher is satisfied with short, one-off responses – as is common where teaching is less effective than it might be.

Javed has to think harder, gets more practice with recalling what he knows and is supported in making connections he may not yet have made. You, meanwhile, get a much clearer idea of how your teaching of the concepts has taken shape in his memory. You are both getting better feedback.

The real power comes when you combine these two techniques and make them your default mode of teaching. Every time you have a question, you select multiple students to respond, checking their understanding, sampling the room as much as you can, and for each student you engage in a probing exchange.

The challenge is that you need to think on your feet to inject follow-up questions that support deeper learning. Until you hear what students say, you can’t plan exactly what to ask. You need to listen and respond in and agile manner.

The goal is to develop the confidence and ability to trust yourself to do this. Some of this comes with deeper knowledge of the curriculum and common misconceptions; some of it comes from experience and practice. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

  • Tom Sherrington is an experienced headteacher and teacher. He is the author of, The Learning Rainforest. Visit https://teacherhead.com/

The Learning Rainforest

The Learning Rainforest: Great teaching in real classrooms is published by John Catt Educational and costs £16. Visit http://bit.ly/2JRfWjh

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