Monday, January 9, 2012

Asking Questions

Categories in the cognitive domain of Bloom's ...Image via Wikipediaby Ulrike Thomas, Teaching Expertise:

Asking questions is fundamental to helping students acquire knowledge. Ulrike Thomas looks at four key issues to consider when thinking about questioning.

Earlier in the year, BBC2 aired a fascinating programme called The Classroom Experiment in which Professor Dylan Wiliam (celebrated co-author of Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment) asked a group of teachers to introduce a variety of teaching strategies designed to encourage greater student participation in lessons.

Particularly interesting was the response of both teachers and students to the ‘no hands' strategy which the teachers were encouraged to use whenever their lessons involved asking questions.

Asking students to put their hands up when they want to answer a question is common practice. This tends to result in the same few students answering questions, which does a great deal for their confidence and learning, but not much for those who choose (for whatever reason) not to engage in question and answer sessions.

‘No hands' is intended to make the questioning process more inclusive, with teachers randomly selecting a student to respond. The aim is to encourage the whole class to participate and thus become more engaged in the lesson. In the classroom experiment this involved using lollipop sticks with individual names on plucked randomly out of a pot.

As pointed out in the National Strategy document Pedagogy and Practice, Unit 7: Questioning, when a teacher introduces a strategy like ‘no hands', he or she may feel self-conscious and students may find the approach unusual.

This was certainly the case in the classroom experiment where the teachers had to deal with a new type of classroom organisation and also with how to respond to replies that may not be right or students who did not want to reply.

Interestingly, over the course of the term each teacher customised the ‘no hands' approach, adapting it to their own teaching style. The students too had to adapt either to the discomfort of being put into the spotlight when previously remaining hidden in the wings, or ceasing to be the centre of attention.

However, what is also important to the success of ‘no hands' is the quality of the questions and the quality of the feedback. Questioning is fundamental at a basic level to helping students acquire knowledge, or at a more advanced level to encourage higher-order thinking and problem-solving.

Also, as Paul Black (2009) pointed out: ‘A pupil's answer to a question can reveal how the pupil understands the issue, and the teacher can then respond to help develop that understanding.'

So what are the key issues when thinking about questioning?

Creating the right environment

As The Classroom Experiment demonstrated, many students try to avoid answering questions for fear of getting the answer wrong and looking a failure in front of friends and teachers.

The key is to have a discussion where it is explicitly stated that getting things wrong is a fundamental part of learning and where the teacher makes it clear that how a student answers a question demonstrates how much has been understood and therefore what the teacher needs to teach next.

In order to facilitate a risk-taking atmosphere it is important to consider the sequencing of the questions asked, the feedback to the answers, and also to allow ‘wait time', so that students have time to think about what they want to say.

Asking effective questions

Shirley Clarke (2005) identifies several ways to create effective questions. These include using Edward De Bono's Six Thinking Hats. For example: ‘White hat thinking involves facts and information presented neutrally, so questions would include What information do we have? What is missing? Red hat thinking involves emotions and feelings, so questions may include: What do I feel about this?'

Bloom's taxonomy may also provide a useful starting point for thinking about different types of question. Created in 1956, the taxonomy divided educational objectives into three domains - affective, psychomotor and cognitive - and was intended to encourage educators to focus on a more holistic view of education.

The cognitive domain focuses on the development of knowledge, comprehension and critical thinking. Although valuable, it is important to recognise that many of the categories created by Bloom overlap and it can therefore be difficult to classify questions neatly.


Although the methods identified above help us to think about different types of questions, perhaps the most crucial aspect of questioning is the response to the answer and the resulting dialogue that follows. To quote Paul Black (2009) again:

‘In composing a useful response, the teacher has to interpret the thinking and the motivation that led the pupil to express the answer. It helps if the teacher first asks the pupil to explain how he or she arrived at that answer, then accepts any explanation without comment and asks others what they think.

This gives value to the first answer, and draws the class into a shared exploration of the issue. In doing this the teacher changes role, from being an interviewer of pupils on a one-to-one basis to being a conductor of dialogue in which all may be involved.'

Students asking questions

Perhaps the surest sign that a ‘questioning environment' has been created is when the students feel safe and confident to ask questions of the teacher and questions of each other spontaneously in the lesson. Surely that would make any teacher's day?!


Black, P (2009) ‘Looking again at Formative Assessment’, Learning and Teaching Update, Issue 30
Black, P, and Wiliam, D (1998) Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment, London: GL Assessment.
Clarke, C (2005) Formative Assessment in the Secondary Classroom, Hodder Murray
Pedagogy and Practice: Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools, Unit 7: Questioning

Watch a clip from The Classroom Experiment.
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