Quinton’s Questioning: Unleashing historical discussion in your mentee’s lessons

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Quinton is a good questioner.  On one level he is able to present the pupils with a task and draw out the salient historical facts through his questioning feedback, ensuring the pupils ‘get it’.  He feels confident in his ability to do this, and yet his mentor and university tutor keep setting questioning as a target and challenging him to ‘think more deeply about the historical purpose of his questions’.  He’s not quite sure he understands what they mean.  How can Quinton quickly develop his historical questioning? 

Deep historical questioning is one of the main challenges ‘competent’ beginning history teachers commonly struggle with (Toby,who featured in a previous blog shares similar traits).  When asking questions about the factual fundamentals of the source/ period/ historical figure being addressed in the lesson, the competent history PGCE student puts in a reasonable performance.  They can pitch and ask targeted questions drawing out those specific answers required for clarification of detail or to check the superficial ‘understanding’ of recalling key facts.  Pushing the students to move beyond this level seems to catch them out time and time again.  And the answer?  Often to resort to a generic taxonomy or hierarchical construction of thinking, because it is quick and simple for the student to grasp, because they are so ubiquitous on the walls of classrooms as a standardised whole school approach, because they are palatable and seductive in suggesting an easy fix – if only they plan their questions to progress in this way, they will magically unlock the higher order historical thinking everyone craves.

And yet, at the root of so much of their ‘challenge’ is a paucity of subject knowledge, born of the pressure to acquire ‘expertise’ in so many different periods and disciplinary skills in the time pressured environment of the ITT year.  So, how can we support them in this endeavour? 

First and foremost they need encouragement to develop their subject knowledge

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  • Encouraging Scholarship: As with many things student teachers will often adopt the culture and expectations of their environment, so modelling your engagement with subject knowledge enhancement and scholarship is important.  There is a reason why book clubs are popular and participating in joint scholarship can be phenomenally encouraging, stimulating and supportive for you, them and your wider department.  Why not pick a recent piece of History scholarship to read together and then discuss in a book group style, or plan to watch and then chat about the same documentary or podcast?  A new History Book Club endeavour has just begun on Twitter, in which history teachers discuss a History text in manageable chunks; it is an interesting forum for subject knowledge enhancement.
  • Utilising a History Subject Community: Help the student to realise and make use of the incredible support of the history community.  Help them to hook themselves into a subject knowledge community, valuing and using resources from the Historical Association and One Big History Department and utilising podcasts, such as those from the HA and also sites like Versus History or listening to the BBC R4 In our Time or Great Lives back catalogue.
  • Knowing what is important: Invite the student teacher to watch a colleague teach the topic to help them contextualise their own subject knowledge.   This is a very useful way to identify how much time should be apportioned to certain aspects of the topic and which bits of incidental knowledge really hook and engage pupils, and consequently inject their own subject knowledge enhancement with focus.

Secondly, help them to consider the nature of historical questioning

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  • The craft of historical questioning: Student teachers often assume that questioning is something that magically just happens rather than being crafted.  Encourage the student to undertake careful observation of questioning (helping them to know what to look for): Can they write down all the questions asked in a lesson?  What do they notice about the structure or pattern of questioning as well as the types of questions asked?  When do experienced teachers let the questioning flow?  When do they pull it back in to redirect on the lesson purpose?
  • The purpose of questioning: Help the beginning teacher to recognise that crafting the questioning ultimately doesn’t mean planning out every single question, rather it means being clear about the purpose of the lesson and how the questioning will move the pupils in the direction of that purpose.  The clarity of the enquiry question and historical rationale for the lesson is critical in achieving this and elevating questions beyond recall of facts.  
  • The deepening of responses: Get the student to practise the technique of WHY (this is explored in ‘Move me on’ Teaching History 94).  I observe many beginning teachers ‘pocketing’ fairly superficial responses to their questions before throwing out a new, often completely unrelated, question.  Asking WHY repeatedly sounds a little odd, but it does force pupils to really consider the justification for the view they’ve asserted and is a really simple yet effective tool. Similarly practising a technique which encourages pupils to generate questions themselves, not offer the ‘easiest’ answer, and expect to be challenged if they do, can result in much more complex understanding of historical concepts and disciplinary processes.
  • Getting the history to speak: Observing a lesson where the pupils are constantly engaged in a battle to be the one who answers a question and gets to state their view is thrilling. The common thread in these lessons is that the task pupils have completed prior to the questioning/ discussion phase is stimulating and intriguing and often designed to force a position on an historical question –  for example an interpretations tasks in which contemporaneous sources offer wildly opposing views or diamond nine activities in which significance or causation is considered.  These activities must have sufficient depth of historical understanding embedded within them to promote pupil engagement with the history, equipping pupils with the historical language to express their understanding and the substantive knowledge to be able to support these views and move beyond the superficial.

Thirdly, create an environment of risk taking

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  • Much of the questioning I observe is indicative of the fear of losing control.  Student teachers like the security of knowing that, if they ask a question take a response and then ask a new question, everything is going to stay on track and remain in their control.  Supporting your mentee to understand that questioning is an important teaching skill that must be learnt and practised is crucial.  They need you to create a safe space in which that can happen and, if it goes wrong, for that to be ok. Learning to relax in questioning phases and allowing debates to self-generate, whilst keeping an eye on the lesson rationale, is what leads to really good historical learning.   

Quinton is a good questioner.  He will become an even better questioner.  Like all aspects of teaching history, he needs to remember that he will need to craft and practise and continue to explore his own love and understanding of his discipline.

Further Reading:
Move me on, Teaching History 94, 1994, p.36-9

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