Finding your way with Questioning: A practical approach for getting better at questioning

Within the pages of every teenage girls’ magazine you’ll find a flow chart quiz which, if taken, will allow you to work out what your ideal pet/ band/ TV Soap character/ boyfriend would be. As a younger teenage girl who had laid her hands on a contraband ‘Just 17’, I would avidly pour over the quiz options until I worked out how to get the outcome I desired.  “Well, thanks for that insight into your teenage self”, I hear you cry, “but what does that have to do with teaching?”

I’ve been thinking about questioning recently and the skilful way in which experienced teachers seemingly pluck perfectly formed questions from thin air in the midst of a questioning episode. To beginning teachers this can feel like sorcery: how can established teachers question so effectively ‘off the top of their heads’ when their own questioning feels so awkward and inadequate?

In Quinton’s Questioning I explored some principles underpinning effective questioning in history lessons. Here I’m going to unpack a practical way of conceptualising and preparing for specific questioning phases through an analogy I use with my students: my ‘Just 17’ experience. 

Question pathways

The magazine ‘quiz’ makes visible the unseen process that lays behind questioning. Really good questioners don’t just ask questions, they listen and respond to the answers too. In these flow diagram quizzes the respondent’s journey through the quiz is entirely dependent upon the answer given to the previous question. In the same way, if you were to ask a really skilled teacher to articulate their thought process as they engage in questioning, you would see how their questioning ‘pathway’ unfolds, moving from one step to the next, depending on the previous answer. 

Answers received may help identify misconceptions which need addressing and correcting before the pathway can be resumed. Some answers are surprising and unanticipated and lead to an incidental tangent which is worth pursuing because of the way it adds to the schema students are connecting with their new knowledge. And yet none of these questioning pathways are accidental. Why? Because these excellent questioners always have a clear sense of purpose behind their questions. They know what ‘takeaways’ they are leading their students towards through the questioning.  Just as I could see how to ensure I reached Jared Leto by the end of the magazine quiz, excellent questioners know exactly how to pitch and pose questions which have a clear sense of direction toward the intended outcome.

So, what does this mean for beginning and early career teachers?

We often recommend that beginning and early career teachers plan their questions for their feedback/ checking for understanding phases. Often this results in a couple of questions being placed into the lesson plan but very little change in terms of enaction. In the early stages of practice taking an approach which deconstructs the process, in the fashion of one of these magazine quizzes, can be transformative. 

Observing skilled questioners

Observe a skilled questioner with an understanding of their questioning destination. 

Before undertaking the observation look at the plan/ have a conversation to understand the rationale of the lesson/sequence and the specific outcomes or ‘takeaways’ pupils should gain from the lesson (or even more helpfully, that part of the lesson).

As you watch record the questions they ask and the answers they get and reflect on the following: 

One way of doing this is to actually make a question flow diagram rather like the magazine quiz as you observe. 

Planning skilled questions:

Having observed, now set about planning a questioning phase. 

Begin with establishing the destination – this will require secure subject knowledge and an understanding of the rationale/ purpose of the lesson and sequence it sits within AND clearly defined ‘takeaways’ or outcomes the students need by the end of each phase of the lesson.

Using a question flow diagram start with the stem question from which the questioning phase with flow at the top and the ‘takeaways’ at the bottom. 

Figure 1: Stem question to intended outcomes

Start plotting out the questions that will get the students from the stem to the takeaway, each time consider what the possible answers might be and planning questions which will lead on from that range of responses.  In doing so consider misconceptions that might arise and what questions might be needed to address them, correcting and making more supportive connections into the bigger picture of their learning. 

Figure 2: Beginning to generate a questioning flow

This partially completed questioning flow (fig.2) illustrates the approach.  Is it possible to think through every potential response and permeation in response?  No, of course not.  But the very act of engaging with this thought process means that, with time, little by little, the sorcery of the experienced excellent questioner becomes just that little bit more accessible.

Making the questioning process visible

Healy, Walshe and Dunphy (2019) talk about the notion of rendering visible curricular thinking through written lesson observation feedback.  Pedagogical thinking also needs to be ‘rendered visible’, especially for beginning and early career teachers.  Perhaps this is one way of ‘rendering visible’ the thought processes that lie behind excellent questioning.  It certainly helps to get us beyond simply thinking in terms of asking more ‘open questions’.

Further Reading/ References

Doherty, J. (2017) Skillful Questioning: The Beating Heart of Good Pedagogy, https://impact.chartered.college/article/doherty-skilful-questioning-beating-heart-pedagogy/

Healy, G., Walshe, N., & Dunphy, A., (2020). How is geography rendered visible as an object of concern in written lesson observation feedback? Curriculum Journal, 31(1), 7–26. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.1

Resources to support questioning in the History Classroom:

https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/938/resource/9984/film-questioning-in-the-history-classroom-part-a

https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/938/resource/9963/film-questioning-in-the-history-classroom-part-b

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