Sunday, 20 October 2013

Questioning the questions

This is a blog about my talk for the TLT13, which took place yesterday at Southampton University. Before I even start I will apologise now if there are any typos or errors. In total, this weekend, I have spent eight hours driving. But, it was worth it, even if it has left me a bit frazzled, and with a brain that is barely functioning – my tweets are clear evidence of this.

Anyway, TLT13 was great. A hotpot of teaching goodness and a shot in the arm to any tabloid newspaper which thinks teachers are greedy-money-grabbing-parent-hating-time-wasting-cheats. Loads of teachers gave up their Saturday to look at ways to make teaching better. For all the comments about teachers who strike ruining the education, this day was an antidote or a big gesture of two fingers to the negative perception of teachers. The whole thing focused on being the ‘best’. Gove wants the best education system, but assumes teachers do not want that. He assumes that we are lazy and feckless. Case for the defence: evidence 1.2 – TLT13.

I would love to list all the teachers I met yesterday, but I am worried I would cause offence by missing someone out. It was great. I will just leave it at that. So, what did I talk about? Questions.

Questioning carries on a theme of a few of my blogs this year: Deep Reading. I am concerned that a lot of teaching reading dwells simply on skimming and scanning. Find and locate isn’t that high on the reading skills necessary for life. It is helpful, but it will not solve a case. It will not make you great in business. It is a building block. There is so much more to reading. In the past, the DfE has suggested that good readers paint pictures in their head when they read. Or, they might ask a question. Or they may even predict how things might end. I have always struggled with this notion of developing reading in lessons. Simply getting a student to draw a picture of a bit they have read does not, for me, show a high level of understanding or engagement with a text. It simply shows that they can decode a text. Yes, some things might be inferences, but does it really develop a student to be a better reader?

Teaching Year 12 and 13s English Literature has not involved me getting them to draw bits from ‘King Lear’ or Edward Bond’s ‘Saved’. No, it has involved things other than drawing. I have recently read some books on developing literacy in schools and they constantly refer to drawing (visualising), predicting, questioning and other methods to develop reading. Now, for less able students these are good strategies to use to develop their reading skills, but what about the more able students? Or, the average students? What do we do about developing their reading skills? Reading more and harder texts doesn’t always, in my opinion, develop the reader. The old days of ‘just get on with it’ isn’t something I am happy with. I like students to have independence and I do want them to have an idea of how they can become fluent readers, but as we are talking about reading it is very vague. As reading is an internalised process, we need to be explicit with reading and the processes relating to reading. And, I think questions are a huge part of this.

There are a few problems with my questioning in lessons. These are some of the problems:

       Tend to be loaded towards the end of the process

       Focused on clarifying understanding and not developing understanding / thoughts or feelings


       Clear direction (teacher-led)

       Limited in number so I can be precise

       Limiting the thought processes (recall not apply)

       Focused on students answering, rather than both answering and questioning

I think that I often leave the questioning at the end of the process, because I want to see what they have learnt and not how they are learning. The position of the question can help us understand how they are learning. At the start of the process, it shows us how much prior knowledge they have, or what their intuition is like. In the middle of the learning process, it shows us where on the spectrum of understanding they are. At the end of the process, it shows us what they have and haven’t got. That for me is where I think I need to develop my questioning. Where in the process should I ask a question so that I can develop the skills of a student? In other words: Death to Comprehension Tasks! Or, less of them. Or, just do one at the start and in the middle, as well as at the end.

One thing I have started doing is getting students to ask the questions themselves at the start of a text. Recently, I was teaching ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and I showed the class a film poster. The class had to think of questions. . Rather than get them to think of questions about the plot, I got them to think about the theme or the structure or even the message of the text from the cover of the film. That focused way of questioning helped me get some high level questions before they had even read the text.
Then, what questions should I ask? Well, I have been on so many CPD sessions and I have heard this too many times: closed questions are bad and open questions are good. Yes, let’s reduce the complexity of questioning to two types of questions. Yes let’s reduce the beauty of the English language to two categories. Questions are complex and we need to understand that. Here are some examples of different types of questions. You could categorise them into closed and open questions but I think you’d be a bit sad, as these questions do a lot more than give you a long or short answer.

       Why not…. ? Why doesn’t….? Why wouldn’t..?

                Questioning the alternatives

       Which is the best /least /most/ weakest….?

                Questioning that aids evaluation

       Did you not think that …..?

                Questioning that asks them to adopt a viewpoint

       If_________________, then why ________?

                Questioning the consequences

I wanted to help staff in my school to develop the reading skills of students, but also I wanted to develop questioning at the same time. Step forward ‘The Detectives’. Detectives are clever people and they read situations and people. It is my approach to developing reading through questions and using precise skills based questions. Each detective represents a different type of skills which has a set of questions to develop that skill.

Here’s an example using an extract from the Daily Mail website:
Sherlock Holmes: What can you infer about the writer’s opinion here?

Mother caught drinking LAGER at the school gates as she waits to pick up her children
By Steve Nolan

Perched on railing with a can of lager in one hand and a cigarette in the other, this mother is hardly setting a shining example to children filing out of a nearby primary school.

Here's what the detectives look like. I have includes some example questions and some sentence stems for answering.

Sherlock Holmes                                                                       Inferences / reading between the lines

What clues are there that ….?
How do ____ and ____ link together?
What is the connection between _____ and ______?

I can infer from this that …
This suggests that…
It seems that …
This evidence and that evidence show that …

Miss Marple                                                        relating to our own world/ experience/ knowledge

Where have you seen this before?
What other subject has this?
What skills in RE can you bring in to explain this?


This reminds me of …
We saw this when …
I notice that _____ has happened when ______


Poirot                                                                                          looking for the flaws, inconsistencies

Which bits don’t add up?
Where have they contradicted themselves?
What are the weaknesses in their argument?

They say this, but this bit doesn’t match up with that. 
I notice that they say this but later they say the opposite.
I don’t think they are completely certain because of ….

 Inspector Morse                                                                                        looking at the perspectives

What does the other person say?
How does this person’s view differ from the rest of the people?
Does everybody agree with this point?


One person said ____________ while the others said this …
From a different perspective, it can be seen that …


Inspector Clouseau                                            making a hypothesis and getting it wrong or right

What do you think will happened?
Why did they do that?
What will happen as a result of this?

I think that ___ will happen.
I predict that ______


Now, this is in its infancy and I am sure it will change and develop, but at the moment it is a framework for asking questions. It is also a framework that focuses on developing a skill rather than just test what the student knows. This is the beauty of questioning. The right question at the right time can teach a child something or develop a skill. Hopefully, people will be able to find a use for these somewhere. Some have used it to get the class in groups. A group of Miss Marples. Or, a group of Sherlock Holmes. Much better than a group that focus on closed questions.

If you can think of some other detectives with a different skills focus, I would love to hear from you.

I will carry the question blog on next week.
Thanks for reading,

P.S. Thanks to @englishlulu for the photos. Thanks also to @HFletcherWood for his technical support. Last thanks to David and Jenny for organising the whole event.  

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