Questioning

The average teacher asks an average of 400 questions a day  (Leven and Long, 1981).  I am sure that you have heard this statistic before; in the past two weeks I have heard/ seen it in an article, on Twitter, at a CPD session and, most recently, at an NQT induction day. It is often used in conjunction with Ofsted’s criteria from September 2012 which states ‘teachers use questioning and discussion to assess the effectiveness of their teaching and promote pupils’ learning,’ to achieve Outstanding. Clearly, we all know that we should think about the questions we use in the classroom and how we phrase them. This is nothing radical and is part of common sense. Yet many teachers are told that they are not asking enough high-quality questions in that endless pursuit of ‘rapid progress’ – Ofsted’s current holy grail. This post, therefore, is to encourage people to see questioning in a different light: as a method of easing workload and ticking boxes at the same time.

For me, questioning is the lazy way (as in a Jim Smith lazy way as opposed to the mortal sin way) into providing differentiation across abilities and demonstrating progress in a lesson. It is, for the most part, printer and resource free and takes very little prior preparation. It is a saviour for a teacher who was snowed under with the mulitude of ‘priorities’ given to them by SLT and completely forgot to get to a photocopier and print out individually handcrafted resources for each student that they will teach that day (because we clearly all do this, every day and every lesson). Questioning shows students that you are including them individually in the lesson, you are tailoring the lesson for each student by phrasing the question differently for each student you ask – without having to spend hours glued to Publisher.

Questioning was highlighted for me as an area of weakness early in my training year yet it has now developed into a strength that is noted on my observation forms and reports. It has genuinely improved my teaching and is the one thing that I feel I can really do as well as a ‘proper’ (i.e. not NQT or trainee) teacher whilst I fall miserably short in other areas.

So here are techniques that I have used very successfully in my classroom (many stolen from a recent NQT session and Twitter as well – sorry @kohlmand, @learningspy, @teachertoolkit and @philbeadle – think of it as publicity!).

1. Why?

Simple, effective and short. Ask this at the end of ANY statement that a student makes and you will be met with a furrowed brow and a strained answer as they think creatively on the spot: they have thought laterally and extended their answer. You have made them learn.

2. Turning a question into a statement.

This is a fantastic starter activity as it encourages students to evaluate opinions from the beginning of a lesson. Instead of ‘Why are chips unhealthy?’ ask ‘Chips are a health food.’ Do you agree or disagree? Make more able students take an opposing or contradictory view to extend them and give less able students a side that they feel is comfortable thereby allowing them to engage.

3. Give an answer and ask why it is the correct answer.

This is a great way of getting students to think about creative and learning processes. A great example that have seen is ‘Why is this a complex sentence?’ with an accompanying complex sentence. It makes students break down the concept/ idea and allows you to work out how well they have understood the topic.

4. If this is the answer, what is the question?

Jeopardy is an amazing game and students find it really hard. Get students to rate each other’s questions as well to encourage some AfL.

5. Thinking dice.

These are an amazing game to use in class to encourage students to ask each other questions. Play as a whole class – get a student to roll and ask a question of anyone they choose. The person who answers is then the next roller. In encouraging students to question, they are applying the knowledge in new ways and, again, will demonstrate learning and progress for you to assess. They are available from the Happy Puzzle Company online. Every student loves these, no matter what their age.

Why do extra-curriculars?

I feel like I live, breathe and sleep thinking about school. I have certainly not had a dream about anything else since I started my training in 2011. This is the reality for the majority of my NQT colleagues and I am assured that it does not play a less significant part of a teacher’s waking life as they progress through their careers. Fantastic.

So, the question is: why, after spending the majority of the weekend planning, most nights marking and all day teaching/ dealing with admin/ children, do teachers stay after school, unpaid and run extra-curricular activities? The answer is, because it is so valuable to a rounded, balanced education.

Ask any adult about their school experience and they will not mention the astounding formative assessment that they received, or the concrete knowledge of  their target levels and what steps they needed to take to make Outstanding progress. No, they will comment on one of two things: the times that they got in trouble and the times that they spent having fun in clubs, plays, trips and sporting events. These are what make school life a life and not an existence – they make school relevant and give many students a reason to be there.

I have just spent fifteen hours in school so I could pull the curtains on the school play. This was clearly a pivotal role and despite this it was just a fraction of the days, weeks and now months that the other staff involved with the production have spent worrying about, organising and creating such an amazing show. It was spectacular last night and spectacular tonight. Tomorrow’s last show will undoubtedly be even better. The young people acting on stage have a fantastic gift that has been nurtured and developed by the staff who were involved in this play in their own time and for one reason: it benefits those young people. Similarly, the PE staff have coached excellent teams to victory in county competitions which leads to a positive school culture and gives other students pride in the school that they attend.

I am currently organising a trip to the Ypres and Somme area for Year 9. Ostensibly it is to provide the students with contextual knowledge to support their GCSE Controlled Assessments in both History and English. I am sure that they will learn a lot yet in a few years time I do not think that they will look back at this trip and remember the quality learning that took place. They will remember the trip as a new experience, to a new place with new people and this in itself is a valuable thing for them to have learnt. My housemate is going one step further and organising a volunteering trip, along with £50,000 of fundraising, to Africa for Year 10 and 11 students. She is clearly mental and it is taking over her entire life yet the impact that it will have on those young people who were lucky enough to be selected (through rigorous interviews which, again, took hours) is immeasurable. This is a once in a lifetime experience that will have been created, principally by her, for those children and will be with them for their whole life.

Is it worth it for teachers to do all of this? Yes. A school without extra-curriculars, for me, does not provide a balanced, meaningful education. Extra-curriculars make a school. I need to remember this as I sign up to help out with something else…

Wishing on a wall…

Homework is a contentious topic among teachers. SLT at our school set very firm guidelines on how much, and how often, homework should be set. Parents love it and are not happy if homework is not set in a regular fashion. Teachers…they are undecided.

As a History teacher, and therefore non-core, I can see why homework is valuable. We have less teaching hours than the core subjects thus homework can be necessary to ensure that topics are covered in enough breadth before the ever present assessments and data collections. However, receiving a motley collection of hastily scribbled notes on Julius Caesar or, more offensively, a copied and pasted page from Wikipedia is thoroughly disheartening and leads me to wonder why I bother. Can homework done in this way be productive? Or is it a waste of time that leads to disengagement?

In an effort to change this cycle (and try to save my desk from the rapidly growing landslide of scraps of paper) I decided to try something new. Our school has begun to dabble in using ICT to meaningfully enhance pupil learning. The Maths department regularly uses MyMaths and IAmLearning to set homework which students respond to well. However, the subjects on IAmLearning are tailored to the national curriculum which our school, as an Academy, is not bound to following. Moreover, I feel that the tasks can be overgeneralised and don’t necessarily link to my teaching in a meaningful way.

Still flummoxed, I turned to Twitter for ideas and heard about WallWisher. WallWisher is an online blackboard that, crucially, can be moderated by the owner. Posters do not need a password or account and their posts cannot be seen publicly until the moderator has accepted them. I could see real potential in this resource as it is intuitive to use and can be adapted for a variety of uses. Intrigued, I built a wall, set tasks, posted learning objectives and hyperlinks to resources and booked out a computer room for a year 7 class the following day. The lesson was quite frenetic with thirty kids updating their posts. As they could not see other people’s posts, theirs landed on top of each other which took some sorting out and will need a system to be put in place. Despite this, the students really enjoyed the lesson and the format of the website.

Much more successful was the use of the website for homework. I have used it for five classes now and it has made keeping track of who and who has not done the homework simple and fuss free. Being able to view who has not done homework before the lesson means that dealing with it in lessons is fuss free and of course there can be no ‘dog/baby brother/ sister ate my homework’ excuses: if a student has not fulfilled their responsibility there is no hiding which is a valuable lesson in itself. More significantly, the quality of responses has improved as more able students tend to post homework first that can then be used as a model by others in the class who are less sure.

The experiment is still in its early days yet and might go spectacularly wrong. We are rolling it out across the Humanities department as of next week so I will post some updates in the future…