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.

Teaching Resolutions

I love making resolutions. It is part of my deep and abiding passion for list making; for what else are your resolutions than the ultimate in lists? They set out your good intentions for the year and, probably after one-too many glasses of fizzy wine, make you feel inordinately better about the new year stretching ahead of you.

Having said that, I do find January an odd time to make resolutions. Ever a creature of habit, I am firmly locked into September being the start of a new year: my (first) gap year ran September to September so although I was working full time in a job without summer holidays, it began in September when I left Sixth Form and ended in the September when I left for university. My university years all finished in June, which meant that I never really left the September-September year pattern of my youth. During my second gap year I again worked full time and then ran away to South America for five months, returning to my first year of Teach First training and my PGCE in, guess what, September. I am sure that this adherence to September as the ‘real’ new year is the same as many teachers.

Despite this, I feel that the Christmas holidays provide a great time for reflection. The problems that you have with your classes will have clearly manifested themselves by this point and there has been time to experiment with routines/ solutions and work out what works…and what definitely does not. Therefore, in the spirit of reflection, I have decided to set myself some teaching resolutions as well as my personal ones (which will remain personal).

So here goes:

1. Try a new activity with at least one class once a day.

This may just be a new type of question (or some of the fab questioning resources that have had stolen from @kohlmand on Twitter), a new starter or new plenary. It may be a whole Phil Beadle-esque singing, dancing, standing on the tables lesson. But it will be new. I have found that I am already falling back on ‘old faithful’ activities. It is too early in the year to do this. I need to make sure that lessons are still engaging and somewhat unpredictable so students do still want to come to my classroom.

2. Use ICT and homework to meaningfully enhance learning.

I have blogged about this topic before and want to keep developing the changes that I have made. In the new year our school is getting a brilliant new VLE from FROG. It looks AMAZING but I want to be able to utilise its full potential in my lessons and for homework to carry on learning once students have left the classroom

3. To work out a really effective way of teaching History to students with very low motivation/ engagement with History. 

I have made some excellent progress with students who fit this bill over the past year and a half but I feel that I am not catering for the needs of these students in the way that I have done for other students. I am determined that this year will be the year that I have the ‘eureka’ moment that I have had with other classes. At the moment I am thinking of changing the curriculum slightly as another level of differentiation: the same skills will be taught but topics will be slightly different to hopefully engage the students more. Having said that, this is just an idea: any suggestions would be welcome on @annebradsaw88 on Twitter!

 

Projects

Encouraging students to be independent learners is something that I believe to be a crucial part of effective teaching. Not only does it mean that retaining sanity is possible for the teacher, it means that students’ learning is more profound as they have experienced it for themselves rather than being spoon-fed it by the teacher. This is not to say that I am innocent of spoon-feeding. I have done it for many classes and will continue to do so into the future as it does help to provide instant results for the ever-important data collections that are dominating educational life.

 

However, this is not to say that I believe that this is how teachers should teach, or how students should learn. It is questionable whether students actually learn anything this way or whether they simply commit it to short-term memory and immediately forget about it within the space of a day (or even lesson in many cases, much to my disenchantment). Many authors of Education books, such as Phil Beadle or Jim Smith, stress the importance of creative, independent learning which allows students room to explore and really understand a topic. As Phil Beadle points out, it may not fit the required model of a four part lesson; but is this necessarily a terrible thing? Will the lives of these students be ruined if they do not follow a strictly timed four part structure for every lesson of their lives? Probably not. As in my last post, the students – dare I say it – may actually enjoy the process of learning instead and school may actually become more intriguing and engaging. I still remember the novel that I and two other students were asked to write by my Year 8 English teacher as I was fascinated in the creative process and was so proud of my achievements. Don’t get me wrong, it was rubbish and heavily plagiarised Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy which I was obsessed with at the time (and still am to this day) yet I thought it was fab and looked forwards to those lessons and still remember them vividly. Those lessons taught me to edit, be critical of my work and strive to make something as perfect as I could make it: I became a reflective learner without the strictures of a heavily structured lesson.

 

Thinking about this, and becoming rapidly irritated with students asking questions which they already knew the answers to without thinking anything through, I have decided to set two classes long-term projects. One class, a year 7 English class, will be spending one hour a fortnight writing their own novels. Each lesson will have a theme, and a variety of activities, yet there will be time available for students to be creative and write whatever they want. Another class, a year 8 History class, will have one hour a fortnight compiling an extended project on a topic of their choice using primary and secondary sources to guide their work. Both classes will have to apply the skills gained in the lessons taught through the scheme of work, yet they will do this in their own way and, importantly, on their own.

 

This will probably go disastrously wrong and be a massive waste of time. But at least I am trying…

 

A small aside: I do not believe that this is the way forward for all lessons, all of the time – I do think that structured, four part/ six part/ eight part teaching has its value and should be used the majority of the time to provide a solid framework on which students can be creative and try out new skills and ideas. 

Developing the use of ICT in the classroom to support T&L

@UKLiteracy's Blog

Museum Boxhttp://museumbox.e2bn.org/

This little gem was first introduced to me in a training session looking at raising attainment in English. As described on the Museum Box website, “this site provides the tools for you to build up an argument or description of an event, person or historical period by placing items in a virtual box”. You can add items to your museum box such as videos and images to build up a tool that can support creative writing. I’ve used it in many ways over the years: students have built up a ‘crate’ of boxes that represent the World War 1 poems we have analysed in class; have created a stimulus board for writing short stories; and have used as a homework activity to recap on learning in lesson.

Photo Peachhttp://photopeach.com/

Just recently discovered this sideshow presentation tool after a twitter-trail led me to a blog written by a…

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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…