‘Question Time’ and Asking ‘Why’

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No, this post isn’t a dissection of David Dimbleby’s negotiation of a bent table full of politicking talking heads. I’m sorry if you came looking for political debates! My post is an exploration of one of the simplest, but most fundamental, aspects of how students learn and how students display their learning in lessons: higher order questioning. It is simply about getting students to ask ‘why‘ and an exploration of the crucial value of such deep questioning.

‘Daddy, why is the sky blue? Daddy, why are poppies red?’ Learning about the world by asking ‘why‘ questions is just about one of the most natural states for children. Here my daughter is sitting in the back seat of the car making sense of the chaotic world flying by the window. This scene conveys a basic truth that we must always harness in the classroom: children have an instinctive curiosity about the world. My daughter doesn’t yet comprehend why she should ask ‘why‘ questions (a later metacognitive state so crucial to learning), she just instinctively attempts to make sense with ‘why‘. It is the open nature of ‘why‘ questions which make them so powerful and essential to learning.

Despite being naturally inclined to ask such questions, students ask relatively few questions in the classroom setting. In fact, it takes six to seven hours for a typical student to ask a single question in class (Graesser and Person, 1994). Perhaps it is less surprising when we consider in a class full of anything from twenty to thirty inquisitive students that there is relatively little direct questioning of the teacher in class. Some students hog the attention of the teacher, skewing the balance of such questioning still further. Compare this to over twenty six questions from the same archetypal student in a one-to-one tutoring session. The numbers are striking. With this data is makes it even more essential to ensure that we make sure that students ask the right questions. Most questions in the classroom are closed questions that don’t elicit the deeper comprehension provoked by open questions such as ‘why…‘, ‘how…‘ and ”what if…‘. Questions like Isaac Newton asking ‘why did the apple fall from the tree?‘ or Copernicus asking ‘what if the earth orbits the sun?

Asking such deeper questions are important because, put simply, they make you more intelligent! By asking ‘why‘ questions – rather grandly described as ‘elaborate interrogation‘ (this document outlines the strategy, with others, really effectively: ) by cognitive scientists – students can actually make new knowledge stick and become more memorable. By asking questions about their new knowledge they become more active learners, which, again, aids recall. The questions elaborate upon what they are learning, hooking the knowledge more deeply in their long term memory, as such questions connect new ideas and concepts to their prior knowledge. Searching ‘why‘ questions are the mental pathways that connects their prior knowledge with what they are attempting to learn. Research on questioning – see here – shows it contributes to reading comprehension, getting students to hypothesise and focus their attention on the key aspects of the text, whilst crucially helping students identify what they know and don’t know. The metacognitive basis of questioning is crucial: that essential ability for students to think about their own thinking, working out what they need to know next and articulating their knowledge.

As teachers we should monitor our questions to ensure we are asking many more of these open questions which generate deeper thinking. We can use students themselves as ‘question monitors‘ to note and evaluate such questions. In some video technology, like IRIS Connect, you can tally your question types to reflect on your own questioning. Not only that, by monitoring the questions of students we can better judge their level of understanding – see the research here. Knowing what the students know, and what they don’t know, is crucial for a teacher in accurately identifying what students are learning and understanding. We can ask ourselves the question: Are students asking enough ‘why’ questions in my classroom? This connects intimately with the question: ‘are my students making progress?’

Furthermore, with the reality of the lack of questions being answered by teachers, we must better scaffold questions shared between students. The research on ‘guided reciprocal peer questioning‘ – see here – provides further evidence why we should actively focus on students asking ‘why‘ questions of one another. This table, from Alison King’s, ‘Structuring Peer Interaction to Promote High-Level Cognitive Processing: From Theory Into Practice’ (2002), provides a really useful framework to share with students to ensure that they are asking deeper questions:

Guided reciprocal peer questioning: question bank

What is a new example of…?
How would you use…to…?
What would happen if…?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of…? How does…tie in with what we learned before?
Explain why… Explain how…
How does… What is the… Why is… How are…different?
Compare…and…with regard to…
What do you think causes…?
What conclusions can you draw about…?
Do you agree or disagree with this statement:…? Support your answer.
How are…and…similar?
How are… and…best…and why?

By scaffolding these questions you can better structure the quality of group discussion whilst also honing their metacognitive understanding, allowing them to actively make their next step in their learning. If we can calibrate students to ask better questions we will make them better learners. Once more, this process of metacognition is proven by a vast amount of cognitive science research to be a key component in successful learning.

Few teachers would ever seriously say they didn’t encourage questioning in their classroom, but perhaps we need to better monitor the quality of our questioning and that of the students. Deeper questioning doesn’t just happen: it is modelled and scaffolded by the class teacher. We could undertake some very simple action research and see if the research that states students ask on average one question over the course of six or seven hours is true of our classroom. My most popular post from my blog is all about questioning and creating a ‘culture of enquiry‘. Find it here: ‘Top Ten Tips – Questioning’ and see if some of the strategies can help you enrich the quality of questioning in your classroom. Many of the ‘top ten tip’ focus in upon generating more questions: such as the ‘Question Wall‘, and the ‘Just One More Question‘ strategies. Whereas other strategies, such as ‘The Question Continuum‘, the ‘Question Monitor‘ and ‘Socratic Questioning’, focus upon the quality of the questions students ask.

Building a thoughtful ‘culture of enquiry‘ in our classrooms should be a priority if we want to improve how students learn. By monitoring the quality of their questions we can identify their progress and what they know. By enhancing and scaffolding their questions we can deepen their knowledge.

Why, given the evidence, would we not focus our energies upon improving the quality and quantity of our students’ questions?

Useful questioning resources:

- A NSTA document with a good explanation of different question types and an exploration of ‘wait time': http://www.nsta.org/pdfs/201108BookBeatHowToAskTheRightQuestions.pdf

- A good essay collating questioning research: http://rsd.schoolwires.com/145410515152938173/lib/145410515152938173/Classroom_Questioning_by_Cotton.pdf

- A great guide to asking better questions: http://cet.usc.edu/resources/teaching_learning/docs/Asking_Better_Questions.pdf

- A popular blog on questioning: http://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/2012/05/ofsted-2012-questioning-to-promote-learning

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About huntingenglish

I am an Assistant Headteacher and English Subject Leader at Huntington Secondary School, York. I like to read, write and talk about teaching and learning. I blog regularly about my main interests: successful teaching strategies, coaching, teacher improvement, with some political arguments and miscellany along the way. I am currently writing a book for new English teachers, to be published next year.

8 responses to “‘Question Time’ and Asking ‘Why’”

  1. @mrnickhart says :

    Like all great posts, this one has got me thinking about my own practice. Your links to the research are very useful. I teach Year 6, and I immediately thought of how I teach them to read. Discussion around the topic of the text, exposing them to tricky new words etc before they read is something that we’ve been trying out this year, with good results. Questioning during reading, using ideas from ‘Tell Me’ by Aidan Chambers is something that has worked well – similar to the ‘why’ questions you mention. Looking forward to refining this further – thanks for posting!

  2. Teresa says :

    Students don’t ask questions in the classroom setting because teachers don’t have time to reply to them. Teachers are buried under paper work.

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