People who have read my #marginalgains blog posts will know I am going over old ground here – intentionally so – as I am looking to dig deeper towards the key marginal gains that have the biggest impact on learning. For me, formative oral feedback and questioning are the two key ‘hinge point marginal gains’ that make for great teaching and learning. My previous #marginalgains blog identified new teaching strategies for these tow key area ad pedagogy, but here I wanted to use this blog to reflect on what I view as the most high impact formative oral feedback strategies that I have been using in my everyday practice. I want to use my list as a reminder, each time I plan lessons, of the key strategies to use – as it is too easy to forget and slip into autopilot planning, forgetting even our most effective of strategies.
In the latest OFSTED guidance, they have clearly stated that lesson planning should not be inflexible, that teachers should react to the progress, or the lack thereof, of their students. This is heartening recognition of what we have known all along – and that is that teaching and learning are contingent activities. Learning is often problematic, changeable, non-linear, beset by a host of unique factors that cannot be exactly replicated (but with experience we can determine common patterns). We must therefore be constantly tracking the evidence of learning with as much precision and skill as we can. That is why effective teaching hinges absolutely on oral formative feedback and questioning on a lesson by lesson basis. It appears to me that the greatest benefit of experience that I observe in excellent teachers is the recognition of how and when to elicit feedback, with the nuanced understanding of what questions to ask, how and when. I have drawn upon this wealth of experience for my top ten – indeed it is my inept stumbling near the shoulders of giants that is responsible for the whole lot!
In nearly all of these examples the feedback includes all three parties possible in the class: the learner, peers and the teacher. I dispute the idea of peer feedback as an undertaking exclusive of the teacher – we are always there steering the feedback, establishing ground rules and success criteria, modifying and adjusting the feedback of peers – that is why we are the paid experts! Therefore I do not differentiate between ‘teacher led’ or ‘peer’ feedback in my list.
My Oral feedback Top Ten
‘Making the Learning Visible’ – Oral Feedback on Worked Examples:
This heading captures a variety of methods and tools to essentially do the same thing – showing student work in the midst of the process. Whether it be through an iPad and Apple TV; a Visualiser; a video camera or still camera, or more simply pinning ongoing work up onto the wall or a display; making the work ‘visual’ is a powerful tool for assessment for learning. For one, it raises levels of pride, giving students a keener sense of purpose, and it often instills a healthy competitive edge to the learning. It is also evident that most successful students have an innate sense of what ‘good work’ looks like, but many students simply don’t have this degree of self-efficacy. Making visible exemplar work, and breaking down its component parts, is a simple and powerful way to modify the learning of each student – helping to enhance what Ron Berger described as the crucial assessment going on “inside students”. Having used an iPad this year, I have repeatedly photographed student work, put it into the ExplainEverything app and immediately annotated through the projector, whilst giving formative feedback. Students are more then willing to get involved (a handy benefit is that good work can be saved and shared through the iPad), given clear modelling and parameters for effective feedback. Student feedback regarding this approach is highly positive.
Ostensibly, the strategy is a writing task – but it is the ongoing oral feedback at the heart of this strategy that is essential in establishing where the learners are and where they are going with their learning. This is one of those activities that teachers often shy away from, perhaps through a sense of fear of making a mistake in their writing, or not having absolute control of behaviour whilst undertaking the writing (a neat trick is to select a student to scribe the guided writing to allow you to freely roam the room; or going one step further and having an object passed around, like a conch(!), for which students need to hold to contribute). Working effectively, it can harmonise a symphony of understanding. Given any topic the teacher can begin with a prompt to the writing to oil the wheels, before students are asked to contribute subsequent ideas and sentences. As an English teacher, I love getting embroiled in debate about the semantic meaning of one individual word choice over another! Once more, it has the attendant benefit of modelling excellence in a very collaborative and fulfilling fashion.
Peer Response Partners (or ‘think-pair-share’):
This style of peer feedback is well trodden and nothing new, but it is worth reflecting that it is the aggregation of understanding provided by learning in groups which provides the positive impact inherent in collaborative learning. Some people complain about the aggregation of misunderstanding that can occur in group work; however, that ‘failure’ isn’t necessarily negative at all, for it gives the teacher the chance to modify the misapprehensions in whole class feedback, indeed, it opens up new avenues of learning – coming back to the contingent nature of learning! The ‘think-pair-share’ approach has been elaborated upon better than I could possibly explain – so here is a useful blog on the activity and its importance from @headguruteacher:
I would add that it is crucial that success criteria is shared with students and that they have a rigorous structure for feedback – whether it be a ‘Two Stars and a Wish’ approach, or something similar. Ideally, it follows from some quality modelling, as exemplified in points 1 and 2 of my list.
Once more, it is Ron Berger I have to thank for this. Put simply, it is a systematic approach to peer feedback that is structured, clearly and positively, depersonalising the feedback, whilst honing in upon the steps required to improve towards excellence. A fuller explanation can be found here by the venerable @DKMead: http://pedagogicalpurposes.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/by-josie-and-emily.html
and here, by the man himself:
One-to-one Teacher Feedback:
This is as old school as ancient Athens I know! Yet, in the hurly burly of thirty GCSE students rumbling along in unison, the prospect of one-to-one feedback appears slim to non-existent far too often. Yet, we all know the power of the swiftest of one-to-one oral interventions. Too often our elegant written commentaries are ignored or simply misunderstood. We need to talk it through. With our KS3 groupings in our English and Media Faculty we have allocated one-to-one weeks for each class each term. We are going to ensure students work with peers collaboratively ‘marking’ prep books for SPaG in their preparatory writing, before undertaking independent reading and writing challenges. Every student will spend five minutes with their teacher reflecting upon their progress, targets and their finished, or ongoing, work. At GCSE, you may find that mock feedback would be doubly useful given an oral one-to-one to supplement a written commentary. How about setting up a small group task where students devise their own exam questions and answers – a higher order thinking task that requires some scaffolding support, but which is a tried and tested success – whilst undertaking that crucial one-to-one feedback.
A lively debate can ensue from this kinaesthetic strategy. Select topic sentences that convey a clear opinion and then use both sides of the room as an opinion continuum, from ‘Strongly Agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree’. This is an ideal task at the beginning of a topic, to determine their understanding, or at the end – perhaps it is a good way to book end learning to identify changing opinions after a topic has been studied. Students must orally feedback their opinions, justifying their ideas with evidence, building upon or challenging feedback from other students. The feedback can be made visible by a student scribing the continuum on the board in note form (photograph it and save it for later, or use it for ideas for a subsequent written activity).
The Secret Teacher – ‘The Power of the Post It’:
I must commend Zoe Elder aka @fullonlearning for ideas related to the humble post-it note, found in her luminous book ‘Full On Learning’. I have embedded these techniques with real success and with real ease – even though their aim is moving slightly away from oral feedback as such. Firstly, the ‘secret teacher’ aspect comes in when you have students work independently, for example, on a piece of writing (for me it was students working on Recreative writing in preparation for a controlled assessment). Students were asked to note any questions on a post it and place it on the ‘questions wall’, as they worked away. This small step was helpful in eliminating those helpless and distracting questions, like ‘How do I spell such and such…’, when a dictionary is in a box in front of them! The freedom from answering these questions meant my teaching assistant and I could go around quickly giving feedback with limited interference, whilst casting surreptitious glances upon the work students were doing. Rather than interrupt the flow of the whole group by stopping to talk with individuals (students, like adults, are inherently nosy!), we simply made a note on a post it and placed it on the desk of the student – from a simple ‘Proof read your punctuation’ to ‘Should you develop your scene direction further?’ These little nudges actually moved away from the notion of oral feedback explicitly, but the nudge and modify approach is exactly in tune with the notion of oral formative feedback. In reality, you cannot simply use the post it notes without some verbal feedback at times, but that feedback becomes very precise and concise. The hum of learning when this strategy goes well really is a pleasure to behold.
This simply strategy relates to the method of questioning to elicit oral feedback. The ‘Teacher-student-student…’ approach explicitly rejects the ‘tennis style’ teacher led questioning, to instead encourage students to feedback upon the ideas of one another – bouncing ideas around the room like a basketball team (without the heavy ball obviously!). It is a timely reminder to ensure students still own their learning, building upon the ideas of one another.
Closely related to the previous point is the very simple model for students to respond to one another – A = Agree with… B = Build upon… C = Challenge. When students know this structure it is a finely tuned short-hand for effective collaborative learning that enriches the quality of feedback. The teacher is the ultimate guide, but students can develop their thinking more independently. This style does work better with a meaty topic where students are grappling with an argument, or questions, that requires higher order thinking. It also helps if students are given notice that they will respond, as it ensures they listen ever more keenly.
‘Learning Spies’ Feedback:
Taken from the eponymous @LearningSpy himself, David Didau, this strategy works great for group work where you want students to remain on task purposefully throughout the lesson. It is a great way to celebrate and feedback upon positive learning, making explicit what good learning looks like, sounds like and feels like. I used this strategy a lot in the last couple of years with eager Year 7s, who were energised by the opportunity to seize some teacherly control! By making explicit before the task what behaviours you expect of good group work, the two ‘spies’ (I found a gender and ability mix for the pairing worked well), would note each group at work; making notes about skilful contributions, good leadership, levels of engagement and active listening. At the end of the lesson, they would feedback with real skill about the learning habits displayed by the group, identifying the best insights and behaviours on show. Try it with one of your most ‘challenging’ students – we all know the type – it really gets them reflecting and can be very powerful way to get your group learning about how to learn. Admittedly, it isn’t something I would use daily, but with complex group work of some extended length, it is a great strategy. The excellent @davidfawcett27 has produced his own spin on the idea:
I particularly like the recording of evidence idea from the blog – with the iPad learning spies could photograph or film exemplary learning – an incredibly powerful strategy that gets students really focused reflecting upon their learning.
Our Flexible Friend
The idea of students sitting in front of PCs learning how to use Word is as dead as the proverbial dead parrot. It is already an antiquated model of learning – like chalk or fountain pens with ink-wells; it has a whiff of the twentieth century about it, rather than preparing our students for the future. Whilst the DfE dithers about what they should do with technology (Mr Gove clearly wants to reboot the chalk and talk bygone age), schools are left with a rapidly changing world, where budgets are at a premium and ICT often stretches what budgets now allow. All the while, students are learning on their iPads, Android tablets and smart phones, writing more in texts and tweets daily than in their collective writing experience during the school week. We aren’t harnessing this expertise, never mind guiding it to a place of higher learning!
Clearly, the Microsoft model of a straight-jacketed suite of programmes, with little synchronicity between devices, is a thing of the past. Students want to instantly access information and media (whilst editing, adapting and creating their own) and we need to harness and shape this creativity. Whatever subject we teach, we also need to guide students towards a digital literacy that helps them source the best information, filtering out the European food mountain style piles of rubbish that litters the web. Sitting in front of an ageing fleet of PCs isn’t going to do the job. The flexibility of students working in groups filming with an iPad, or making a presentation with ExplainEverything, for example, then seamlessly showing their films through Apple TV or AirPlay, is an instantaneous way of making the learning visible. It also has the added bonus of making the learning feel more ‘real’ and more familiar to students.
No longer should Geography teachers, or Maths teachers, or Art teachers, or indeed teachers of any subject, have to traipse across the school to find a computer room – losing fifteen minutes of the lesson in the process, gaining a moist folder and a raucous group of excitedly damp students. We shouldn’t have to struggle to make advanced room bookings that then become superfluous because we didn’t follow the gold plated plan! The byword for new technology must be flexibility – flexibility in how and where students can learn.
Familiarity breeding contentment, not contempt
Educational luminaries such as John Hattie and Dylan William have found little concrete evidence to support the view that technology has a transformative effect on learning. Indeed, what we know is that key is the teacher – they are the nexus for learning, technology is just a tool. But what if the tools teachers use actually has leverage into a wealth of expertise and learning already possessed by students? The research on these mobile and flexible devices is still in its infancy which makes finding an evidential ‘answer’ problematic, but if we know that students understand new things in the context of things they already know, then it stands to reason that we should make the unfamiliar familiar by using familiar tools. Hattie and William have inevitably been looking to research from the past – where the older fixed model of technology has never truly enriched learning in any transformative way. We have all been guilty of looking backwards: whole class ICT, perched impassively in front of some poor imitation of a game, or a clunkingly slow VLE is a weak version of what is truly familiar to students – therefore it is dismissed as phony by students. With some degree of teacher expertise (I don’t think the teacher has to be an outstanding technological expert – have you seen a five year old navigate a mobile phone or an iPad quicker than their grandparents ever could?) we can tap into a world of familiar knowledge and skill possessed our students – not only that – we must do if we are to help shape their crucial digital literacy.
For good or ill, students live with technology as an integral part of their lives; how they communicate and socialise, and of course, how they learn. If we could harness the impassioned determination to master the latest incarnation of Fifa or COD in Maths or Science lessons, or even ICT itself, we would most definitely be onto something. Now, I’m not suggesting the ‘gamification’ of our curriculum – but on the iPad for instance, there are a wealth of apps, such as: ExplainEverything, iMovie, ComicLife, Notability etc. which can take the written word and transform it into something more real and make it multi-modal like the texts with which they engage with every day and will do so in future.
If you making using ICT tools something special, a treat, then students are in danger of not learning the knowledge you are seeking. Instead they may only remember the novelty of the change in their learning, they may remember playing with the tool, not learning the knowledge being leveraged by the tool. Students learn and remember more effectively when their emotions are stimulated – it they are even momentarily elated by using iPads, then that has the potential to override their long term memory – and the tool becomes obstructive to the learning. Put simply, using flexible, mobile ICT devices must be done frequently and as an integral part in how we teach and students learn, otherwise they will become another novelty or gimmick. Using iPads may have an initial prestige, but when that wears off the real learning will begin, and with the right pedagogy, the learning can be amplified by the skilful applications available. In short, if we use the tools a lot they will lose their gimmick factor and become very valuable tools that can stretch and enhance learning.
I would like to note that our faculty is undertaking an iPad pilot, which began this year. We have already seen some outstanding learning in evidence, with student motivation raised by using the tools, because of their prestige, but also because of the teacher using the tools to make student learning instantaneously visible on a regular basis. We have honed in on teachers becoming expert with a smaller range of apps, whilst using the devices as a collaborative tool for group work, with some capacity for a one-to-one technology model (this is inessential, however, as we have planned to use the tool in groups). It hasn’t all been plain sailing – there have been issues with saving student work; with failures with Apple TV etc., but our use of ICT as a tool for learning has multiplied nearly exponentially – frequency and familiarity matter. We are moving beyond the ‘distraction stage’ of the new technology, where students may be at risk of remembering only the use of the new tool, rather than committing the knowledge and learning to long term memory. We are moving into a stage of greater familiarity, and with sound pedagogy, we will continue to make marginal gains in our teaching and learning using these powerful tools for learning.
Over the last few weeks I have been considering how to apply David Brailsford’s ‘aggregation of marginal gains‘ approach to help teachers, myself, and our English and Media Faculty included, move from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ in their daily practice. I think the whole concept of ‘marginal gains’ is so useful because it is simply about the pursuit of excellence, with precise language and rigour, and there is also a very engaging story of real success underpinning the idea. I think the pursuit of improving ‘marginal gains’ is something we all do, and have done in many areas of our life. It is not new. It is not advanced Astrophysics even! It is a direct and effective language for our best practice – it is a concept that can give clarity to our pursuit of excellence – or ‘outstandingness‘!
Now, I am interested in those crucial margins that make for outstanding teaching and learning. That is where we all wish to be as teachers. I am most interested in the tipping point between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’, because I think improving in that area could be transformative for our students and their experience of school – exam results etc. positively would follow. The most recent evidence across all the key stages, undertaken by OFSTED, states that 70% of lessons in English were rated ‘good’ or more in both phases of education, with only 15% being judged as ‘outstanding’ – source: ‘Moving English Forward’ (OFSTED, 2012). In the equivalent Maths report: ‘Mathematics – Made to Measure’ (OFSTED 2012) - 11% of lessons were deemed ‘outstanding’; 43% were ‘good’; with 42% being judged ‘satisfactory’. By extrapolating these findings across the span of the curriculum it could be judged that the vast majority of teaching is bumping around the ‘good’ judgement area – which is a very positive starting point for developing teaching and learning. That is not to say the third of lessons that are not deemed ‘good’ in English, with more so in Maths, are not crucial. Indeed, they require explicit attention from teachers and schools to address the matter. Yet, the vast majority of teaching is ‘good’, and despite what Daily Mail editorials tell us, we are striving to be even better. In such a context we are all aiming for outstanding, therefore collaborating to the best of our ability to share our best pedagogy should be a priority. We should be looking to achieve every ‘marginal gain’ possible – not only that, we should have a rigorous focus upon the marginal gains that have the greatest impact upon student attainment.
Last week, the peerless teacher-blogger, David Didau (his Twitter guise being @Learningspy for those people who have not discovered his epic blog back-catalogue of pedagogical goodness!), had been in pursuit of those crucial gains that help teachers strive from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’. He quickly combed the expertise of Tweachers by crowd sourcing #marginalgains for teaching and learning from an array of experts – coming up with an intriguing list in the following blog post: http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/10/14/outstanding-teaching-learning-missed-opportunities-and-marginal-gains/.
Like most teachers, I looked at the list and thought long and hard about each point. I considered why I agreed with some more than others – before doing what most males thought about doing – putting the list into an order, even creating a top five! It isn’t just Nick Hornby who loves lists, he is speaking for many of us mildly obsessive male types!
I thought for days about those key marginal gains in lessons. I got thinking about what I viewed were the ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ – those gains which I believe have the most significant impact upon progress in learning – which ultimately makes the difference from a ‘good’ lesson to an ‘outstanding’ one. What most teachers know is that there isn’t a huge difference between the two judgements – it is, of course, marginal. It often exists in those seconds when a task is being outlined; feedback on student answers is being given or one crucial key question is being answered…or not being answered as the case may be!
We often miss those key ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ in our planning. In our preparation we may spend twice as long preparing a photoshopped image, for example, than we spend on forming the crucial question for which the progress of the lesson hinges. For instance, why is it that a department could all use the exact same scheme of learning with any given ‘outstanding lesson plan’; one that the resources should “make a marked contributions to the quality of learning” (OFSTED Criteria); “expert subject knowledge is applied consistently” (OFSTED) in the plan; where student behaviour and attitude is such that they “are aspirational and…are determined to succeed” (OFSTED) – but yet for one teacher the lesson is deemed ‘outstanding’ and for another it isn’t? I would expect that for many observers the key differences are far from obvious. What we must do it eradicate the mystery of those marginal differences. We must pull back the veil and share the findings.
I don’t think that the marginal difference between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ is to be found in the varying quality of resources, or the varying technological tools, or even the choice of task necessarily. Each and every element of a lesson has a degree of importance obviously, but I think the more flexible elements of a lesson, not always explicit in the plan, are the most essential. Those essential elements are questioning and formative oral feedback. These, I believe, are the key ‘hinge marginal gains’ that are the drivers of outstanding teaching and learning – they are the most significant difference in that hazy margin between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’. They are the grease that the oils the progress of learning. This may be why Wilshaw sagely stated in his speech to the NCSL that:
“Ofsted inspectors will not arrive with a preferred teaching style or model lesson.
Lessons, of course, should be planned, but not in an overcomplicated or formulaic way. A crowded lesson plan is as bad as a crowded curriculum. We don’t want to see a wide variety of teaching strategies unless they have coherence or purpose.”
Yes, I am quoting Wilshaw! He does have moments of clarity and good sense! We may be implementing every innovation under the sun, we might have technology invading every fibre of our lesson – but “rapid” progress in learning and students acquiring knowledge and developing understanding “exceptionally well” comes down to asking great questions, receiving answers, acting upon that information and shaping the next steps in the learning. They give ‘coherence’ to learning that engenders the rapid knowledge and understanding required for students. Reflecting upon this further it is clear that questioning and formative oral feedback are inextricably linked. We must define and unpick those links carefully.
As Dylan William stated, perhaps we should stop doing so many ‘good things’ in our daily practice! See his speech: http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=wKLo15A80lI&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DwKLo15A80lI.
Perhaps we should instead hone in upon improving the ‘hinge marginal gains‘ as our priority for developing our pedagogy and our lesson planning. With planning, departmental coaching, whole school teaching and learning development, we could focus with absolute rigour on this pairing – then those marginal gains we experience could make that marginal, but highly significant aggregated gain for our students, and we may well be judged as ‘outstanding’.
In following posts are what I see as a good starting point in addressing the crucial ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ :
My last post focused on becoming a better teacher and how we can undertake our own professional development by dipping into the wealth of great books at hand for teachers. I wanted to create a simple list of what I view in my humble opinion as the best books for teachers out there in the market. I thought of two key factors – ‘philosophy’ and ‘practicality’. By ‘philosophy’ I mean those books that get us thinking deeply about our role and our pedagogy – books that reinvigorate our passions and spark new thinking. ‘Practicality’ is self-explanatory but essential for the best educational books for teachers. If a book gets you scribbling notes furiously or splashing each page with post-it notes then its usefulness is clear. The selection is in order numerically, but that doesn’t indicate any order of priority of quality:
1. Visible Learning for Teachers: John Hattie
John Hattie has developed a global wealth of research in order to provide evidence for what works in education. The findings are fascinating and thought-provoking: strategies like homework are exposed, whereas strategies like formative feedback are heralded. The motto of the book is ‘know thy impact’ and it explains there is no ‘silver bullet’ answer, but that we must approach our teaching with passion and ‘deliberate practice’, focusing in upon the evidence of what works for our students. Don’t be put off by the statistical analysis or the science of a ‘meta-analysis’ - even this English teacher got a hang of the numbers! ‘Visible Learning’ – the original Hattie text, for which he has based this sequel – was rather grandly labelled “the Bible” in one review, but it really is a seminal work. A must read!
Give this a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sng4p3Vsu7Y
2. Embedded Formative Assessment: Dylan William
Dylan William is the undoubted king of AFL. The opening chapters present a precise and near perfect explanation of why teacher pedagogy is absolutely crucial. This is followed by chapters simply bursting with practical strategies for formative assessment, with well chosen research and examples. It ties in neatly with the evidence provided by Hattie, in Williams’ own eminently readable style. Put simply, it does what it says on the tin!
Give this a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKLo15A80lI
3. The ‘Perfect’ series – ‘The Perfect OFSTED Lesson’ by Jackie Breere and ‘The Perfect English OFSTED Lesson’ by David Didau
These two books come from the same excellent series and they both provide a great range of practical strategies to attain the much vaunted ‘outstanding’ in OFSTED observations. Both texts don’t obsess about OFSTED, rather they are focused about sharing great pedagogy. Clearly there are common parallels between the two books, but they each provide different ideas and approaches, with the English specific book (Didau) exploring SOLO, for example, in a clear and driven way. Don’t be put off by the ‘English’ focus either – Didau’s book presents strategies that are easily applicable across the curriculum and would potentially provide some new angles of pedagogy that prove fruitful for different subject areas.
4. Full On Learning: Zoe Elder
This simply brilliant book is comprehensive and packed full of the philosophy of ‘why’ and the practicalities of ‘how’ for teachers. It presents a great range of research and a thoughtful exploration of pedagogy with lots of practical ideas and tips for further research and classroom applications. The book also happens to be aesthetically quite beautiful, which is an appropriate match to the artful thought processes of the book itself. This really is required reading for teachers at every stage of their career.
5. What’s the Point of School?: Guy Claxton
This book is very much a philosophical exploration of education, packed with interesting research and questions to stimulate every teacher. It should be required reading for every PGCE student or NQT, but it is appropriate for even the most seasoned of veterans too! It stands up well to a re-read to refresh our sense of purpose and direction. It also does what good educational books should do – it reminds us of the crucial value of our vocation and the transformative positive effect we can have in our complex and rapidly changing world.
Give this a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqRu74M_1Gw&feature=relmfu
Note – Any such list clearly has to make difficult omissions (it is very much an imperfect science!) – please comment if you have any other recommendations.
“Judge a person by their questions, rather than their answers.”
“Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.”
Substitute ‘person’ and ‘people’ for teacher and you come to the crux of my post – the crucial importance of questioning for outstanding teaching and learning. Right, that is pretty much a given I hear you say – nothing new here, move along…and you would be absolutely correct. Questioning is the oldest teaching strategy known to humankind – Plato and Socrates could have told us that a long, long time ago. Core pedagogy doesn’t come more core than asking questions of students. Agreed – it is the age old principle of logic, thought and good teaching. All that being said, questioning does often go unmentioned; lazy assumptions are made and new, glossier teaching strategies with fancy acronyms become the vogue. Questioning doesn’t get the time and care devoted to it that it deserves. The one thing I have learned above all about teaching in my role as a subject leader this school year is the paramount importance of good questioning. In every lesson observation, or ‘drop ins’, I have undertaken it has crept up on the rails as a central factor in my judgement of the teaching and learning (I am not here looking to obsess about OFSTED or value judgements, but simply to recognise good teaching and help teachers I lead do their job even better!)
So many things shift in teaching that we are often dazzled by the pace of change. New labels for teaching and learning are created from the powers that be (most often for the purpose of simply changing the label of the previous government and little more!), or the dizzying myriad of training providers, booksellers and educationalists. External judgements upon said teaching changes too – ‘satisfactory’ defies it’s dictionary definition and becomes ‘requires improvement’ overnight. I like to stay on the ball, and with the likes of Twitter and through blogs you can share a wealth of great ideas, both new and old. Something about questioning being so, well, obvious, makes it a bit unexciting and underwhelming. However, when I hone in on focusing on the core principals of what I humbly think is outstanding teaching and learning, questioning would be at the very heart of the matter.
In my last school year (which seems like an age ago!) our school embarked upon OLCs – Outstanding Learning Communities. These were undertaken every month. Underpinning all the training was the work of Dylan William (http://www.dylanwiliam.net/ ). He was undergoing a moment of wider fame on a television show at the time, ‘The Classroom Experiment’, where he was busy exposing some of the core habits of teaching, such as ‘hands up’ for answering questions etc.
Initially I was surprised by the actual simplicity of the OLC training. I felt like I had done it when I trained to be a teacher – things like questioning, or setting effective learning objectives, appeared too simplistic – I wanted more challenging strategies to develop. I wanted newness, to learn that magic panacea that actually inspires interest in teenage boys; the golden strategy which has every student standing on their desks shouting ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ because of the sheer joy of learning! What I didn’t realise immediately that it was the grooving of the most basic habits of my teaching that would make me become a significantly better teacher and enable me to pursue outstanding status and help coach others to attain that hallowed gold standard.
As a school we too adopted the ‘no hands up approach’ propounded by Dylan William well over a year ago. Initially there was the expected scepticism and determined obstinacy. I do believe that teachers, including myself, are easily hardened into habits, sometimes habits we learned from our own teachers. What I grew to recognise was how it made a significant difference to my teaching and the learning with my classes. I became more conscious of whom I was going to ask a question, and therefore exactly how I would word that question. My questions became better – the answers became better too. I am sure I differentiated in this manner regularly (at least I hope I did) before, but this systematic approach had me shift entire habits for the better more consistently. It seems very small a change, but it made the biggest difference to my teaching since I trained to teach a hazy eight years ago!
This year I have also been crystallising the quality of my questioning, making myself more systematic and habitual about the strategies I employ to harness questioning to promote and enhance learning. Many of these strategies were actually not new for me at all, but were central to my new focus on good questioning. Firstly, I wanted to reinvigorate my own approach to ‘key questions’ (a departmental policy). We use ‘key questions’ instead of learning objectives, as we feel it promotes an atmosphere of enquiry and gets students engaging in where the learning is going, rather than a fixed objective. I therefore aimed to target rich, open questions related to the ‘key question’. My lesson planning focused not just on the resources or the ‘task’, but on the types of question and who they would be targeted at with greater rigour. I revisited another staple of educational theory – Bloom’s taxonomy – to frame my questions with real precision.
The following website is really useful on that topic: http://www.teachers.ash.org.au/researchskills/dalton.htm )
I then wanted to ensure that my questioning was well distributed amongst the class and, crucially, had the students respond critically and independently amongst one another – not simply relying on my questions and answers. I used the TSSSTSSS model of questioning (teacher, student, student…). Again, nothing new, but strategic and targeted. Dylan William again came up trumps with his example of what one teacher calls “Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce”: The teacher poses a question, pauses to allow pupils time to think, pounces on any pupil (keeps them on their toes) and then bounces the pupil’s response onto another pupil.
The ‘bounce’ was the crucial bit. I have been doing this for a few years now, but it became a more consistent habit. Students became better trained and better focused because they expected to feedback and question one another. Students were able to constructively critique one another, feedback became consistently stronger, and students therefore became progressively more independent with their learning. Only a week or so ago, on Twitter, I was introduced to a brilliantly simple acronym (sorry, had to use at least a couple of these – I am a teacher!): A, B and C feedback. Offer the students the chance to ‘Agree’, ‘Build upon’ or ‘challenge’. Thank you to @davidfawcett27 for this little gem. By using this approach students are soon asking questions of one another that would make Bloom proud! So simple, but so effective.
I have learnt lots of new things about teaching and learning this year, but definitely one of the most important things I have learnt is that great questioning is always at the heart of outstanding teaching and learning. I admit, nothing much new there…it always has been and most likely always will be.
Can I make an honourable mention for the fantastic blog post on questioning: