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…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
“There is no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone, and that I have no one to tell it to.”
Michel de Montaigne quotes (French Philosopher and Writer. 1533-1592)
Very recently I responded to a question about great teaching by Joe Kirby (read this excellent blog post) with the answer that explanations, questioning and feedback were the holy trinity of teaching. I have written about questioning and feedback at length, but I have never written about teacher explanations. I thought about why and I considered that part of the problem is that explanations are so integral to everything that we do that we quickly learn our style and then explain away on autopilot pretty much for the rest of our career. I would argue that we need to reflect upon whether we are maximising the effectiveness of our explanations.
Too often we can be distracted in our planning by the tools of learning without giving the required time to the integral act of communicating our subject. When I was an NQT I went as far as scripting my explanations! I am not advocating scripting explanations by any means, it was an act borne of pure fear, but I think it important to maximise the quality of our explanations and give them our time and effort. Looking back, some of those explanations were thoughtful and successful, perhaps more so than some of my current autopilot efforts. We are privileged because we can draw upon a wealth of knowledge gained from cognitive science, as well as our memory of great speakers and great teachers who act as role models for our practice.
These are my top tips try to address different aspects of effective explanations – the what and the how of explanations – the content and the delivery. What is reassuring is that really effective explanations can be deconstructed and be based upon evidence of how memory works, rather than being simply attributed to the power of personality. Great explanations, like all aspects of great teaching, can be repeatedly honed and improved.
Top Ten Tips:
1. ‘Know what the students know’ when planning your explanation: All great teachers have an excellent knowledge of their students. This knowledge is paramount in pitching the explanation just right. Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ is key here – the explanation should be matched to the audience: not too complex as to be unintelligible to the students, but not too simple or unchallenging so as to bore the students and prove uninteresting. By knowing your students you can adapt your language to draw upon their prior knowledge before activating links to the new knowledge that you wish them to learn.
2. Use patterns of challenging subject specific language repeatedly:
In most explanations there are one or two key words that you want to stick in the minds of students. In my year 10 English class I am currently comparing Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’ with ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Subject specific words that litter my explanations repeatedly include rhetorical terms like ‘hyperbole‘ and ‘oxymorons‘. We have explored the etymology of those words, explored examples and repeatedly modelled them in our writing. With regular repetition such key words become the touchstones of effective explanations and we stress these words in our delivery for explicit emphasis.
3. Make explanations simple, but not simpler. Convey a core message: I do not wish to denounce students as attention-deficit weaklings – human nature is inherently programmed to be forgetful – both adults and teenagers. Effective explanations therefore do need to have the power of compressed language. A good proverb, like “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones” has an enduring power. It generates ideas, sparks connections and combines both easily digestible language and memorable imagery – see tip 5. I would argue that most extended explanations can be compressed into such a memorable statement – what acts as the core message of our explanation. Most often this core knowledge is linked inextricably to the language of the lesson objective. A great explanation may use the ‘inverted pyramid‘, used by journalists to prioritise key information by beginning with this core message, or conversely you could use more traditional argument structures to ensure they remember what you want them to remember:
4. Engage their hearts and minds: Daniel Willingham, in his excellent neuroscience book, ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’, outlines that emotional reactions to explanations will make them more memorable, but there are disclaimers too. We should be wary of a ‘style over substance’ performance. I like to use humour and often make jokes, but with explanations if you give a comedy routine they will likely only remember the style and the jokes, forgetting the substance of what you are saying. Getting the balance right between ensuring engagement and imparting knowledge is a delicate process: making students enjoy their learning doesn’t always translate to remembering what you want them to learn.
As most charity advertisements will attest, individual stories that spark empathy and interest prove much more memorable than mass scale problems or abstract concepts. Emotional and personal stories are memorable: I remember very little about GCSE Chemistry except the emotive story of Marie Curie. We need to use examples that hook in their hearts and mind onto the knowledge we want them to remember in the long term. To summarise: use humour carefully; use interesting stories about individuals to engage their empathy (something proven to be a natural physical and emotional response when reading stories); link to their personal interests but ensure you return relentlessly to the core message.
5. ‘Paint the picture’ – use analogies, metaphors and images: Cognitive science has proven that analogies and metaphors are crucial to language, thinking and memorising knowledge (see here). Our minds naturally draw upon ‘schemas‘ – a psychology term to define the existing patterns of knowledge we have to help us learn new knowledge. A key way of making new knowledge memorable to to hook it into existing ‘schemas‘. For example, if we were given something to eat we have never eaten before then we would draw upon our prior knowledge – ‘this tastes like chicken!’. They give students helpful templates to build on their prior knowledge and allow them to make educated guesses. When exploring the term ‘oxymoron’ with my English class we drew upon our knowledge of the term ‘moron’, then compared and contrasted this label with the character of Romeo. In Maths, teachers consistently draw upon real world ‘schemas’ to make concepts memorable. By using imagery and metaphors that evoke mental images, students can make mental hooks into what they already know and better organise their new knowledge. In this video Dan Meyer shows how you can use images and known everyday ‘schemas’ such as sport and the act of shooting a basketball to spark questioning, engage students and explain challenging mathematical concepts:
6. Tell compelling stories: Daniel Wllingham describes stories as being “psychologically privileged” in the human mind and memory. As an English teacher this strikes at the heart of what I believe about emotion, memory and learning. Memorable personal stories brings History and facts alive; dry statistics become enlivened when in the context of a story. 64% of students achieving A grades in exams is interesting, but not nearly as memorable as stories of individual students toiling and overcomes tough circumstances to gain an A grade. Our minds make meaning by creating stories. With History we imagine and empathise with particular ‘characters’. Our hearts and minds are captured when a ‘conflict‘ is posed involving characters. Our explanations therefore need to be built like narratives: with characters, conflicts and resolutions. We must avoid meaningless anecdotes of course, as stories should serve to illuminate the core message and not prove a distraction.
7. Make abstract concepts concrete and real: Akin to story making and using effective imagery and analogies to illuminate information, we better remember concrete knowledge rather than abstractions. We are hardwired to do this. From birth, our first words are invariably concrete nouns and verbs to articulate our most basic of needs. Hopefully you have remembered the proverb used in tip 3: “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones“! This is a great example of an abstract idea being made concrete and memorable. We must also avoid using too much abstract language and jargon beyond the patterns of key subject specific language we want students explicitly to remember – see tip 2 – otherwise we risk losing the core message we want students to remember.
Brian Cox, the scientist and television personality (yes – I have noticed he isn’t a teacher and some television personalities have proven to be notoriously bad teachers!) is a great example of someone who makes abstract scientific concepts concrete to good explanatory effect. His explanations illuminates a topic for someone like me who has little sophisticated knowledge of science (the typical student!) in a concrete and memorable way. This short video is a great example of a successful explanation that ticks off many points from my tips with aplomb:
8. Hone your tone: Of course, the delivery of explanations carry a great deal of weight if we are to make them truly memorable. Charisma without content is vacuous, but content without clarity and confidence is less likely to stick in the memory. We need not be performing monkeys, but stressing key words explicitly and using discourse markers with clear emphasis and a tone that conveys enthusiasm will help engage students so they may then listen with intent. We must have undivided attention if students are to process complex new knowledge, therefore our tone must also convey authority. We may have physical positions of authority in the room where students expect you to speak from; we may move about the room to ensure students are actively listening, which requires often a clear and no-nonsense approach. A simple and obvious truth is that a great explanation is worthless if students are not listening to it!
9. Check understanding with targeted questions: One way to secure attention and to make any crucial modifications to our explanations is to ask targeted questions. By having a ‘no hands up’ approach on selected occasions can secure a higher degree of attention. By habitually getting students to comment on what one another has said can better keep all students listening actively (I prefer the ‘ABC Feedback model‘: Agree with; Build upon; Challenge). Questions can close in on the core message, but also open up to interesting analogies and ideas that deepen understanding. When considering an effective explanation a teacher should automatically have questions embedded in that explanation and be ready to flexibly respond to the answers, recasting and redirecting, even repeating the explanation if required.
10. …and repeat: Knowledge stored in the long term memory is most typically information that is revisited, therefore a great explanation must be followed up if we are to maximise its value. The ‘Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve‘ is a nice visual way to remind us that we must give effective explanations, but then revisit the core message with spaced repetition, otherwise there is danger that it will be forgotten:
Great explanations are a foundation stone upon which great teaching is based. There is a complex interplay between our explanations, asking questions and eliciting feedback that if we master we will teach successfully. We should reflect and spend less time on jobs that are extraneous to the core of great teaching, such as creating limited use resources, or focusing upon the tools students use in our planning and get back to the our core practice of explaining, asking questions and giving feedback.
My core message: clear and effective explanations matter!
– Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?‘ is an outstanding book that grounds effective explanations in scientific evidence.
– Dan and Chip Heath’s book ‘Made To Stick: Why some ideas take hold and other come unstuck’ presents a really helpful bank of examples and a easy method to make your messages memorable.
– Tom Sherrington’s blog post on ‘explanations‘ crosses very similar aspects to my post in with great success (read his brilliant series), complete with great images and examples.
– Here a great #Blogsync with a range of interesting posts in the June entry on Explanations: http://blogsync.edutronic.net/
A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to present to the staff of my school for just over an hour on teaching and learning. What had preceded this session for teachers was time to evaluate teaching exemplar lessons and grading them using the OFSTED grade criteria. Subject Leaders were concurrently working with the fantastic Zoe Elder on helping develop an outstanding department. My session, in the main hall, was a chance to get staff focusing in on pedagogy, reviewing some good practice, sharing ideas and departmental approaches to oral feedback and questioning.
Why questioning and feedback? Well, they are simply the ‘bread and butter of great teaching’. Whenever I think or write about pedagogy I cannot go too far without thinking about them both. Too often, many teachers are spooked by the likes of OFSTED and attempt to become teachers they are not; using a variety of whizz-bang bells and whistles in an attempt to display rapid progress – often only succeeding in creating rapid chaos! Hopefully my slot was a reminder that good and great teaching is often as traditional as Socrates himself asking challenging questions, all the way back before we had a concept of an education. We should not turn away from a wealth of innovative teaching strategies and approaches, but we should hone in on our bread and butter and make it as good as it can possibly be.
My PPT introduction (see here:Training Day 30.1.13) aimed to be long enough to clarity my point, but not too long as to inspire the proverbial PPT ‘death’! I made it clear I was not trying to teach teachers to suck eggs!
Many of these strategies were nothing new and many teachers in the room could surely teach the socks off students! What I wanted to help do was to connect that existing expertise; to take people back to the basics, the bread and butter, and remember, revalue and refine their core practice. I was little more than a compere for the great teachers in the room who just needed some time to connect ideas and practice.
Teachers were handed these simplified versions of my online blog posts, many ideas were common- place – but hopefully it was useful to revisit and reflect:
After discussion, aiming to exemplify the oral feedback strategies, departments created a gallery of current practice and prospective areas to develop. As a way of exemplifying one of the feedback strategies, the staff conducted a ‘gallery critique‘.
Below are some examples from the departmental gallery critique from the session:
The gallery findings were collated, typed up and then circulated to all staff to allow for departments to follow up appropriately. This document summarised all the good practice already existing in our school, as well as identifying where we could continue to improve. It really was a great culmination to the session and made sure the gallery technique was more than a gimmick and ensured we made the activity into a useful working document. See it here: Questioning and Feedback follow-up 31-01-13
Feedback was positive, although I have realised it is near impossible to differentiate to satisfy an audience of over one hundred! Based on the feedback I would factor in some time for more exemplar questioning, contracting the early discussion time somewhat (although people conversely commented that the discussion time was crucial). I was conscious of giving people time to talk and simply reflect on their practice with colleagues. For me, blogging about my practice, and reading those blogs of others, really helps that reflective thinking process. In the hurly burly of the day job it is important to find some stillness to reflect upon our pedagogy – especially those strategies we sometimes take for granted: such as the bread and butter of questioning and oral feedback.
I today read an excellent blog by @headguruteacher on differentiation, which defined it as a key aspect of great lessons – see here. I was most interested in the role of inclusive questioning in continuous differentiation. The first, and most crucial, aspect of differentiation is knowing your students. Of course, I don’t mean knowing your students just by their name, although this is important (I once spent a month in a sulk because one of my teachers kept getting my name wrong!), but having a thorough understanding of their skills and knowledge level, beyond just prior attainment and their target level or grade. Just as important is the intimate, expert knowledge of the soft skills of our students: their confidence level; their willingness to speak in group activities, or to contribute in front of the whole class; their attitude, or mindset to learning, and your subject in particular. When we know our students, and particularly their soft skills, we can undertake excellent inclusive questioning which will help progress their learning.
This brings me around to the specifics of questioning: our bread and butter – the stuff that connects and binds our pedagogy. Whether we are undertaking Direct Instruction (see link) or Cooperative learning, the learning and progress hinges on effective questioning. Skilful differentiation is also dependent upon skilful inclusive questioning.
So what are the key aspects of inclusive questioning:
1. Ask Good Questions – open AND closed:
Now, the vast majority of in-class questions are closed questions which elicit immediate, but limited responses; whereas, an estimated twenty per cent are open questions, where students are encouraged to broaden their horizons. A simple assumption is ‘closed questions bad, open questions good‘. This isn’t the whole truth: closed questions are often essential in taking a litmus test response to knowledge. It can have a beneficial on behaviour: ensuring that a lot of students have to respond and show their knowledge in a sort space of time. Many teachers use hinge questions (a closed multiple choice style) to make a judgement as to whether students are ready to proceed to a new topic or aspect of a topic. Open questions obviously confer the benefit of eliciting higher order understanding. Each question type needs to be directed to students based on our knowledge and understanding of the students, and indeed the situation at hand – this is effective differentiation.
Teacher question: What is foreboding?
Student answer: It is when the writer hints at negative events to come.
Closed ‘hinge’ questioning
Teacher question: Which character suffers from the negative effects of racial segregation?
A) Crooks B) Curley C) Candy D) Carlson
Student answer: A) Crooks
Teacher question: Which characters suffer the greatest degree of loneliness in ‘Of Mice and Men’ and why?
Student answer: I think that Crooks is the loneliest character because he is physically, mentally and emotional separated from the other men. There is only one other African American family in Soledad, therefore he can never really establish a range of lasting friendships. I also think that Curley’s wife….
Open ‘hinge’ questions:
Teacher question: Which character suffers from the greatest degree of loneliness? Be prepared to justify your assertion and comparing characters A to D: A) Crooks B) Curley’s wife C) Candy D) George
Student answer: I would choose D) George because once he kills Lennie he will forever be living with his guilt and will no longer be able to develop friendships without thinking of Lennie. This loneliness will be worse than Crooks because….
2. Provide Adequate Thinking Time:
This may not appear to relate to differentiation, but there is a great deal of evidence outlining how the quality and depth of feedback can depend on quality waiting time. Even waiting seven seconds can have a positive impact on the quality of feedback – which therefore increases the degree of inclusivity. Varying the degree of waiting time before eliciting a response can be a type of differentiation, but ultimately it removes a justification not to respond to the question, as everyone has been given an adequate amount of time to form a response.
3. Provide Peer Support:
Whether it is ‘think-pair-share‘, ‘jig-sawing‘ or another cooperative learning activity, giving students the chance to talk with their peers to test their hypothesis, or to challenge others, provides a supportive scaffold that means that students can give answers that they have practised orally. This ensures everyone can be included in the feedback – real inclusivity and differentiation.
Provide peer solutions by offering models like the ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ style approach, like ‘phone a friend’ (not a fan really, but I can see the benefits); provide a 50:50 option etc. for me, if you are using these models, it is important that on other occasions all students are expected to give an answer to questions without support – I think it is important to set this high levels challenge to ensure students can work independently when required.
4. Ask Targeted Questions:
This is a crucial aspect of inclusive questioning and it can lift the quality of feedback and provide a visible model of real progress. A good model would be to start with an open question which can elicit a range of responses e.g.
Teacher question: Which characters have the most/least power in ‘Of Mice and Men’?
Then, based on our knowledge of students, scaffold the feedback by identifying an expected quality of answer. Firstly, select a student who may struggle with the concept and find it hard to response with an original response – by going first, they can pick the more straightforward answer. Secondly, choose a student who is more able, so that they can develop a more in-depth answer, which you can add a degree of challenge to by getting them to respond to the first answer, by way of comparison. Finally, select a gifted and talented student, asking for their response, with an attendant synthesis and comparison with the two previous responses. The depth and quality of these questions and answers should gradually increase by the degree of challenge.
5. Use The ABC Feedback Model:
This simple strategy has probably had the biggest impact upon my practice over the last year or so. It is incredibly easy, but it adds a sophisticated degree of differentiation into the questioning process. By asking students to Agree with; Build upon; or Challenge the answers of other students allows students to build upon the responses of others, thereby giving a helpful scaffold to their ideas. By selecting the right students based on an escalating degree of challenge, we can give them options – the Agree with often being the ‘easiest‘ response, but not always; whereas some students can Build upon and Challenge previous responses. By bouncing these questions around the room you can exemplify differentiated progress of the highest order.
Teacher question: Which character would you most like to sit next to?
Student A answer: I would most like to sit next to Crooks. As he can read well, because he owns books, he could help me with answers and we could discuss our ideas.
Teacher question: Student B, give some ABC feedback based on A’s answer
Student B answer: I would build upon that idea: Crooks would be good to get answers from, but he might make me excluded from my friends just because I was speaking to a black man. Therefore I would probably challenge A’s answer, choosing Slim instead. slim is also intelligent, but he is popular, and you have to think about having friends as well as giving good answers in class.
By bouncing the questions around the class, it increases the level of inclusivity, whilst also potentially increasing engagement and listening skills, as students know they may be asked to response to the answers given by other students. I think this has an attendant benefit for student behaviour too.
This last week I had the pleasure to read some excellent blogs on outstanding practice. It was fascinating to see what fellow practitioners think about great teaching, with exemplary practice outlined in a very helpful way. In this post by David Didau here there is a hugely useful model of what a great lesson looks like. In this post by Tom Sherrington here there is a breakdown about the qualities of great teaching more generally: with a particular focus upon ‘rigour’ (reclaiming it from Govean parody!). I was interested in the overlap and interplay between those two posts. I happened to be teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ with my Year 10 group at the moment, like David, and I too was being observed. What I wanted to do was not aim to exhibit a ‘showpiece’ one-off lesson (although these can be rattled out the bag by many experienced practitioners to mask a dull daily reality). I was intent on representing the real routines my group exemplify in any given lesson – to display the rigour articulated by Tom Sherrington, combined (hopefully!) with some of the outstanding strategies employed by David Didau.
Although we all feel pressure to perform when observed, we must aim for consistency in our practice before a pursuit of an outstanding lesson judgement, and we must trust in ourselves that this consistency will be rewarded. I have heard from a few wise leaders who have said that if every lesson saw our students display good progress then we would cumulatively see good to outstanding progress in student attainment. Of course, there are a host of important contextual factors to consider, but on a simple level, sticking to the ‘three Rs‘ of relentless and rigorous routines would see students flourish. I do not think it is having low standards to be happy with a consistent sequence of very good lessons, rather than haul ourselves over the coals in an obsessive pursuit of outstanding; it is effective pragmatism and a realisation that rapid progress does not happen every lesson. I have found that some cast iron ‘outstanding’ plans just don’t spark on the day, whilst seemingly simple lessons can smash through the ceiling of mediocrity and see students reach new heights. We must then reflect with care, but without despondency if the lesson doesn’t turn out exactly as we planned or wanted. What is crucial is that we learn from the experience of the lessons that didn’t go well and then tweak our pedagogy to improve still further.
With this in mind I tried to aim for a great sequence of lessons, where hopefully the observation lesson would show an accumulation of skills, rather than a one off showpiece. The following sequence of lessons outlines the planning for most of the week, with the lesson plans for before and after the observation lesson being just as crucial:
– Key question: How does the theme of power link to the theme of loneliness?
– Starter: Who would make the better American president? See PPT. Student feedback: ‘Pose-pause-pounce-bounce’.
– In pairs, create a ‘power map’ using the ‘Character Cards’ resource. The pairing then needs to select three of the characters who have distinctive power relations. – They should co-construct a top grade paragraph that answers the key question. This should be done with students writing alternate sentences (with each partner orally critiquing the sentence of one another) and it should be completed on paper (for the gallery critique).
– Any questions should be posted on the ‘Question wall’.
– Recap the four steps of effective evidence analysis – their group target.
– Recap their proof reading target – each pairing is given two minutes DIRT time on their paragraph (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time).
– Complete a gallery critique. Remind students about the criteria for their feedback and how many paragraphs they should read ideally. The critique notes will be made on a post it note – using the ABC feedback model (Agree with; Build Upon and Challenge). Conduct oral feedback.
Tuesday’s Lesson (Observation lesson)
– Key question: How is the theme of friendship presented in relation to the theme of loneliness?Obscure the two themes from the KQ and probe some ideas.
– Starter: Who would you most like to sit next to in class? See PPT. ‘Think-pair-share’ responses using the ABC feedback model.
– Revisit the key question and elicit oral feedback using the ‘Pose-pause-bounce-pounce’ model.
– ‘Just a minute’ recap of last lesson from selected student – link to current KQ (articulate end goal of controlled assessment essay).
– In pairs, use character cards to create a friendship map (this is intentionally an open concept). Ask observer to select a map that is interesting. Get that pairing to rearrange the characters on the PPT slide – (See PPT) – whilst orally articulating their ‘map’. Get other pairings to conduct ABC feedback.
In pairs, write a model paragraph that answers the key question (akin to last lesson). Remind students that they need to write alternate sentences. Show a model PEEL high grade paragraph response – see PPT – with ‘four steps to a successful explanation’ model – see images slide on PPT. Question students about why the paragraph is so successful.
– Have two minutes DIRT time (use highlighters).
– Conduct a gallery critique (teacher model first oral response).
– Key question: How does social prejudice exacerbate loneliness?
– A student is made the ‘Secret Teacher‘ to privately note the best oral responses.
– Individuals note a list of the prejudices present in the novella. In groups, discuss those prejudices. Conduct ABC feedback
– ‘Prejudice Continuum’: the students have to individually select where they think each prejudice resides on the line, from ‘Most individually damaging’ to ‘least individually damaging’. Teacher orchestrates feedback and the ‘Secret teacher‘ orders the answers along the continuum.
– Individual writing of a top grade paragraph addressing the key question. Show two model examples from last lesson and unpick and reiterate key points. Use the question wall for any student questions, with post it notes, and allow a one minute question session midway through their writing. Otherwise, work in silence.
– Have two minutes DIRT time for their writing – with peer proof reading, then individual proof reading. Conduct oral feedback. Select students to read their paragraph, with another student having to give constructive feedback based on our writing targets from the previous week (a four step model to explain evidence).
– The ‘Secret teacher‘ gives feedback on their observations.
(There was a fourth lesson in the week but I wanted to keep the post to a reasonable size!)
Useful resources referred to in lesson plans:
Of Mice and Men 'Character Cards': OM&M Character cards
Review of the week and the ‘Three Rs’
What I hope is evident is that much of the pedagogy in the lesson plans above is repeated to develop and deepen the habits required to produce great learning. Consistency, good habits and routine are king. The first two lessons of the week, in particular, clearly mirror one another to develop the required writing skills. Repetition is often frowned upon in education, with the misguided notion we should be endlessly creative and different to maintain the interest of students. Students derive comfort and increasing expertise through incrementally increasing the level of challenge through the repetition of the most effective teaching and learning strategies, not from an endless array of activities.
The reality of the lessons outlined above is that I also learnt a great deal about where they stumbled on Monday, when student progress that was definitely not outstanding, to actually inform my planning for Tuesday. For example, they failed to analyse the quotations as successfully as I would have liked on Monday, which was rather unexpected, so I added in an A grade model on Tuesday and spent more time modelling the paragraph structure to enhance their quality of analysis in the subsequent lesson. Not every lesson sees rapid progress – to think this is the case is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature…never mind hormonal teenagers! By working at the core habits relentlessly; however, I was able to make ‘marginal gains’ lesson upon lesson – only nuanced, slight improvements, but essential differences (this recognition often becomes easier with experience). Good became better.
Another clear factor about my pedagogy I hope is in evidence is my focus upon questioning see here and oral feedback see here. I couldn’t write those blog posts without practising what I preach! What is clear is that OFSTED are interested in progress– (it is the latest buzz word careering around schools). Some people are therefore quick to mystify this term, complicating what can be the best, and sometimes the most traditional, of teaching and learning strategies: simply asking great questions and eliciting thoughtful, intelligent feedback. When I hear we people explaining ‘mini-plenaries’ every fifteen minutes, or have our students spinning plates in different ‘learning stations’, with no real deep understanding or knowledge, just for when the OFSTED inspectors are in the room, I despair. Stop the showpiece; don’t invite the circus to town – just follow habits of excellent routine pedagogy!
If we develop real rigour in our habits then it will be obvious that students are learning and making good, or sometimes even rapid, progress: clearly in their attitude and demeanour; in the quality of their questions and feedback; in their written work and in their books or folders. Each one of my lessons above allocated time to make improvements (DIRT). It is trained behaviour, that may appear uninspired or lacking the necessary rapidity, but the rigour of proof reading may well be the two most important minutes of those lessons. Any observer should note that rapid progress is often the product of slow reflection! Not only that, it is this regular habit which may well transfer to becoming more settled habits for students when writing at any time in any subject – the learning trumps the chase for a great observation once more. It is a rigorous routine of real note (thank you Jackie Breere for the inspiration for DIRT) – whether a lesson is graded outstanding or not, students will reap the rewards of such sound learning.
When I speak to many colleagues they simply want to be shown what an outstanding lesson is, what it looks like, and how they can replicate it. This is problematic: as outstanding looks, sounds and feels different in different subjects. That being said, some definitive patterns of learning arise in great lessons. For me, those are seeing students highly engaged in responding to challenging questions, posed by a teacher with the highest of standards; it is feedback being artfully weaved around the group, lifting understanding; it is students reflecting with due care attention to their thinking and their work; and it is the palpable sense of motivation and commitment to the task at hand. These patterns are honed by routine, not derived from any off the peg lesson plan or formula for success.
Postscript: I am thankful to David Didau, Jackie Breere and David Docherty for their ideas that have informed my lesson plans outlined in this post.
Just over half a year ago I decided to begin a blog, in unison with a new Twitter account, with both very much representing my professional self. I have been surprised and delighted by the breadth and scale of the audience for some of my posts and the blog has provided me with a place to reflect upon my practice and record my reading and ideas – put simply, it has made me a better teacher. Many of them are my attempt to record my teaching strategies, and the many I have sourced from others, so that I remember them…and remember to use them! I am very grateful for all the other teachers, bloggers and authors whose great ideas are effectively responsible for my blog (I am intent on creating a list of the inspirational blogs of others others in 2012 very soon too). Here is my list based on the number number of views:
Perhaps my personal favourite. I love literature and I love teaching and seeing students learn and develop – this post articulates what I see as the most important aspect of my job as an English teacher: communicating the greatest of what has been written and spoken and helping students develop emotionally. It is not something measured, but something valued beyond measure: how tragedy and literature can provide strength and resilience in the face of tragedy and loss.
In the last year we have been undertaking an iPad project, with real success. I have have seen so many motivated students working collaboratively with iPads, whilst seeing my colleagues pushing the boundaries of their practice and knowledge in a powerfully positive way. This article articulates some of my research into why the iPad was the right tool to leverage better pedagogy in our faculty.
The article is about the simple tweaking of core pedagogy and practice to make that all important shift to better teaching. The best part of the blog is the end set of links – a clear indication of how my blogs are most often simply a synthesis of other great blogs and the ideas of superb practitioners. Standing on the shoulders of giants indeed!
This post, once more, is reliant upon the great ideas of others. The marginal gains wheel, devised by @liplash_mason, was incredibly popular. I used it with my Y10 GCSE class with pleasing success twice in preparation for controlled assessments. Student feedback was vey positive. This post led to a more general introduction in the Guardian Teacher Network, which was a real pleasure to write, giving me a chance to celebrate the genesis of the idea with @fullonlearning and @macn_1.
Does what it says on the tin really. At some point in 2013 I will produce a ‘Top Ten Reads’ to encompass some great books I have read since collating this list. This list would easily stand the test of time, as I would still have these five featuring in any future list. Gems one and all.
This post was my attempt to combine some of my key thoughts and ideas about being a great teacher – particularly having had the pleasure to watch quite a few in action. In my biased view, there is still no more important vocation, so this post is my humble attempt at contributing to a long standing discourse.
My first top ten post and an attempt to collate many ideas and strategies that I believe to have had the greatest positive impact upon my teaching. I happen to believe that clear explanations, great questioning and effective formative feedback is the holy trinity of outstanding teaching, so this post is very important to me in that regard.
This letter was a real trigger for my blog developing and extending to a wider audience. It was also the first time I had a post reach four figures in one day. I think my frustration and anger at the shape of Gove’s educational proposals and the feckless opposition to his deconstruction of state education touched a nerve with many. I didn’t receive any reply to my many emails and communication, but I felt my response served some purpose, however insignificant. Secretly, I hope Twigg read this letter, but I doubt it very much. I hope he is reading much about education, from those with more experience and wisdom than I, because he needs to get a hold of his brief and make a positive alternative to Gove’s corrosive marketisation of education. I remain sceptical.
One of my most recent posts and very popular (particularly in America it seems!). I have become a huge cheerleader for post it notes in the last year. It chimes with my belief in ‘making the learning visible’ and they provide the most simple and cost effective tool for teaching and learning. I think you sense my enthusiasm running thought the post! And no, I don’t possess shares in post it note companies!
My most popular post by a country mile and happily so. I am not quite sure why this post was so popular above all others, but perhaps it is because the strategies are so universal and cross curricular in nature. I think all teachers know that questioning is at the fulcrum of good teaching and learning and it was ever thus. In my decade of experience I think I am just becoming an much better in asking great questioning and I think I am getting better with creating a culture of enquiry. I’m definitely still learning and asking questions!
Much more work to do next year, with many more attendant posts I am sure. I would heartily recommend any teacher to start a blog in 2013. It would be a resolution to fire new resolution into your teaching!
This year our English and Media faculty are undertaking a coaching programme as part of our constant quest to keep getting better. We are aiming to move, in blunt OFSTED labels, from ‘Good’ to ‘Outstanding’, and coaching is a key process for us to improve together. Our coaching approach has been met with a timely redesign of classrooms. We were lucky enough to have our ugly, ramshackle classrooms redecorated over the Summer – a process we undertook to consciously create a clearer, more spartan space – decluttered and wholly functional – designed for the business of great learning, not a glorified storage room! One small, but key decision, was to multiply the number of whiteboards on the classroom walls to improve pedagogy and to enhance the learning. I wanted to share how this small, relatively inexpensive tool can impact positively upon learning.
I want to explain the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of this small tweak to the learning environment (a small tweak, but one that has already has had a positive impact upon pedagogy). A couple of years ago we decided to move en masse to group tables for each English classroom. This one move had a profoundly significant impact upon our whole pedagogical approach. We valued the impact of cooperative learning; we viewed peers as a positive agent for developing learning; we viewed learning as most often being a social undertaking – so we worked together and applied a standardised group based approach (as we share many classrooms – having a standardised seating approach is eminently practical). There were attendant fears about behaviour being negatively impacted, but we shared ideas and experiences and it has been a very successful change. With our recent classroom redesign we wanted to develop upon the collaborative learning approach, encouraged by the searing design, with the introduction of multiple whiteboards on the walls. We also wanted to decentre (sounds a bit like new age nonsense I admit!) the classroom away from the perennial ‘face the front’ style of classroom. Having the multiple whiteboards allows for a greater degree of flexibility, whereat the teacher can work with smaller groups, or other activities, such as students writing on the different boards simultaneously etc.
We had little actual experience of using multiple whiteboards as a tool. As a department we had never even had more than one interactive whiteboard, alongside the more standard whiteboard for writing in any one classroom. The nearest we had got to multiple whiteboards on the walls were small mini whiteboards, or having a departmental flip chart (we always had one of odd lurking about, but it was never consistently in use). But this year we invested in extra whiteboards to try and develop the collaborative approach; it worked alongside our other new tool for collaborative learning – our investment in twenty four new iPads. We have therefore placed these new tools at the heart of our coaching, with the following two faculty targets (alongside crucial personal coaching targets) so we can support and focus training time upon these areas:
1.iPadagogy: using the iPad to enhance student motivation as well as core pedagogy on a consistent basis. There will be an explicit focus upon using the iPad to improve AFL strategies, providing feedback, classroom discussion and collaborative learning.
Success criteria: student feedback; peer observations & collaboration; student outcomes; student attainment.
2. ‘Making the Learning Visible’: using the multiple whiteboards to enhance core pedagogy. There will be an explicit focus upon using the whiteboards to enhance guided writing, providing feedback, making learning objectives and key vocabulary clear and classroom discussion.
Success criteria: student feedback; peer observations & collaboration; student outcomes; student attainment.
Now, we didn’t start with the tools to dictate our direction – instead, we identified the assessment for learning strategies and pedagogy we viewed as having greatest impact (as John Hattie states always “Know thy impact”), then we sought the tools to do the job. We have invested time and effort into sharing our experiences and developing our pedagogy. Teachers have been unanimously positive about how this relatively minor tweak has helped to transform many teaching and learning experiences. The following images are one simple example of the boards in use:
1. ‘Main Whiteboard’: Projected images are displayed here (it is not an interactive whiteboard – I found those clumsy tools that were expensive and not very engaging for students) and we annotate when appropriate, using this as the ‘main’ board. Here the task is displayed in a Word file and simply annotated.
2. ‘Second Board’: This board is marginally smaller and on the left hand side of the room. Here the board displays notes made by the students who had chosen the ‘Guardian’ writing task.
3. ‘Third Board’: This board is once more smaller, but on the right hand side of the room. Here the board displays student notes for the ‘York Press’ writing task.
Like the writing task exemplified in these images, the multiple boards provide extra flexibility for ‘making the learning visible’ on a daily basis. The following is a sample list of activities for which the multiple whiteboards have been used as an effective tool so far:
– Guided writing: either teacher led, or written up by students, the secondary board allows for guided writing that can then be left on the board, whilst other activities/notes etc. can be written up on the ‘main’ board
– ‘Competitive’ writing: this fun and competitive activity has proven very fruitful. Students can be pitted against one another, or against the teacher, for writing tasks. Different groups can write up their findings/answers on one board, whilst other groups do the same on the other/s. The very ‘visible’ aspect of the write up is then ideal for subsequent feedback
– Writing up learning objective or key words: the boards provide the opportunity for the teacher to note either the learning objective, the key words for the lesson, or both, and leave them there in a dedicated space. It makes them unobtrusive if you are planning upon showing some media, or working up examples on the ‘main board’ – whilst making them easy to reference in a highly visible way
– Small group work: the boards provide a flexible opportunity for the teacher to work with a specific group of students, who perhaps are struggling to make progress, whilst the rest of the group can work away, without the central ‘front space’ of the classroom drawing everyone in (also, once more, the ‘main’ activities/stimulus etc. can be left on the ‘main whiteboard’ for as long as required)
– ‘Question walls’ and visible feedback: with the extra whiteboards the teacher can flexibly allocate spaces for ongoing formative assessment of progress. As noted in my previous posts, I am a strong advocate of ‘question walls’. Now, a wall display, with a collection of post it notes, does the job brilliantly, but a whiteboard provides a similarly simple tool for a question space (they can be larger and more visible than the typically small post it notes, therefore other students can interact with the questions). The other board can simultaneously be used for feedback/great ideas of various sorts – the options are endless.
For our faculty, these extra tools have helped to positively tweak our pedagogy and provide more flexibility for collaborative learning, as well as more varied direct instruction approaches. It doesn’t have the glamour or endless applications of the iPad, or the interactivity of the (still very expensive) interactive whiteboard – but they are relatively cheap and they work – simply but powerfully. Practically, they do need to be big enough to be useful – but ask yourself – if an extra whiteboard wouldn’t fit on your wall space – is there too much on there in the first place? Is your wall space glorified wall paper, or is it used to really develop learning? We thought long and hard about how the learning environment enhances the pedagogy – we still have displays of outstanding, but we are also using our wall space much more effectively due to the multiple whiteboards (whilst trying not to overly clutter the walls). If you don’t have a bells and whistles new building, this small addition to the learning environment can be a really positive marginal gain. I would highly recommend giving multiple whiteboards a try.
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein
Questioning is the very cornerstone of philosophy and education, ever since Socrates ( in our Western tradition) decided to annoy pretty much everyone by critiquing and harrying people with questions – it has been central to our development of thinking and our capacity to learn. Indeed, it is so integral to all that we do that it is often overlooked when developing pedagogy – but it as crucial to teaching as air is to breathing. We must ask: do we need to give questioning the thought and planning time something so essential to learning obviously deserves? Do we need to consciously teach students to ask good questions and not just answer them? How do we create a ‘culture of inquiry’ in our classroom that open minds and provokes truly independent thought?
Most research indicates that as much as 80% of classroom questioning is based on low order, factual recall questions. What we must do is put questioning back to the core of our pedagogy and planning – we need to create is a climate of enquiry and engagement in high quality, high order questioning if formative progress is to be identified effectively. We need to carefully formulate questions with precision, as well as targeting the right questions with the right students. One key issue is that we teach in a ‘answer focused culture’ – students await to be spoon fed answers; they await the secrets to an exam that is typically closed to any breadth of thinking (many of our exams are awful – the English Literature AS level exam appears to have reduced the greatest literature known to man down to a reductive shopping list!). The entire system we work within appears to reinforce a close-minded ‘answers culture’; inquisitiveness, time to explore and think are rail-roaded into a one track exam system. Controlled assessment after controlled assessment – judgement after stultifying judgement. Yet, we can change the system from the inside: we can make our schools and classrooms a world within a world – one where we maximise creativity by encouraging the asking of good, thoughtful questions; one where we crucially foster a culture of enquiry. In a culture of enquiry, questions are no longer the domain of the ignorant; a tool to trip up the teacher – they become dynamic – more about critical involvement, stretching knowledge and enriching understanding.
Effective questioning is key because it makes the thinking visible: it identifies prior knowledge; reasoning ability and the specific degree of student understanding – therefore it is the ultimate guide for formative progress. It allows for flexible adaptations in the learning and the righting of misconceptions – it can be the key #marginalgain in any given lesson in terms of time, but it is often the key hinge point between students making progress. My top ten list is roughly organised by transitions within a lesson: beginning with 1 to 4 being questioning that initiates the learning process; 5 and 7 being core questioning techniques to develop the learning; and finally 8 to 10 being questioning strategies that are evaluative in nature:
1. Key Questions as Learning Objectives: what better way to foster a culture of inquiry than to spark the whole shooting match off with a big question that gets students thinking critically about what they are going to learn? By asking a big question you can initiate thinking and group discussion that immediate engages students in their prospective learning. By framing it as a question, it can raise motivation, as students feel like they have invested choice in their learning – and by getting students to subsequently formulate the learning objective they really begin to think about the nuances of what they are to learn and why.
2. ‘If this is the answer…what is the question?’
Taken from ‘Mock the Week’, this simple little technique sparks the inquisitiveness within students – just by quickly reversing the standard question and answer dichotomy it can deepen their thinking. It could be a relatively closed answer, like ‘3.14159265359’ (the numerical value of pi); or something more open and abstract, like ‘religion’ (a potential powder-keg that one!). They can be given the idea by showing a short clip of ‘Mock the Week from’ on YouTube – but I would advise you to vet the video carefully first!
3. Thunks – These little gems are great to initiate deeper thinking, with seemingly simple questions opening up a complex array of higher order thinking. Thunks, such as: “If I ask if I can steal your pen and you say yes, is that stealing?” Or “Can I ever step on the same beach twice?” are great fun and thoughtful starters. These clever questions (see Ian Gilbert’s excellent ‘Little a book of Thunks‘ or the website: http://www.thunks.co.uk/ ) can simply be used to spark thinking or dialogue, or they can be more targeted towards the topic or subject at hand. As the students become familiar with thunking (they really enjoy it in my experience) they can begin to formulate their own thunks – a great way to get them to think about higher order, open questioning.
4. ‘Just One More Question…’ (said in the style of Columbo!): Given any topic or subject, they have to work collaboratively in groups to create an array of quality questions. They can then be given a series of challenging question stems to broaden their range of questions, using the following: What if…?; Suppose we knew…?; What would change if…? Suppose we knew…? If they write the questions on post it notes then they can be collated and saved – with the teacher returning to them further thrown the learning line. As the topic develops students can add ‘just one more question’, as well as answering the initial questions as their understanding grows. By following this method you can continue to foster the crucial culture of inquiry in the classroom – encouraging questions as a matter of course. Generating a range of such questions is a great way to initiate a topic, as it helps highlight miscomprehension immediately; it can foster collaboration and it can give the teacher precise and immediate formative feedback to shape their subsequent planning for the topic.
5. Socratic questioning and Socratic Circles – The old dog really can teach us new tricks! Socrates himself believed that questioning was at the root of all learning – and it is hard to disagree. The six steps of Socratic questioning creates a critical atmosphere that probes thinking and once more gets the students questioning in a structured way. There are six main categories:
Q1. Get your students to clarify their thinking, for instance: “Why do you say that?” ….“Could you explain that further?”
Q2. Challenging students about assumptions, for instance: “Is this always the case? Why do you think that this assumption holds here?”
Q3. Evidence as a basis for argument, questions such as: “Why do you say that?” or “Is there reason to doubt this evidence?”
Q4. Viewpoints and perspectives, this challenges the students to investigate other ways of looking at the same issue, for example: “What is the counter argument for…?” or Can/did anyone see this another way?”
Q5. Implications and consequences, given that actions have consequences, this is an area ripe for questioning, for instance: “But if that happened, what else would result?” or “How does… affect ….?” By investigating this, students may analyse more carefully before jumping to an opinion
Q6. Question the question, just when students think they have a valid answer this is where you can tip them back into the pit: “Why do you think I asked that question?” or “Why was that question important?”
I like to exemplify the probing nature of Socratic questioning with the attack dog of relentless questions – Jeremy Paxman – and his logical stripping down of Michael Howard!
I am thankful to @dailydenouement for the following document that presents a really clear set of instructions to document the Socratic circles strategy:
This approach is a fantastic way to structure dialogue and to involve all students in exploring and developing their arguments. It creates a variety of roles and stimulates collaborative thinking and learning. Once more, it is another way to get students to reflect upon the very quality of the questions and not just the answers, with the critique of students from the outer circle.
6. Pose-pause-bounce-pounce – This is a brilliantly simple but very important strategy. The thinking time at the ‘pause’ point is crucial – there is a great deal of evidence about how the quality of responses, and the confidence levels of students, is raised by even a short amount of thinking time. The ‘bounce’ is also crucial in that, once again, students are expected to constructively build upon the ideas of one another, which gives the teacher the crucial formative assessment information required. I will hand you over to Dylan William and his excellent explanation of the strategy and the importance of quality questioning:
7. Hinge point questions – This simple but effective question approach does what it says on the tin, but in terms of progress, planning using hinge point questions can be pivotal for formative assessment. These questions really are crucial to identifying formative progress. These can be relatively closed questions, such as in this History exemplar question:
In which year did World War Two begin?
This allows for a very swift hinge point diagnosis of student progress. But, you can deepen the thinking by asking a ‘Why’ question about the origins of World War Two. You can ask students to orally explain their rationale, or you can add further complexity by having two ‘right’ answers to a question. Regardless of the strategy, again the precision of the question is key to the answer, and the subsequent direction of the learning. Too often teachers plough on regardless to meet the demands of their brilliant lesson plan, when all the formative assessment shouts at them (sometimes literally!) to move in another direction. We should not be frightened by going back steps to consolidate the learning – repetition is at the heart of acquiring knowledge – and without knowledge, skills become meaningless. Like the Green Cross Code tells us, we need to ‘stop, look and listen’ to the quality of the question, and the quality of the answer, before we go anywhere.
8. Question continuum – The continuum involves the students first devising questions, in pairs or groups, on any given topic or idea. Then the continuum is created very visibly, either on the whiteboard, or more semi-permanently on a display board (great to resume the strategy in future lessons) – with student questions being on post it notes for added flexibility. The horizontal axis would represent the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question – that is how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and new possibilities, and simply the interest level it generates from the group. Then the vertical axis could be flexible in a variety of ways, should you wish to include a vertical axis. The vertical axis could represent ‘Complexity‘ (from ‘closed factual questions’ to ‘open, conceptual questions’) – that is how far the question would deepen their understanding and generate complex thinking. Students could feedback their opinions, shaped by the teacher, to identify the best questions – which then could be the subject of further exploration. Having the questions very visible means you can also flexibly rearrange, such as selecting the ‘best’ nine questions and creating a new ‘diamond nine’ formation. As you can see, the possibilities are endless.
9. Questioning monitor: Once more, this technique constructively involves students in the evaluation and reflection of the questioning process – fostering my now well worn refrain of creating a culture of enquiry. A monitor, or a pair of monitors, would be given the responsibility to track and monitor the frequency of questions: teacher and student – open or closed: factual or conceptual. You can have them monitor for a given task, or relate more cumulative research by undertaking the monitoring over a week or two of lessons. By exploring the evidence you are signalling to the students that you value evidence, and you are diagnosing the quality of your questioning, and that of the students. You will then have the evidence to know whether you really do have a culture of enquiry – and if not, it illuminates some of the steps you need to take to develop one. The activity sends very powerful messages to students about how highly your value quality questioning.
10. The Question Wall (a design upgrade for a well-used technique) Many educationalists have put forward sound reasons for using a question wall, or a learning wall. The ‘Question Continuum’ clearly overlaps with regards to pedagogy with a question wall, so I would be wary of trying both concurrently with groups, as it could potentially confuse them. The ‘Question Wall’ in this instance is a working space for students to communicate questions about their learning. By giving students post it notes and asking them to commit questions to writing typically eliminates those questions that reflect a sense of ‘learnt helplessness’ – the ‘how does you spell such and such’, when they have a dictionary on their table; or, ‘what do we have to do’, in response to your lengthy and erudite explanation you have only just imparted! The question wall helps foster independence and, once more, makes the students think a little more about their questions. To add a level of nuance to the wall, consider creating simple quadrants with simple labels: students can be advised that closed questions are placed on the left of the wall, whereas more open questions are placed progressively to the right hand side. A vertical axis could indicate the timer he student would expect was needed for explanation: placing questions that need a high degree of support, and therefore time, higher up the wall than those shorter, typically more closed questions. This simple visual representation of their questions allows the teacher to make a quick visual judgement about what questions they have time to address, or may want to prioritise. It helpfully indicates the level of ‘stuckness’ of the student, which is important feedback.
*Note: You may have noticed that the vast majority of these techniques require, or could benefit from, the use of post it notes. I am a supreme convert of the humble post it! We have just invested in stacks of the larger post its (they are broader than the usual) to ensure they work more effectively as tools for the above strategies and more.
Schools across the world are taking the basics of questioning and learning and making outstanding progress happen, with high order critical at the heart of learning. Other countries, like China, are hunting down education systems that foster a ‘culture of inquiry’ so that they can create their own system that helps create creative and critical thinkers. With this pursuit in mind, I found this interesting case study about project based learning in schools in Jerusalem, with their ‘Communities of Thinking’. There are some great questions to be found here at the root of some really interesting pedagogy:
This post is a little heavy on the theory that underpins questioning, but it is part of my thinking for a prospective post about a list of ‘top ten questioning strategies’ that I am currently planning. Looking into the theory and research about questioning just confirms my uneasiness with the dominance of Bloom’s taxonomy as a structure for questioning (and indeed learning objectives) – see Fig 1.
At the root of my issue with Bloom is that I think the hierarchy proposed by Bloom is too often taken rigidly as a step ladder towards higher order understanding, when in actual fact learning isn’t simply as linear and hierarchical as the taxonomy would imply. There are a legion of question stem documents littering the web, as well as educational writing based on Bloom’s taxonomy – I suppose they do no harm, but they should be dealt with critically at the very least.
I much prefer Christenbury and Kelly’s model of the ‘Questioning Circle’ to evaluate and move towards classifying questioning, as it is more flexible and therefore more suitable to the contingent nature of learning – see Fig 2.
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.