So following from my second observation, I need to revisit my use of questions. This is something that has been picked up in both my Big Teach for my level 3 and in both of the observations for my PGCE so far. It’s one of those things where you kinda get the principles but putting it into practice when you’re on the spot is much harder.
On the recommendation of the tutor who observed me, I have been looking at the questioning aspect of Assessment for Learning. Following from my previous observation, I had looked at AfL techniques but got lost in hands-down approaches and non-graded tasks, neither of which either apply or are appropriate in my context.
The skill I have really improved is wait time after asking a question (Black et al, 2003). I have no idea how long I am actually waiting for before prompting an individual for an answer, but I know it is a much more measured and deliberate pause. I fully understand why wait time is important: it allows students to actually think about their answer and makes students responsible for answering, rather than waiting until you give up and rephrase. Wait time complements the work of Nancy Kline in giving people the space to think and share their thinking and think through talking (Kline). It also supports bell hooks’ idea of students participating and taking responsibility for their learning, in an engaged pedagogy that doesn’t allow students to remain passive recipients of a teacher’s wisdom (bell hooks, 1994).
I think one of my issues with wait time was always that if students couldn’t or didn’t answer immediately and correctly, I would assume I had asked a poor question or worded it badly and they just didn’t understand. I failed to understand the way in which answering questions in whole class is often more about performance than learning (Brookfield, 2006). Strikingly my own issue was about my “performance” not necessarily my skill as a teacher.
Another fear, particularly in FE, was that if someone wasn’t talking students’ attention would drift and latch onto something they shouldn’t be doing or they would create something to entertain themselves. Keeping a clear point of focus seemed to be key to classroom management and keeping everyone on task and part of one session. This is alluded to by one of the participants in the King’s, Medway, Oxford Formative Assessment Project aiming to help teachers put AfL into practice (Black, 2003) so it isn’t just my concern. Now I am in a different context, these concerns are less relevant for my practice.
As a result (and some practice), wait time has become a far easier technique to deploy and I feel more at ease with it. It has resulted in students venturing answers voluntarily when they are unsure, even if they lack confidence. I do need to keep reminding myself to allow wait time but hopefully it will embed itself into my practice soon and feel more natural.
The key is to remember that”silence does not represent a vacuum in learning or indicate complete disengagement” (Brookfield, 2006: 103). Indeed, both Black et al and Brookfield advocate structured thinking time (Brookfield, 2006; Black et al, 2003). Brookfield sees this as a crucial link in the chunks lectures should be broken down into to avoid students disengaging from being spoken at for an hour in monotone. Brookfield notes that for more reflective students, this can be very useful (Brookfield, 2006).
Furthermore, there is nothing inherently useful about putting a student on the spot and expecting an instant answer. A more effective way of giving students thinking time to answer a question properly can be to ask students to brainstorm together and then report back to the whole group to answer. This can be particularly effective at the start of a lesson and works well as a big question, rather than a factual one (Black et al, 2003). This is a technique I have adopted and successfully transferred to higher education. Largely opening questions focus on either what students already know about the subject we are going to cover or what resources they already use. This builds on their experiential and existing knowledge, gives me a quick and dirty initial assessment, builds community in the classroom and liberates students to speak and participate and be present as themselves. Another method is to get students to set the questions (Black et al, 2003).
A piece of good practice I had forgotten was devising questions as part of the lesson plan. I had made a good attempt at this in my teaching in my last role but since taking up my new position, I have not employed this technique. By planning questions you can make them much more effective for learning. Effective questions should not be closed and should be followed by why: they shouldn’t be based on factual recall (Black et al, 2003). A colleague on my level 3 course shared a grid of questions designed to help with planning questions to incorporate higher order thinking skills. I have made good use of the grid in the past and need to use it again. One of the very useful things about planning questions this way is that questions can be used for differentiation and for stretch for different students.
Something I need to move away from is not asking questions that actually check understanding when I am asking the question to check understanding: like “everyone okay with this?” A more effective way of checking understanding would be to ask a specific question such as “what are the elements of PICO?” I am much better at defining tasks using a slide and checking everyone’s understanding of the task than I was before I did my level 3.
Brookfield suggests using questions to start a lecture and treat it like a problem solving exercise or “active intellectual inquiry” process. This models the behaviour you seek, acknowledging the temporality of knowledge and moving emphasis onto understanding rather than digesting facts. This is good because it is exactly what I am encouraging my students to do in terms of things like search strategy and framing questions.
Brookfield suggests posing questions at end of session too so your’s isn’t the last word on the subject. Ending without exploring further questions “commodifies knowledge” (Brookfield, 2006: 110). Asking questions at the end creates the opportunity to make connections. Teachers should recap what has been covered but also what the students can now go and do. As Brookfield charmingly writes, this is about “pointing out all the new routes that have been opened up by the content of the lecture” (Brookfield, 2006: 110). This got me thinking about my woeful attempts in my current role at consolidation activities. I could ask what questions has this session raised for you? I’m not sure this works for me as I only see them once and would not be around to provide answer at any point. Though I will definitely start telling them what they will now be able to do at the end, using that kind of language to emphasise their skill development.
What underlines the whole questioning technique however is time. as one of the teachers from King’s, Medway, Oxford Formative Assessment Project, there must be time for “reflection and examining misconceptions” (Black et al, 2003: 88) otherwise it doesn’t matter how brilliant your questions are, they will not be effective.
Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C. and Wiliam, D. (2003). Assessment for Learning: Putting it into Practice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Brookfield, S. (2006). The Skillful Teacher: on Techniques, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. Second ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education of the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.
Kline, N. (2002). Time to Think. Cassell.
Sayers, J. (2013). Question Grid. Available at: https://reflectivemaths.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/john_sayers_question_grid.jpg