The space between the question and the answer

Here is a puzzle:

If a great question is asked, but only a small proportion of your class actually think about it, is it a great question?

This post isn’t about the questions we ask and it isn’t really about the answers- it’s about the space in between. It is about ensuring great questions are met with a suitable depth of thought from students, because if we can’t guarantee that students are thinking about our questions, then we can’t guarantee that they are learning anything. Using questioning as a teaching tool, as a diagnostic tool, as a key element of our explanations, becomes ineffective because students are not really participating.

The problem is that thinking is a pretty invisible process. How on earth can we somehow get inside students’ minds and ensure that they are actually thinking?

Visible checks

Thinking is invisible, but there are ways that we can see the effect of thinking.

For example, one strategy I use when asking students to identify something in a text is to place their finger on it. If they can’t find anything, they put their finger on their head. I can scan the room and see the participation at a glance. Students know that I will often go to those who have fingers on their heads first, so the ‘opt outers’ make more of an effort, even though I’m just as likely to pick someone with their finger on something too. Now, there are definitely some chancers who just place their fingers on the page and hope, but they are less and less likely to do this.

Getting students to write an answer down to a question is another simple way of being able to track participation. Mini white boards are particularly useful for this. At Dixons Kings Academy, we have whole school routines and language for MWB use. Teachers have to spend less time establishing their own routines and the consistency of approach makes it easier to focus on responses.

One of my colleagues, Luke, uses whiteboards effectively during continuum tasks- tasks where students place themselves on a line with opposite viewpoints at each end. It is very easy for students to follow their friends, to hide in a larger group or sometimes just to move to the place which is closest to their seat. Luke asks them to take a whiteboard and explain their rationale. This way, it is harder for students to avoid thinking. Even if they take the lazy option in where they stand, they still have to justify it! The physical act of writing on whiteboards is a visible sign of participation (if not of the quality of thinking) and Luke can intervene when they are not writing. He can then use the responses to prompt discussion and diagnose understanding.

The inevitability that anyone can be asked to answer, anyone can be asked to comment on an answer (anyone can be asked to comment on the comment on the answer etc)

In my role, I am lucky to be able to see many examples of excellent questioning from teachers. The thread that runs through them all is the expectation that students answer questions because the teacher wants them to, not because they decide that they want to. Questions are asked, students think about them, and the teacher asks a particular student for their answer. Where this is routine, you get answers of a higher quality, fewer “I don’t knows” and, ultimately, better work. When there is an inkling that a student hasn’t tried to think, these teachers stay with them and make them think. There are no shortcuts from question to answer.

However, even with a culture of strong questioning, it is difficult to ensure that students are focusing on other students’ answers. I have noticed that once I go to one student for an answer, some can switch off. For example, if I stay with a student and ask them further questions, or remain with one who says “I don’t know”, there is a possibility that every other student stops listening because they are not being asked the question.

It has to be a regular feature of lessons that students are asked “Is she right?” or “Can you give me an additional reason?” Otherwise, a supposedly rigorous technique of probing questions becomes a terrible one with impact on only one student. This doesn’t always come easily. It is a day in, day out technique which creates a culture in a classroom and across a school. But just like when the initial question is asked, any follow up questions need to have an expectation that anybody could be called on.

What about random name generators such as lollipops? I am fairly ambivalent on this but I have recently shifted back to the no lollipop camp for a couple of reasons. My justification for the sticks was always that it made it clear that I could pick any student. There was a bit of theatre to it all too. But without lolly sticks, nothing changes: I still pick randomly but I also target questions. (Plus I kept losing sticks). Here are a couple of excellent blogs on the issue: Tom Bennett on the problems and Harry Fletcher-Wood on the benefits.

Waiting

This isn’t a new suggestion but it is sometimes difficult to ensure effective wait time. It can feel awkward and can be particularly difficult with a challenging class. Also, if a student isn’t thinking then giving them ten more seconds is just giving them ten more seconds of not thinking. Often, the issue isn’t opting out but perhaps not knowing how to get to the right answer or a good answer. We have to be explicit about the behaviours that we want during this thinking/ waiting time. Another of my colleagues at DKA, Maria, narrates what students should be doing. For example, she might say, “I can see 5 students checking their notes for answers- excellent,” thus making clear what is expected. We should also value silence in these moments too, as too much narration might hinder quality thinking.

Now I said that this wasn’t about the quality of questions but it is worth saying that if you want students to think deeply, the questions need to be designed so that this is possible. And if the content of the lesson is limited or the text you are studying is just not good enough then no matter how much waiting time you give, the quality of thinking- and the quality of responses- will be poor.

2 thoughts on “The space between the question and the answer

  1. I think the most important element of this methodology is the narration. Only by doing this are we making clear to students the behaviours we expect of them, and then over time making them second nature.

    Great post – keep up the good work!

    Amir @ http://tateoc.com

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