To question or not to question? Using AFL in the classroom effectively

Have you ever had someone talk at you, seemingly for hours on end, without even so much as the appearance of letting up? Same. It’s not great, is it? Now imagine you’re the one doing the talking, you finish chatting, and your students respond with blank faces.

That’s the reaction I would be faced with every now and then (from friends as well as students, actually!). In his book, Making Every History Lesson Count, Chris Runeckles says that questioning is the ‘most powerful tool for deepening learning as it provides a mechanism for elaboration’.  He said that you should always demand further elaboration, and a really easy way to do this is by simply asking, ‘why?’ Using questioning constantly as we teach is your key to unlocking students’ brains. It’s just one chapter in his book, which focuses on five other guiding principles to effective pedagogy: challenge, feedback, modelling, explanation and practice. Click my little affiliate link to buy the book that gives me a little kickback at no extra cost to you.

Today, I’m breaking down the key takeaways I learned from reading his work, and showing you how you can very easily integrate this into your own practise.

What is effective questioning?

First things first, we need to understand how to question effectively. There is a load of research out there that supports Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a hierarchy of language that can be used to describe various learning objectives. By moving through this hierarchy, we can deepen a learners’ thinking in stages. 

Runeckles actually challenges this mindset. Relying on Blooms assigns value to each level of thinking, but questioning at different levels can be invaluable throughout a lesson. So, instead of hierarchies, we should think in terms of purpose: ‘what do we want our questioning to achieve?’ Think about which reason you have for questioning, too, out of the following:

  1. To test understanding of a new concept
  2. To deepen and develop understanding.
  3. To ensure that students take a share in the cognitive work of the classroom.
  4. To help you to form and sustain classroom culture.
  5. To create curiosity, which encourages students to learn, because they will naturally want their own questions answered.

It may also be beneficial to understand what type of questioning you are asking: lower or higher cognitive thinking. Lower cognitive thinking is simple knowledge recall, whereas higher cognitive questions involve manipulating knowledge to support a logically reasoned response (your what questions versus your why questions, basically).

Both types are essential, but perform different functions. Whichever you choose will depend on the class and content being taught. By understanding why you are questioning, you will be able to come up with stronger, more appropriate questions at each stage of your lesson.

How do we question effectively?

Here are Runeckles’ strategies for effective questioning in the classroom:

  • Questioning for all. Rosenshine suggests that you should ask lots of questions and check the responses of all learners. Runeckles takes that a step further, saying that it’s far too easy to rely only on certain students, since you’ll want to keep it pacey. To involve all learners, you could use hands up, choose at random, or start cold calling.
  • Wait. Too often, we’ll feel pressured to ask a student for a response immediately. Try giving them more thinking time and fill the silence yourself, if you must, with additional scaffolding, or by rephrasing the question. You could get them to think-pair-share, which means there will be a culture of no opt-out: everyone should expect to be prepared to be questioned.
  • Serve and return. If a student gets an answer right, congrats! Well done them! Now reward them with a tougher question.
  • Continuums. Have students plot themselves on a continuum line to show level of agreement (i.e. how far do you agree that…). They can do this with sticky notes or by raising their hands as you plot your whiteboard pen across a line on the board. Runeckles advocates for this method, rather than the former, because it requires less planning and can be done ‘off the cuff’.
  • Hinge questions. These are multiple-choice questions that can only be answered with genius every comprehension, rather than guesswork. If a student can’t answer this question, it might be wise to reteach, rather than move on.

A word of warning: Runeckles states that you should avoid doing too much work yourself or getting students to guess. If they genuinely do not know an answer, always defer to reteaching!

Which of these strategies are you going to employ in the classroom? Let me know if any of them work for you in the comments below.

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