Are you crap at asking questions?

As Michael Jackson might have asked, “who’s bad?”

Meet Chris Evans. Radio 2 breakfast show host and hugely successful bloke of the late 90’s. I decided a few years ago, when Chris Moyles left Radio 1, that I was too old to listen any more and switched to the dustier, creakier, fustier sibbling on 88-91FM for my morning commute.


Although Chris is great at many things, I think he is the second-worst questioner I’ve ever heard (perhaps third, but I’ll leave my mother-in-law out of this). The top of the pile is another Radio 2 presenter, Vanessa Feltz.


Why are they crap?


Well, the number one problem is the fact that it isn’t always clear what they want to know. I listened to an interview a few weeks ago during which Chris asked the guest the same thing three times but still didn’t get his desired response. He didn’t actually clarify or indeed simplify the question – he just repeated it and added a few thinking sounds like “errr…” and “ahhh…”


The second problem these two presenters face is that they overload guests with a barrage of words after posing the initial question. Something along these lines; “So, what were the real highlights of performing in those days; I can imagine they were wild times. I mean we only need to look back at your tours across Europe to see that things were pretty wild. It must have been amazing and of course we had Tommy Dickfingers on here last week and he was simply incredible. It really must be fascinating…” By the time the guest gets time to respond, they must be left scratching around their short-term memory for the initial poser.


OK Vanessa; your turn. Unlike many people, I think Ms Feltz is a highly intelligent and astute thinker. She makes excellent key points and shows that she knows her onions across a whole range of current affairs topics. Vanessa’s problem is that she tends not to allow her guests adequate time to form a response. Whilst standing in for Jeremy Vine a few weeks back (for younger readers – this show often involves debate featuring two hand-picked guests, with very much opposing viewpoints), Vanessa asked a key question at quite a pivotal part of the debate. As her guest began to answer (and he wasn’t giving a politician’s answer), she cut across him and asked another question; moving the discussion away from what she wanted to know. Unfortunately, this opened to door for the other guest on the phone to jump in with their answer. Guest number 1 attempted to get back on course, but by this point, their opponent was in full swing and the discussion changed completely.



What’s your point Horner?


Can you relate any of the anecdotes above to your own practice? When asking pupils questions, do you overload them with your verbal diarrhoea? We often do I’m sure.


Do you always give pupils the necessary “think time” before expecting a response? For those beginning their journey as teachers, it can be the most excruciating feeling in the world, to ask a question and be met with an hour of silence. The hour probably lasted a second, but it feels a lot longer when your HoD and the Deputy Head are sitting at the back of the class. Pupils cannot respond until they have got a response. Try and bottle your desperation to arrive at the “right answer” for just a few seconds at least.


If a pupil answers your question, do you let them finish, or do you finish their sentence? Or even worse, do you cut across and allow someone else to hijack the discussion? There isn’t much worse than making a kid feel shit by devaluing their input into a discussion. “What do you think the answer is Jonny? NO! Complete shit! Sit down and face the wall – Now, if Tarquell could give us a less moronic answer…”


If a pupil has no idea what you’re on about, do you simplify/clarify/differentiate your questions? My old Maths teacher would just keep repeating the same thing, but speak slower to make you realise what a dunce you were. Being met with the response “I don’t know” is not always a bad thing. The solution isn’t as easy as the highly irritating, yet popular “OK, you might not know, but what do you think“. Kids might not actually know what they think. At this point, you need to take a step back and possibly start with a bit of low-order thinking; “Right, let’s start again – tell me what this is again… Good – now; how is that similar to…” and so on. I pinched an idea off Ken Brechin at our place a while back, whereby if I ask questions intended to spark a bit of thinking, I don’t respond in any other way than saying “thank you”. This way, pupils aren’t influenced by your praise of one answer and refuting of another.


On the topic of differentiation, do you plan for who you will ask specific questions? It’s something I’ve tried hard to improve in my own teaching and I have a pretty stupid but (for me) effective way of questioning more effectively. You need to scribble down, or at least have an idea of what questions you want to ask at different points in the lesson. I then use a class printout, showing target and recent pupil grades, and tally a mark next to a pupil every time I ask them a question. My lead-in questions (OK, possibly the easier ones) go to those on D/C’s – thank them for their input, then push for more from a pupil on a higher grade. Not only does it ensure you pitch questions correctly, but it lets you check to see who you’ve heard from in that lesson.


Last but not least; do you ask stupid questions? Despite our better judgement, I think most of us would agree that the vast majority of pupils aren’t stupid. I might have lost a few of you there. Do you ask “Yes” and “No” questions? “Do you think the Treaty of Versailles was good? Yes? Right on we go...” It’s like asking a three-year-old girl eating the chocolate ice cream, “Is that nice?” OK, sorry I did say I’d leave the mother-in-law out of this. My point is, a Y/N question might be useful if it is a lead-in to something else, but on it’s own, it’s crap. There are only two responses you could give so therefore the thought process is just above redundant.


As PE teachers, we verbalise really well in lessons. In practical lessons, I’m not impressed by writing on sheets of paper, exit-tickets or even on the benches in the gym. If you ask good questions, you can actually find out quite a lot about how much the kids have learned in your lessons. It’s something we could all do better – and hey, if we get it right, maybe the kids might start doing the same…

Instead of “Are we playing a match?”




2 thoughts on “Are you crap at asking questions?”

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