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?”

 

 

 

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A, B, C

Admission

Right, first things first; I pinched the vast majority of this from the excellent post below…

http://physicallyeducated.org/2012/11/04/a-b-c-p-e/

Problem

I have often been left frustrated at the fact that in several lessons, I’ve been unable to get information from the kids without “spoon-feeding” them. This can be painfully apparent when questioning a group and trying to think up challenging, probing questions and being met with flat responses. You often end up giving away cheap answers after panicking that the lesson has lost pace and you need to get a shift on.

Solution?

Some might suggest that the solution to this is to pre-plan structured questions, to pose at specific points in the lesson. This is certainly a good habit to follow and questions to specific groups/pupils should be made explicit in lesson plans, but it doesn’t help when a kid stares at you blankly after exhausting their response-capacity with a 3-word answer. You could then get after the kid and ask “why? How? Can you tell me more about…?” But it’s now up to you to painfully draw out some form of communication from the kids. And if we’re genuinely honest with ourselves, we can get a bit bogged down at this point.

Enter the stolen idea

So, here’s where the idea of using A, B, C comes in. I’ll admit, after reading the article above, I scrapped the idea of using the ball. I’ve often seen or read about throwing the ball/bit of paper/other inanimate object to designate the next speaker – it all comes across as a bit like a cheesy sales rep training course to me, but hey, whatever works for you.

I also changed the meaning of A, B, C to “Apply, Build, Challenge”.

In Practice

I introduced the A, B, C activity with my AS Anatomy & Physiology group a couple of weeks ago. I’d set a 10 mark question at the start of the lesson, then taught the lesson as usual; reviewing at 15 (ish) minute intervals allowing the kids to bullet point more ideas for their answer.

During these mini-reviews, I asked a simple question simple, leading question to a lower TG student like; “identify a positive effect of aerobic exercise on Osteoporosis”. After allowing the student time to respond, I then directed the spotlight on another student, asking them to Apply this idea/concept, Build on it/expand the previous answer or Challenge it – this fitted in nicely as the 10 marker required the kids to “critically analyse”. By moving from student to student, the questioning/conversation was able to keep developing as the kids could pick what they wanted to talk about next. The only times I removed this choice was when I really wanted to bring in an opposing theme/idea; I simply picked a higher ability student and asked them to challenge what had just been said.

Simplicity

The great thing about using A, B, C is that you can adapt the requirement of each letter to suit your goal that lesson; A could be Adjust, B could be Because? C could be Create Hypothesis (for really bright thinkers!). It is simply giving your students focus when being asked to respond.

All I’m after now is a nice display to put next to my board that I can keep pointing to…

Assertive Hinge Questions

It is with some trepidation that I write this blog entry. Not only do I admit to being no expert in this area of teaching & learning, but with all the jargon flying around, I could easily violate my “no bullshit” policy if I don’t tread carefully.

Sceptic

I’d encountered “Hinge Questions” years ago. I always shrugged and passed them off as common sense really. The idea that at key moments in lessons we should judge whether or not the kids “got it” through questioning; well, I just supposed it was something I did automatically.

Hinge Festival

But when I learned a bit more about hinge questions, I realised a didn’t really understand the concept fully. We recently took part in the Cramlington Autumn Staff Conference, run over the two INSET days before October half term. Tricia Wright from CLV delivered a session on Assessment for Learning (or was it Formative Assessment?!) which highlighted the need for quality hinge questioning during lessons.

Tricia’s key messages were simple yet thought provoking; the question posed should be difficult, the question format should be simple (multiple choice works best) and teachers should be able to gauge instantly how many/which kids do or don’t answer correctly. Perhaps the key to the whole concept is that teachers should plan for what happens next depending on possible responses to the question.

Whole-class

I had also been doing a bit of reading about whole-class Assertive Questioning. After INSET led by Geoff Barton (@RealGeoffBarton), I realised I was asking far too many “what” questions in lessons and nowhere near enough “how” and “why”‘s. Assertive questioning involves posing a tough whole-class question; asking students for their responses, listening to and thanking students for their responses and reasoning – but being careful not to give away the answer. After giving students opportunity to identify and discuss similar/contrasting answers, the teacher then asks the class to formulate a whole-group answer upon which they agree. It’s a consensus you’re after as it’ll not always be easy for all the kids to agree with one another. Only when the whole-class answer is agreed do you reveal the answer you were after. The master at this is Ken Brechin at our place. If you’ve ever been in CPD led by him, you’ll know what I mean.

In practice

I tried combining these two concepts during a GCSE theory lesson to start with. It felt like the safe route as one of my groups only has 15 kids in it (puts feet up & smokes cigar); it is relatively easy to do whole class discussion with them simply due to numbers – and the fact they’re good kids.

The lesson was on exercise methods (from the OCR syllabus – not to be confused with the less wishy-washy training methods later on) for encouraging active, healthy lifestyles. After a Connect activity, new info (video input) and a carousel of activities including mix/match, “blag-it”, and a mistake spotting exercise; I decided on the hinge question below:

Which of the following is not a method a SEDENTARY person might use to encourage a healthy, active lifestyle?

a. Going swimming regularly

b. Attending a Spinning class
c. Doing a sprinting session
d. Pilates sessions
Pupils firstly answered this on mini-whiteboards enabling a “show-me” situation. Once they had decided on their own answer however, I asked them to write underneath WHY they had come to that conclusion. As anticipated, some of the kids had simply taken a guess. Others came up with a whole host of interesting theories. I questioned a cross-section of the group as to why they had made their choices and noted down some responses on the whiteboard. These notes then provided the platform for others to challenge or build upon their peers’ responses. Whilst still in “Ken Brechin” character, I just listened to the kids arguing/debating and thanked them for their thoughts. Once they’d all blow-out, I agreed with one pupil on their suggestion that “not”, “Sedentary” and “healthy, active lifestyle” were key words in the question. This then opened up another class discussion, during which I again let the kids hold court.
Hunger Games
Once the discussions had dies down again, I asked the kids to nominate a spokes person – a bit like a “tribute” from the popular, ultra-violent Suzanne Collins kiddies novel “The Hunger Games”. This spokesperson would provide me with the correct answer – but also with an agreed, reasoned justification as to how they got to the correct answer. They chose Jake as the sacrificial lamb, bless him. Two further minutes were allocated for agreeing upon a final answer and the justification.
Although the group did indeed pick “C” as the right answer, their justification was a little shaky. They hadn’t really understood what Sedentary meant or that sprinting was really a specialist type of running suitable for sport-specific training. This meant that although they’d “got it right”, they hadn’t done it through the right methods.
Back to the Drawing Board
I’d got a fall-back slide in my lesson PowerPoint with the definition/example of the word Sedentary and also some pictures of “normal” people at exercise classes/spinning/aerobics etc. I’d also got a few images of Usain Bolt training. This was the first real bit of teacher-led stuff in the lesson as I pointed out who would be most likely to use the exercise methods we had been learning about and pointing out the differences between athletic training and exercise for healthy lifestyle. Through further Q&A, I was satisfied that the kids now “got-it” and moved on.
The process might seem long-winded but to be fair, the whole process took around 15 minutes max and covered the crux of what the lesson was about. Also worth pointing out was the one thing I hadn’t really expected (ish); that the kids would agree on the right answer, but not know why.
Worth trying again? Definitely. As I get better at the questioning techniques, I’m sure it’ll develop into a common feature of my lessons.