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Leadership and Training Centre

Leadership and Training Centre

Contextual clues in questioning

Matthew Bonnett, Head of Philosophy and Ethics at The Hazeley Academy looks beyond questions stems to ask, "How do effective teachers know how to question?"

Excellence should always be our driving force in education – whether that be excellence in our behaviour management, excellence in our classroom practice, or excellence in our own understanding. Effective questioning hinges on this excellence – and it is our duty as teachers to ensure that we are the most effective questioners we can be. When taken to its core, there is something incredibly fundamental about questioning that is often overlooked – it’s not how you question, it’s how you know how to question – a far more nuanced issue.

For me, contextual clues are the foundation of a skilful questioner, it’s not about how many methods you use, but how you know when to deploy them and why. A contextual clue is essentially the wider understanding of the teacher when it comes to framing a question – it’s a skillset that can be honed, and one that should form the core of any reasonable CPD. I use the term ‘clue’ as this isn’t about providing a bank of question stems – this is about understanding how to construct your own questions, and the philosophy behind it. Taking a look at the follow contextual clues, it’s easy to see why it’s so important in the issue of questioning.

The specification

All too often this can catch out the most experienced teacher. Specifications change, content is updated, aspects are added, and sometimes removed. A skilful teacher will know the detail of their own specification, and will be able to plan their questions to hit these specific objectives, whether this is explicitly done for exam preparation, or implicitly done to develop student strength. Only through a detailed specification / SoW analysis can teachers begin to break this contextual clue down. Departments should schedule in time to review specifications with all staff, building it into the 1-2-1s, NQT programmes and PM targets. Without a skilful understanding of the specification, questioning can all too easily become unfocused, or worse, misplaced for the end result. Powerful questioning must stay on target, and detailed specification understanding is where this begins. It is simply not good enough to know your subject – you need to know the demands of your subject in this particular specification setting. This also applies to KS2 and KS3, where National Curriculums and Non-Statutory National Frameworks take the place of exam board specifications. 

The subject being taught and inclusive subject knowledge

Often this is grouped with specification knowledge, but this is a different issue. Subjects grow and change. Science teachers will be all too aware of the growing and changing nature of their subject and even when your subject isn’t in a constant state of flux, our own conceptual understanding, and our own investigations into the content will make a huge difference to the power and precision of our questions. Context matters – and so over time the zeitgeist of our subject will evolve – just look at how the teaching of history has been impacted by the calls in recent years to decolonise the curriculum. Keeping yourself upskilled – through wider reading, CPD and passion can ensure that you don’t get left behind, or risk becoming out of date. If you find yourself asking the same questions year on year, the deeper issue might be that you haven’t evolved – and this can have a stagnating effect on your students. After all, you are the ‘expert’ and to inspire our students to be lifelong learners, we too need to embody this. This becomes a particular issue when teachers are teaching outside of their specialism, and shows the importance of collaboration, planning and subject support. Specialists matter. But staff engagement and training matter more. If you want to help your students be the best, you need to make sure that your own knowledge enables you to ask the right questions, at the right time, and to the right people. Never underestimate your specialist knowledge, and be thankful that others look to you as the one in the know!

Common student misconceptions that you can predict and how to overcome this through questioning

Once you have mastered the above (or at least are moving in the right direction since it’s a never-ending journey), you’ll quickly identify what the major misconceptions are and where it is likely that those ‘typical’ mistakes will occur. Why is it that a skilled teacher will not only be able to identify, but share with students exactly where they expect them to struggle – it’s because they’ve anticipated it through a detailed specification analysis and diligent CPD. When completing your specification analysis, it’s always good to ask your own questions about the content you are covering, and establish how you might address these challenges yourself, or what questions you might have as you go. Once considered, you can now tackle addressing these misconceptions through careful questioning. Can you pose a question that will not only lead students to the correct end, but actively move them away from the wrong one? Have you considered when your questions need to shift in ‘challenge’ to support students in this transition to greater understanding? This will also help you engage with students who inevitably get stuck – it won’t be a surprise to you, so the differentiated support can be on hand before you even begin! This is probably the hardest ‘clue’ and will be built up over time and with trial and error! Remember, every year you teach you should become more skilled – so what are you doing to take your students on this journey with you? Of course, we will always be caught off-guard eventually, but through rigorous planning of our own questions, this will become less common, and you will find that students actively avoid them as you steer them around these mistakes before they happen.

How this applies to an exam question or NEA

Yes, there is a world beyond exam questions, and a world beyond exam preparation. KS3 offers such a wonderful chance to explore students’ engagement deeper through questioning, but at KS4 and KS5 you cannot lose sight of the end goal – exam success. Your questions should be a scaffold to allow students to transition from verbal answers to exam answers. When you pose your questions, you should be able to use the language of the exam – it could be as simple as using the known command terms in your phrasing, such as ‘to what extent’ or it could be knowing that in Biology the absence of a key word equals the absence of a mark, and therefore always making sure that you include it in your own verbal questioning. Use mark schemes, use examiners reports, use past papers – not just for mock exams, but as a guide in the classroom. I have often found that my newest and most successful classroom questions have come from a reading of last year’s examiners report, because even though I might see 50-100 students across a year group, the examiners have marked over 10,000 – their sample is bigger, so use their feedback to review your questions and improve your engagement with students.

The prior knowledge and understanding of your students

If you were to go on a first date you have to assume that you know nothing about the person you are sat opposite – you take your time to understand them, you ask them questions, and you learn from their responses. The classroom is the same. In order to question successfully, you need to understand what students know so far. If they are a new class, spend time establishing a foundation, either through dialogue or low stakes testing. If they are a class that is familiar to you, how are you establishing retention and understanding? Do you need to re-cover certain aspects and ideas? Taking time to understand what your students do know will prevent that fretful ‘empty question’ where you wait for a response that a student can never give. It also avoids the black hole of desperation where you frantically wonder whether you have taught them anything! Here questioning can be at a whole class level, it can be through self-marking quizzes, or short-answer exam questions. Your use of written questions will support your verbal questions – so take them hand in hand. If you ever take on a new class, spend some time here – I promise you it will pay off. 

Any individual potential barriers that your students face

This is where most school CPD will start, but it’s only part of the bigger picture – simply put, do we know our students? What personal barriers do they face? This could be academic, social, communication, personal or a mixture of them all. Read the EHCP plans, act on the advice given and get to know your individual students – the better the relationship, the better the questions. Have you ever wondered why that class you see once a fortnight seems to have a less developed understanding? It’s because you don’t know them, and they don’t know you. Once you take that time, your questioning can become more bespoke, more frequent, and more effective. This is a challenge for all teachers, so rely on the experts in your setting for help – your SENCO, the TA team, their previous teachers – pass on that knowledge and support others in developing their questioning with that student. And don’t forget – students don’t work for strangers, they work for trusted adults – build this trust and respect this relationship.

How this connects to the wider learning present

Are your questions going anywhere? Will you come back to them next lesson? Next week? Next module? The hot topic now is interleaving – are you returning to content and questions across a curriculum. If you understand how your question fits into the wider scheme of work, you can bring that question with you, building and developing students’ knowledge as you do so! Coming back to questions again and again, tackling them in different ways with an ever-expanding bank of content, shaping and re-shaping them to make them more precise – this is the way to improve marks, and can be built into every lesson you teach. This is tied so heavily to specification knowledge that you might find planning your questions easier whilst doing your specification analysis – this way you can see the connections and plan those overriding unit discussions that help students holistically tie their subject exploration together.

The depth of knowledge and understanding expected for different ‘levels’ of engagement

This is a particularly prevalent issue for lesson planning – do you know the challenge level of your questions and how they suit the class you have. Please don’t think that all students aren’t able to evaluate or analyse – they can, just to varying degrees of depth. Ensure that your lessons have enough challenge for each student, but also know what questions are geared specifically towards the A* and Grade 9 respectively. It’s all too easy to reflect on results day how we might improve next year but embedding these questions from the start can really help show these students the journey towards success. Likewise, know how to build these questions up and how to take these students on a journey with you – this does not mean always starting with the ‘recall’ or ‘knowledge’ stems of Bloom’s, but showing an awareness for how to question students to move towards these higher-level skill set.

These clues are by no means exhaustive, and there are plenty of books you can buy and CPD sessions on the best questioning methods, but understanding why you question, and how to question should always be the starting point. Taken collectively, these methods can enable you to plan, prepare and promote a sense of excellence, benefiting our most valuable resource – our students.