Great Lessons 1: Probing


In all the talk of improving teaching and learning, sometimes – no often – there is too much talk about the model OfSTED lesson.  Too often this leads teachers into thinking of idealised lessons than can only be turned out in special circumstances or that Outstanding lessons require us to devise an elaborate box of tricks to show off with. However, as I have said elsewhere,it is the 99% of lessons that are never observed that really matter.  So, we need to focus on things that we do every day.

Two related ideas:

1) It is the spirit of an idea that is important, not the letter.  It isn’t about sticking to the rules. When good practice is embedded it is organic and doesn’t feel like a stuck-on activity plucked from a toolkit. (Mary James)

2) In improving as teachers, we are not collecting tools, we seeking to change our habits… the things we do automatically every day. (Dylan William)

I am planning to create a series of short posts called Great Lessons that focus on aspects of routine practice – because lessons can be routinely outstanding.

Probe probe probe....
Probe probe probe….

Great Lessons 1: Probing Questions

On my recent learning walks and in recent formal observations, I’ve been struck by a simple thought: When you walk into a lesson where the teacher is talking and you immediately think, ‘Yes, this is a great lesson’, what is happening? It is this: the teacher is asking probing questions. There is an intensity to it: solid classroom management is securing complete attention from everyone….eyes front, listening intently… and the teacher is probing.  This is what they could be saying:

  • That’s interesting, what makes you say that?
  • That’s true, but why do you think that is?
  • Is there a different way to say the same thing?
  • Can you give an example of where that happens?
  • Can you explain how you worked that out?
  • So what happens if we made it bigger or smaller?
  • Really?  Are you sure? Is there another explanation?
  • Which of those things makes the biggest impact?
  • What is the theme that links all those ideas together?
  • What is the evidence that supports that suggestion?
  • Does anyone agree with that? Why?
  • Does anyone disagree? What would you say instead? Why is that different?
  • How does that answer compare to that answer?
  • But what’s the reason for that? And how is that connected to the first part?
  • How did you know that? What made you think of that? Where did that idea come from?
  • Is that always true or just in this example?
  • What  would be the opposite of that?
  • Is it true for everyone or just some people?
  • Is that a direct cause of the effect or is it just a coincidence, a correlation?
  • Not sure if that’s quite right… have another go… is that what you meant?
  • That’s the gist of it… but is could you say that more fluently?

It seems to me, on reflection, that the natural tendency to hold exchanges like this with individuals or a whole class is a key feature of excellent teachers.  At a whole-class level, the dialogue is conducted with some energy and passion, moving from student to student, bringing the students from the back and the corners into the fray.  There is discipline; everyone listens to everyone else as the probing continues. Each respondent gets at least one teacher bounce-back but often repeated exchanges, dialogues, develop as deeper and deeper answers are sought.

Spontaneously, as an interlocking element,  the whole-class exchange is re-directed regularly so students discuss in pairs or groups, giving everyone an opportunity to engage. Here, the students adopt the modelled approach and begin to probe themselves… they ask each other questions in a probing style:

Is it is A or B… does it get bigger or smaller? Why does it get smaller? And how does that work?  Do we have enough for a 4 mark answer?  Have we explained it enough? …

Then, the probing continues as the teacher circulates or when the class is brought back.

I’ve started with this because I like to think that an outstanding teacher would be outstanding in a field or on a desert island (or in the KEGS outdoor classroom) with no kit, no resources and nothing to write on.  It is just you and them.. and a really good key question.  A less confident teacher will not probe enough, will accept surface responses or will not create the intense atmosphere of active listening required from the class.  Sustaining probing dialogue with any number of students that engages them all is the hallmark of a great teacher…. it’s where we should begin. It really is the ‘washing hands of learning’ – the number one habit. Probe probe probe…

I am not going to try to emulate the fabulous work in these blogs on questioning:

1) Alex Quigley

2) John Sayers

Please read them. But, to return to my point at the start… the ideas here need to be practiced, assimilated and absorbed so that they become habits, part of the routine, part of the organic, spontaneous exchange within the lesson… the spirit of the lesson.


Please read the full Great Lessons Series:

1. Probing  2. Rigour  3.Challenge  4. Differentiation 5. Journeys 6. Explaining  7. Agility 8. Awe 9.Possibilities 10. Joy


  1. Really helpful, thank you.
    Interesting to think how to use these techniques to teach a language. Any thoughts anyone?


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