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Great Lessons, Teaching and Learning

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  http://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/questioning-top-ten-strategies/

2) John Sayers http://sayersjohn.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/questioning.html

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


55 thoughts on “Great Lessons 1: Probing

  1. Great post. These are very subject-transferable question stems.
    For maths teachers, I use some probing questions from Kangaraoomaths.com (@kennycounts). Each of the Levelopedia files (http://www.kangaroomaths.com/kenny3.php?page=KassessKS3#lp) contain probing question stems, such as
    “Convince me that…”,
    “Is it always, sometimes or never true that…”,
    “Show me an example of…and another…and another…”,
    “What is the same/different…”

    Coming up with the right probing questions is the most interesting part of my planning usually and always the most interesting part of the lesson.

    Your point about habit-forming is critical. There are different ways to build those habits I suppose. Build them into your lesson planning proforma, put them in your IWB template, stick them on the teacher desk or a wall. Weave them into informal lesson observations.

    Thanks for your post.


    Posted by Bruno Reddy | January 22, 2013, 12:37 pm
  2. Interesting and important. Your MFL teachers may have a different perspective on questioning when they work in the target language. If you have a moment, i wrote something on pace, challenge and questioning. BTW I am a former HoD at a grammar school.



    Posted by Steve Smith | January 22, 2013, 5:58 pm
  3. Great post. Currently involved in a Teaching Learning Community (a la Dylan Wiliam) and currently exploring how to encourage deeper thinking in our pupils, through the use of probing questions. Will add this to our resources. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by 21stcenturynorthernluddite | January 25, 2013, 10:25 pm
  4. Tru! I agree I like to probe in my maths lessons


    Posted by William van de Venter | January 28, 2013, 6:18 pm
  5. Fabulous posts!
    I always go back to Dylan Willam’s idea that questioning should cause thinking. Questions made in order to create engagement (you there at the back) and check behaviour (pay attention or I’ll ask you a question) are only class management tools, rather than learning tools. If you also only ask questions they know the answer to, what are you achieving except some straight forward summative assessment ( low impact because that’s merely regurgitating old learning).


    Posted by Beth Budden | January 28, 2013, 7:18 pm
  6. Reblogged this on Smart Teachers' Blog and commented:
    Check out some ideas on why probing questions are a great tool for the classroom.


    Posted by Smart Teachers' Blog | March 19, 2013, 10:37 am
  7. Great blog, thanks for this. I’ve made an ‘outstanding questions’ departmental poster to get staff & pupils to use these questions more regularly. Thanks again.


    Posted by Trudy | April 8, 2013, 4:02 pm
  8. Really liked this .


    Posted by anne.w | December 27, 2015, 6:29 am
  9. Reblogged this on No Easy Answers and commented:
    Great Lesson series by Tom Sherrington


    Posted by Rufus | August 18, 2016, 7:12 pm


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