Brilliant questioning sequences: some examples from the field.

I’ve written a lot about questioning techniques because it’s such an important element of responsive teaching in most contexts.

I’m always interested in how teachers weave techniques together in a sequences responsively…. making in-the-moment decisions that flow from students’ responses. During my work with schools I’ve had the privilege to observe some absolutely superb examples of questioning in lessons that illustrate the power of the techniques. In this post I’m going to describe five examples from the last year or so. Each sequence shared some common features:

  • All the students were involved, expecting to answer; required to think
  • The teacher was explicitly evaluating answers, ready to re-teach and address errors or misconceptions
  • The teacher was explicitly seeking to build confidence, supporting students to give good answers
  • The teacher was blending the need to involve all students with manageable sampling of responses, never assuming one student’s answer was representative or immediately heard and understood by everyone else.
  • The spirit of the exchange supported the least confident students to participate as well as allowing more confident students to feel stretched.

Whiteboards + Cold Calling in Y9 Maths

In this lesson – (in a school where all students have their own A4 whiteboard as standard equipment) – students were using whiteboards to sketch regions defined by inequalities. The question in hand was to sketch the region defined by x < 6 on an x-y graph with four quadrants. The teacher followed the technique to a tee . Thinking time was given then a crisp 3,2,1 and Show Me! Students held boards up. The teacher identified that several had made the same error. He took two examples from the students and help them up for all to see. Both had sketched the region from the x = 0 (y axis) to x = 6 (dotted line was correct).

He then instigated a cold calling routine: Ok, have a think…. what is wrong with these sketches? Students had time to think and then different students were invited to share their thoughts. Three different students offered ideas but none of those called could spot the issue – often focusing on spurious issues with the quality of the shading or side issues like the labels on the axis. So the teacher followed in with a ‘hands up for ideas’.. Does anything think they can see the fundamental problem? One student raised a hand and explained that the shading should extend into the negative x region, not be confined by x = 0.

This excellent response was then expanded on by the teacher with a good illustration and a further example of the same type. Students were then given another opportunity to try again and consolidate. The sequence worked well because a) it revealed the extent of the misunderstanding – both in the whiteboard ‘show me’ and in the cold calling. The ‘hands up’ allowed a student who did know to share their knowledge without it masking the others’ lack of knowledge of this specific point.

Think Pair Share/ Cold Call /Hands up for Ideas in Y7 English nurture

In this lesson, students had read a story about some characters travelling from Rome into an enchanted forest. They were asked to explore the effect of the setting on the narrative. The concept ‘effect of the setting’ was the core learning point with this story as the vehicle. The teacher initiated a Think Pair Share routine with a task to identify three different features of the enchanted forest that created an effect that influenced the characters and the narrative. Making it three things set nicely achievable parameters for the process that pushed students beyond being happy with just one and then stopping.

The task was set and the teacher asked a student to check back what she’d asked them to do.. a good routine to follow. She clarified that it was the forest, not the city, that they should focus on. Then she asked them to think silently for 30 seconds… time to start generating their own ideas. When 30 seconds was up she said… And Share,,, placing her hands together in a nice ‘come together’ gesture. This was students’ cue to turn to their talk partner – a routine well established in advance. They shared their three ideas with each other in a lovely throng of verbal exchanges. Meanwhile the teacher circulated to attend to some of the least confident students to hear their ideas.

Finally, the teacher called them to attention and went through a cold call routine, asking specific named students to share their ideas with a simple, safe… ‘So, Michael, what did you come up with?’ or ‘Jessica, share three of your ideas’. She took pains to elicit at least three ideas – not just one or two – honouring the task that was set. In order to support students to engage, the shared ideas were written up on a large board for all to see – avoiding the ephemeral transience of words just being floated verbally. Adding to the mix of cold call responses, the teacher invited one of the less confident SEND students to share his ideas. He was with a TA who had flagged that he was up for it. ‘James, you had a lovely idea, what effect did you come up with’.. and James shared his idea, beaming, knowing it was a good one.

Finally, sensing that there was more to come that hadn’t yet been explored, the teacher asked..’Does anyone have some other ideas we haven’t heard yet?’ A girl, Ruby, sitting at the back put up her hand and gave a lovely alternative idea about the forest’s effect… more sophisticated than the previous ideas. If this step had been missed, we would not have heard Ruby’s ideas. So.. the combination was excellent: everyone was involved, ready to share and students at both ends of the confidence range had an opportunity to contribute without impeding the others in any way.

Whiteboard + Pair-Share in Y8 Maths

This combination was used by an ECT. She had placed four expressions on the board involving combinations of operations and brackets and an answer. They were labelled A, B, C, D and students were told that, according to the BIDMAS protocol, only one was correct. She used a good Show Me whiteboard routine, with students asked to select which was correct. Students each wrote down a letter and, on cue, held up their boards. The teacher scanned responses and then did a very clever thing; they didn’t tell them the correct answer – she told them most people had put either B or C. ‘Now’, she said, ‘turn to your partner and see if you can agree which one is correct’. This then led to the Pair Share. (The ‘think’ had already been covered in their solo whiteboard work.)

The pairs of students explored which was correct and why with lots of good discussions about the order of operations. Then, on cue, students were asked to stop talking and to place their agreed answer on their boards one more time. This time nearly all of them had the correct answer, B. The teacher then probed via cold calling, asking some individuals to explain their thinking including where they had changed their mind. It was all done in just a few minutes but gave every individual student the opportunity to rehearse their thinking as well as giving the teacher a good idea of how successful they were all being.

Think-Pair-Share + Scaffolds for Dialogue in Year 5

Overcrowding on the Snowdon climb

In this example, the focus was preparation for writing a balanced argument about charging people to climb Snowdon – with a picture like this as a stimulus. Students were asked to think of arguments for and against, using knowledge about erosion of paths, habitat destruction and so on. The teacher used Think, Pair, Share. First, individually, students had to come up with three reasons why charging was a good idea. Then, on cue, students were asked to turn to their partner and to agree their three strongest reasons. The class was buzzing with detailed exchanges. When called together the teacher pointed to a scaffold for a structure they’d previously explored: Firstly, secondly and finally.

When cold called to share their responses, students were encouraged to list them using the structure. Firstly, we thought X; secondly, it’s a good idea because Y.. and finally, we thought Z. It all worked so well, linking prep for writing with the sharing of ideas and knowledge. In some subsequent cold calls, students were asked to only add ideas that hadn’t been heard so that they had to listen to each other. Others were asked which of their three were the most important, as a probing follow-up.

In a parallel class I observed the same exact lesson but, here the scaffold was ‘on one hand, whereas on the other hand’ and the pairs had to come up with two opposing arguments, preparing to share them with that structure. On one hand we thought it’s a good idea because X, whereas on the other hand, it’s not a good idea because Y… These structural scaffolds helped students to frame and formalise their responses ahead of a writing task.

Cold-Call to check for Understanding in Year 2.

My final example comes from a lovely Year 2 class where cold calling was firmly embedded and normalised as children sat on the carpet for story time. The expectation had been established that the teacher would read a passage and from time to time stop to check that people were listening, following, engaged. He read a section and then paused. Ok, let’s see.. Jamie, would you summarise for us.. what’s happened in the story so far?. Jamie gave his summary, showing he’d been following. Jamie was ready because this was a routine they’d established – anyone, at any time, might be asked to summarise. The teacher reinforced key elements and filled in some gaps and then they moved on, every child listening intently.

At other times, he would say.. Ok then,… so, what do we think is going to happen next.?….pause. Nobody raised a hand; they were all thinking, ready to answer. Then the teacher selected.. Shafiq – what do you think? Shafiq made his suggestion. And why do you think that? – the teacher probed. And Alicia, what do you think? … And so on. The fact that anyone might be asked, in a low key way was a great example of inclusive cold calling; it kept students focused and interested .. and included, in a low-threat manner.

What these examples illustrate to me is how important it is for teachers to understand the rationale for techniques and to have good routines to deploy them responsively. There’s a broad zoomed out set of possible techniques in a repertoire and there’s a zoomed in understanding of the specific steps that make each technique really work well. In each of these five examples the teacher was intentionally using each technique but it was the way they linked them all up responsively that made them work so well. Each example shows how it’s possible to engage everyone in thinking and talking in an inclusive manner, gaining feedback from the class about their understanding in order to decide on the next steps of the instructional process.

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