Hands up who likes asking questions?

Questioning is an essential part of helping students to make progress but only if it causes thinking or elicits evidence that informs our teaching. And the thing with asking questions is that while there are some kids who know how to make the system work for them and actively participate in lessons because that they way they’ll learn more, there are those who don’t. Dylan Wiliam claims that the students who are sufficiently engaged to put up their hands and answer everything we ask them are “actually getting smarter. Their IQs actually go up.”

Now, I can’t vouch for the research on this but if it’s true, by allowing some students not to participate we’re making the achievement gap bigger. Not good.

Just in case you don’t already know how to suck eggs grandma, a solution to this is some sort of randomised name generator. You can go low tech by writing kids’ names onto lolly sticks á la Prof W, or you can experiment with various free web-based teaching tools like Triptico.

But the poor students’ problems aren’t over yet. Once we’ve got them to actually answer a question we rarely give them enough time to think. We’ve known for ages that if you allow more time for students to reply to your questions, more thoughtful answers will be proffered up in response. Typically we only allow 1 second for students to answer a question. With this kind of pressure it’s no wonder that 75% of students avoid risking potential humiliation. Ideally we should allows something in the region of 4 seconds thinking time if we want give students a real opportunity to consider and deliberate. Now that could be 4 seconds of tumbleweed or you could give the students the chance to discuss possible answers and maybe even jot a few possibilities down. Sometimes giving them a specific number of answers to come up with (5 is my favourite) means that when ask students for their answer they’ll have at least something to contribute.

But what sort of questions should we be asking? Questions like ‘What is alliteration?’ are just playing another dreary round of Guess What’s In The Teacher’s Head. And nobody ever learned much from that. No matter what you do, the best you can expect is for a random sample of students to tell you what they think you want to hear while everyone else zones out.

Now comes the point at which you’ll notice the razor sharp pun in the post title: hinge questions are a fascinating diagnostic tool which provide data on students’ understanding and allow you to make on the spot decisions about the direction of your teaching without wasting anybody’s time.

Now, I’m relatively new to these hinge thingys and feel I probably should have known about them ages ago. But, as with so many other things, I didn’t. A spot of internet research yielded disappointing results: there’s precious little out there and what there is takes a good bit tenacity to turn in to something readily understandable. Basically what I found was a couple of posts from the inimitable Darren Mead and a transcript of a Dylan Wiliam speech. Happily however, if your hinge questions are related to joinery then you’re in luck!

Here are my findings:

  • A hinge question is based on the important concept in a lesson that is critical for students to understand before you move on in the lesson.
  • The question should fall about midway during the lesson.
  • Every student must respond to the question within two minutes.
  • You must be able to collect and interpret the responses from all students in 30 seconds
  • You need to be clear on how many students you need to get the right answer in advance – 20-80% depending on how important the question is (thanks to Jason Buell for this).

This means you won’t have time to get kids to explain their answers. This feels unnatural for an English teacher – we always want to know why, but the point here is to check understanding, work out whether you need to recap or change direction and then get a move on.

To make this work you’ll need make the questions multiple choice and have access to an essential piece of English teaching kit: a set of mini whiteboards.

Here’s a couple of examples:


This second example highlights the importance of asking the right question. What would happen if instead the question was: Which of these is an example of personification? I’ll tell you what would happen: we’d end up bogged down in a teacher lead discussion in which everyone, except for the keeners are the front, is thoroughly bored.

A good hinge question needs a lot of careful planning but I’ve gotta tell you, I’m really impressed with the results. There’s no hiding with the mini white board there to expose every teensy misapprehension so that I can swoop, falcon-like, and restore the beatific smile of understanding to even the most perennially confused child.

Would love to hear of ways of using hinge questions: I’m sure there’s loads of you out there doing far more innovative things that I am.

And if you’re fed up with being the one doing all the asking, try this.