We all know the value of effective questioning, but should it be the students rather than the teacher doing a bit more of the asking? After reading about Question Formulation Technique (getting students to think of their own questions rather than just answering mine) a few weeks ago I was really keen to give it a whirl.

Tait Cole

However, Dylan Wiliam’s SSAT 2010 keynote is still ringing in my ears: we (teachers) should not waste time on self indulgent gimmicks if it causes us to move away from AfL and other proven high impact teaching & learning strategies. I’m not aware of any research on QTF and Prof Hattie hasn’t commented directly but does give an effect size of 0.74 to seemingly similar reciprocal teaching so probably worth a punt.

So, with caution as my watch word, I started thinking about how QFT could complement the way I teach and the way I want my students to learn. As I type, I realise that some may take issue with that last statement so let me expand. Whilst I’m not interested in Learning Styles and feel convinced that their educational value has been sufficiently debunked to safely ignore (Admittedly, there is much ongoing debate which you can read about here and here.), I am, however, keenly interested in the attitude to learning exhibited by my students and am aware that the preference of many is spoon feeding. This is not a habit I want to encourage.

What I want is students who have the confidence to learn independently, take risks and who see failure as an opportunity for further growth and development. Getting students to ask questions would seem to slot in well.

Back to QTF. I decided to plan a lesson on characterisation in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men which focussed on developing students’ ability to come up with ‘good’ questions. I taught the novel many many times before and am constantly in danger of falling into lecture mode and deluding myself into thinking that my charges will learn best if only they sit and listen to my shining pearls of wisdom. They don’t. So, instead of simply reading aloud in class and then doing some comprehension exercise and indulging in a spot of leacher lead discussion (don’t laugh: I really have done this and not that long ago either!) I been looking at ways of ‘flipping’ the classroom so that they do all the reading and quite a lot of thinking at home and on our class blog, freeing up lesson time for active, collaborative activities with lots of AfL opportunities to check everyone is on course.

I planned to get the class to undertake one of their speaking & listening assessments role playing the development of characters’ relationships in chapter 3 – that’s the dog-shooting, hand-crushing bit. The first part of the plan was to arrange the class into ‘home’ groups and share details about the end product.

From there, they moved into ‘expert’ groups: one for each of the 5 main characters and came up with as many questions as possible about their character on some big paper (I love big paper! This is probably self indulgent but, I think, harmless) without criticism, quality control or discussion.

They then had to sort their questions into categories and think about the characteristics of ‘good’ questions. I gave them a bit of direction here and suggested they think about open/closed and factual/conceptual questions. I had thought that they might find this tricky but was pleased to find myself proved wrong yet again.

The transition between steps 2 and 3 seemed to occur almost seamlessly as categorising lead them naturally into making decisions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ questions. Each group arrived at their three ‘best’ questions quickly and were eager to share with other groups.

I’m not sure I handled step 4 properly: I was unable to resist some whole class discussion of what made the best questions. Obviously, this meant that everyone had an idea about what everyone else had been up to but it did slow the lesson down and probably wasted some valuable learning time. I’ll post some photos of some of the questions on Monday.

Finally, we reshuffled back into home groups and got on with planning for the speaking and listening assessment. When we came to review the learning and consider the advantages of asking rather than answering question, I was delighted to hear comments like:

“It makes you think deeper…”

“I had to consider more things than usual.”

“We didn’t waste time writing answers.”

Was it worth it? We’ll have to wait until next week and consider the quality of their role plays. Anecdotally, I’m sure that this was a far better way for them to engage with Steinbeck’s characters than simply reading about them and then having a discussion. Was the impact worth the effort? Well, that’s Dylan Wiliam’s magic question. My answer is that it really didn’t take much planning; the students did all the work and I got to wander round encouraging; occasionally redirecting; having quality learning conversations about my observations and generally slapping myself on the back that everyone was so engaged.

Here’s my lesson in PPT form:

Here are some pics of the questions they created:

Thanks Punk Learning for pointing me in an interesting direction.