“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”


It’s a little tiresome, but I feel I must preface this by saying that these are just my thoughts. I’m not claiming anyone is wrong (or right for that matter) just that it always pays to question anything that passes as conventional wisdom.

And what could be more conventionally wise that the assumption that teachers need to commit time and resources to improving their ability to ask questions of their pupils? The research suggests that teachers, traditionally, aren’t that great at asking questions. We often answer our own questions; we give less than a second for pupils to answer questions; we accept incorrect answers, and then ask, ‘Did you mean…?’ and we allow pupils to avoid participating by accepting the answer ‘I don’t know.’ All this being the case, surely it’s imperative to spend time instructing teachers on how to question better?

As ever, I need to confess that the importance of questioning is something I’d unquestioningly accepted (Oh the irony!) It wasn’t until I read this and this from Kris Boulton that I really started to think about why questioning has come to be so fetishised a facet of teaching.

Here are three of the questions about questioning Kris poses:

  1. Could there be a cost to asking questions?
  2. Does answering questions lead to better understanding?
  3. What are the purpose of the questions we ask?

Here are some tentative attempts at answers:

1. Questioning is inefficient. It takes far longer to ask questions it does to just say something. In the normal run of events we only tend to ask questions to which we don’t already know the answer; we ask for information or clarification. But in the classroom, it’s considered both normal and desirable for teachers to ask questions to which they already know an answer, if not the answer. Why is this? Possibly it’s because we believe that by asking questions rather than just giving answers will make pupils think more deeply about the information we want them to learn.

Seeing that questioning is an inefficient way of communicating information, there must be an opportunity cost to all these questions we ask. If we just told pupils what they needed to know, would we be able to get on with something more useful? In order to answer this we need to consider whether asking questions is a better means of communicating concepts than simply explaining them. Because if it’s not, we’re wasting valuable time. Imagine what else we could be doing with this time. Could it possibly be the case that sometimes it’s preferable to just tell kids stuff?

2. This leads us to the idea that asking questions is better than ‘just telling’ because pupils will get a deeper understanding of an idea or concept. This sounds like one of those ideas that’s obviously true. How could it not be better for pupils to have a deep understanding? The theory suggests that if we interrogate pupils’ understanding by inducing cognitive conflict they are more likely to take ownership of what they’ve learned and therefore it will be more memorable. But is this actually true? Well, one consideration is that a clear and relevant explanation will be memorable. In our rush to get kids to understand, we can, at times, be guilty of failing to concentrate on making sure they remember what we’ve taught them. Clearly there’s no point in understanding something which you then forget, so it makes complete sense to make every effort not only that something is understood, but that it is also remembered.

3. Understanding why we are asking a question is pretty fundamental. Kris suggests that there are two main purposes for asking a questions in the classroom: to teach or to assess. I’m open to the idea that there might be more than just these two purposes, but I’m willing to bet that most other purposes are sub groups of ‘teaching’. If we want to assess what pupils know or can do, it’s probably most sensible to ask closed questions. But if we want to use questioning to teach we suppose that asking open questions which require pupils to think will always be a good thing. But one of the most provocative features of Kris’s posts is this table from @redorgreenpen:

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 19.48.49

This grid is a very useful tool for helping us think about whether the questions we’re asking are actually worth asking. The benefits to some of these purposes may not be worth the cost incurred by committing the time necessary to tease out what pupils think. If it’s right that we remember what we think about, then maybe questions have a useful part to play in prompting and provoking thought. but thinking depends on knowledge. There’s little point in trying to think about something you don’t know, so unless you’re sure pupils already know something worth thinking about, we might be better off not asking them what they think.

And we’re certainly better off not blithely telling teachers that it’s always preferable to ask questions. If we’re determined to commit time to training teachers on the art of questioning, maybe it might be more profitable to examine how effective questioning might differ across subjects. Is questioning different in maths, geography, art and PE? It might also pay us to pay a lot more attention to the content of questions instead of focusing on the methodology of how they’re asked. Maybe teachers could be asked to think about some of these questions:

  • What are the most interesting questions to ask about x?
  • When could you usefully avoid asking questions?
  • How much do pupils have to know about a subject before it’s worth asking them to think?
  • What would you have more time to do if you asked fewer questions?
  • When might it be better to ask closed/open questions?

Whatever you do, and whatever you decide to believe, please remember that what you do is irrelevant. It’s what your pupils do that matters. Just in case you’ve misinterpreted anything I’ve said as meaning “questioning is bad”, it doesn’t. I’ve got absolutely nothing against asking questions, I just think it always to question anything we believe as ‘obviously right’.

To conclude:

  • Asking questions is always good. The more awkward and problematic your questions are, the better.
  • ‘Questioning’ as a pillar of pedagogy is more troubling and we fetishise it at our peril.

Related posts

How effective learning hinges on good questioning
Questions that matter: method vs practice
Forget the answer, what’s the question?