Don’t Ask Questions (Well, Not the Usual Way)

“The Right Questions, The Right Way,” by Dylan Wiliam, Educational Leadership, March 2014

 The most familiar classroom routine needs changing.

It is perhaps the most familiar of all classroom routines: A teacher asks the class a question, several students raise their hands, the teacher selects one of those with a hand raised, the student gives a response, the teacher evaluates the student’s response, and the cycle begins again…. Yet just about every aspect of this scenario actually gets in the way of learning—and it doesn’t provide enough information on what most students in the class know and need to learn.

What’s Wrong with the Traditional Routine?

The fundamental flaw in the traditional questioning model is that it makes participation voluntary. Confident students engage by raising their hands…but others decline the invitation to participate and thus miss out on the chance to get smarter….

A second problem…is that even if a teacher chooses students at random, the teacher will only be assessing the understanding of [a few students]….

The third problem…is that teachers rarely plan the questions they use. When, as teachers, we ask questions and get the answers we were hoping for, we generally conclude that students’ learning is on track…when, in fact, their understanding of the subject is quite different from what we intend….

No Hands Up

The simplest way to improve classroom questioning is simply not to ask for volunteers, but instead to choose a student at random. Students raise their hands only to ask questions, not to answer them. Such a move is unpopular—teachers find it difficult to manage, students who used to raise their hands in response to every question can’t show off their knowledge, and [quiet] students…now have to pay attention. But in terms of small changes that can have big effects, “no hands up” may be the most significant thing a teacher can do….

Many teachers prefer to choose the student first, then ask the question. This is generally a bad idea…. As soon as students know who [has been chosen] all the other students can relax. It’s far better to ask the question first, give students time to think of a response, then pick a student at random.

The danger here is that the teacher will select a student for whom the question is too easy or too hard. There is certainly no point in asking a student a question the teacher knows the student cannot answer, but when teachers assume they know which students can answer and which cannot, they tend to produce self-fulfilling prophecies….

One way to make questions suitable for any student is to pose them in a way that allows students to engage with the question at a number of different levels.

For example, rather than asking students to answer a math question, the teacher could pose two questions of differing difficulty on the board and ask, “Which of these two questions is harder and why?” The ensuing discussion will raise all the important mathematical issues the teacher needs to cover, but the question has been posed in an inclusive way that enables more students to contribute, thus supporting differentiated instruction….

No Questions—Just Responses

It is particularly effective to forgo questions entirely and instead make statements to which students are expected to respond. Through follow-up, the teacher can deal with any misunderstanding…without “wrong-footing” students from the outset.

For example, rather than asking students in a world history class, “Which country was most to blame for the outbreak of World War I?”…the teacher might make the statement, “Russia was most to blame for the outbreak of World War I,” and expect students to react….

The whole idea that students should always answer teachers’ questions correctly is actually rather odd. If the students are answering every one of the teacher’s questions correctly, the teacher is surely wasting the students’ time. If the questions are not causing students to struggle and think, they are probably not worth asking. As I say to students, “Mistakes are evidence that the questions I asked are tough enough to make you smarter.” …

Dylan Wiliam is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is the author of Embedded Formative Assessment.,-The-Right-Way.aspx

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