Should we use questions to teach? – Part 2

Yesterday I kicked off a lengthy post on questioning.  Today I conclude it.

What we have up to now is an amorphous outpouring of thoughts on questions; time to put some structure on it.  What if we say that questions can be either open or closed, and they can be used either to teach, or to assess.





Do you know what, by the end of all this only one thing is clear to me: questioning is perhaps the most complicated component of all teaching practice.  Anyone care to agree, disagree?

So, trying to keep this simple, let’s look quickly at assessment.  Should questions be used for assessment?  …obviously.  How to design questions so as to effectively assess precisely what you are looking for is an interesting field of study, but inarguably, questions are needed for assessment.

Should they be used for teaching then?  Well, here is where it seems to get extremely murky.  It boils down to this: should I tell a student something, or should I ask them a question?


Explain something directly, or pose a question?

As with understanding and thinking, I would suggest that there is a risky, perhaps dare I even say ‘blunt’ obsession with questioning in this regard, as if to suggest that questions 90-100% of the time are the way to go, that they are necessarily better.  I should probably note that this is the ‘institutional sense’ that I get; I can already hear scores of experienced teachers saying that of course it’s nonsense to suggest there’s no place for good explanations, but then, why do I keep seeing so many training sessions given over to ‘effective use of questioning,’ yet have never once in ITT or CPD, or in any standard text book on teaching, seen a focus on ‘effective use of explanations?’  In the textbook I was given there’s a single page on explanations, and then a checklist that I have never found useful.  By comparison the post I read this morning by Hunting English on explanations was superb.

Either way, I don’t think it is the case that ‘questions are better than explanations,’ though I did note that I sometimes switch to questions when I feel the need to promote understanding.  Is this because they are better for promoting understanding, though, or are they the alternative after ‘telling’ has failed?  Then, when is it appropriate to teach via questions, just as I did in the case of expanding brackets?

I think where I’m concerned is that again there appears a headstrong hurtle towards questions as ‘good incarnate’, open questions all the more.  I wouldn’t mind, except those doing the talking rarely get into the ‘why’ they are apparently so great.  Beyond some vague tip of the hat to ‘building higher order thinking skills,’ I haven’t yet had a conversation with anyone about questioning, or heard a person extol the virtues of questions in teaching, where I thought that person just really gets it, and everything they’re saying makes pristinely clear sense.  I’ve never felt inspired by anyone talking about questions, or felt they were on to something great that was going to change everything.  The closest I came to this feeling was before having any actual teaching experience, when shown the many and varied interesting maths problems or questions that can be posed to students, I was excited and eager to introduce young minds to these clever ways of thinking about mathematical ideas.  Then, with experience, I later realised how dangerous those questions are when wielded inexpertly, in other words, while they have a place, they are not ‘good incarnate.’


What are the costs?

Another problem I encounter with those extoling the many virtues of questioning is that I’ve yet to hear a single person utter even one of their costs, and they have many costs.  Teaching to me often seems a relentless cost-benefit analysis.  No silver bullets, just manifold options whose relative costs and benefits shift and change like sands on the wind.  So why is no-one talking about the costs of asking questions?  For example they are time consuming, as noted above.  They can also cause confusion rather than elicit elucidation.  They hold the potential to feel interrogative at times.  Only one person gets to be involved in responding to a particular question as well, though there of course are several effective classroom tricks that attempt to overcome this cost.

So I want to get to the heart of why questions are good, and perhaps more importantly, when they are good.  But ‘good’ is a vague term, and there’s already been so much vagueness.  I want to know when questions are specifically better than telling, for communicating an idea.

One answer oft overlooked, I suspect, is that questions allow time to think.  Thinking is good, I just want to reiterate that.  When I hear talk of the importance of questions, and how they promote thinking… it never feels as though the speaker completely knows or understands how this is so.  Typically the speaker is of a non-maths background, and typically they will say that questions can cause students to think about things differently, or in new ways… and yeah, this is sorta true, I get that, but how, exactly?  When?  Why?  Where’s the structure to all this, or are we back to a ‘questions at all costs’ mentality.


Questions ensure thinking time

Time, alternatively, I think is almost inarguably valuable.  If I talk a student through the steps, ‘A, then B, then C, see?’  Perhaps I go too fast.  If I pause and make sure they understand at each step, then I give them time to think, and we’re more likely to be successful.  Would questions add anything, other than guaranteeing the pace was set to precisely what the student needed?  I cannot go on to Step B, until they’ve answered the question that resolves Step A, until they’ve had time to think about it. Though, that same time could have been proffered without the question.

Perhaps it could prime a student to be thinking about precisely the right thing; I very often ask rhetorical questions even when I’m expositing, questions to which I want no answer from the students, but in asking them I feel like I’m priming all our minds to think about whatever comes next.

Otherwise, responses to questions certainly offer feedback, to judge whether students are on track.  Is that always practical in a class of 30?  Without mini-whiteboards or multi-choice questions, can I always get feedback from 100% of the class?  Does asking a single student benefit everyone?  Cold calling is of course supposed to address this concern.

I feel like I’m still not all there in wrapping my head around questioning.  My 2 x 2 structure earlier, while succinct, did little to get at the heart of the matter.  In the end it becomes as vague as the instructor insisting that ‘more open questions be asked,’ because ‘they’re better.’  Struggling to get to any kind of point, I sent an early draft of this post to @Redorgreenpen, who came back to me at 7 in the morning with something rather brilliant.  She had read through my post in the early morning, sifted through my mad ramblings and demarcated the various question types into a very useful and structured grid, adding in examples of her own as well.  I’ve produced an electronic version, which can be found here:

Redorgreen - Question Spectrum

 Redorgreen – Question Spectrum

In training, as I noted I feel like advice tended to be as stretching as ‘use more open questions,’ or perhaps more precisely ‘how to use more open questions,’ as though we’ve all agreed already that open questions good, closed questions bad.  It’s about as useful as my fairly limited 2 x 2 matrix above.  There are maybe some practical tricks like ‘pose, pause, bounce’ etc. but these have little to do with the nature of questions and when/where they’re useful.  What Redorgreen attempted here was to set out all the different reasons for asking questions – in maths – when they are useful and why.  While this probably still isn’t MECE, damn it’s a hell of a start!  I think we can forgive any omissions for now given the early morning wakeup.  It might be a nice little Internet project actually, to see if we can nail this thing, if others feel they could add to it – we’d be looking for 100% exhaustive range of reasons for asking questions, with no overlap, that’s the dream anyway, if it’s possible.

I strongly suspect it would be different between subjects, so subject specific rubrics would be the way to go.

At the end of all this, what do I conclude?  On the whole, I don’t view questions per se as the epitome of effective teaching.  Thought, is what matters, and then understanding, be it in the form of inflexible, or flexible knowledge (surface or deep understanding).  Questions are a tool that we can deploy to aid thinking in the following two ways:

  1. Prime the mind
  2. Provide time

That’s surely a reductionist view of questioning, but is it such a bad one to start with?  The Redorgreen matrix is a complex thing to get your head around, until you’ve internalised the art of questioning.  Or, perhaps it’s the case that these are the occasions where a question may not be needed.  If it’s time and clear thinking you’re after, perhaps just a better explanation will do.  If you need something more, like clear feedback from students, or something else noted in Redorgreen’s matrix, then perhaps that’s when a question is essential.

Though feedback is an obvious benefit, I would argue that fits under the category of assessment, and not teaching – as in, the transmission of knowledge from the expert teacher to the student learner.  I suppose there are other benefits such as establishing curiosity, and the game certainly does change again when we switch from talking about teaching something fundamental such as expanding brackets, to teaching students how to ask the right questions themselves to solve a complex problem!  I also find my mind constantly flitting as I write this between picturing ‘teaching’ in terms of being at the front by the board in front of a class of thirty, and being knelt beside one or two students still struggling to wrap their heads around what I previously explained.


Another powerful tool, to be handled with care

I conclude this then: questions can be very effective tools of teaching, but they must be used with incredible care.  Their utility in a classroom is ferociously complex; a simplistic approach of ‘questions are good’ just won’t do.  Assuming ‘questioning’ is always better than ‘telling’ is not suitable.

I thought this would be a short post on questioning.  When I started I had in mind the younger me who thought it was bad to ever tell a child anything, and wanted to talk about how I’d learned this wasn’t the case, and questions were not always the answer.  Along the way, though, I’ve come to realise how much I make use of questions, and how complex the judgements are that I undertake when choosing to ask questions.  I’m a fan of making everything as simple for students as possible, rather than making it more complicated.  I would have said that explaining things as clearly as possible keeps them simple, and yet here I’ve once noted a time when switching to questioning arguably made the ‘explanation’ more simple!

Clearly this isn’t over.  I don’t know if anyone else feels they have all the answers regarding questions and would like to put them forward, but for my part I’m done for now, and I can see this is going to end up as a future project.

For now let me sign off by reiterating at least my earlier point – in the face of so great a push towards questioning, and open questions and whatnot, let us please not lose sight of why we question, why it’s useful, when it’s useful, and most importantly, when it’s not.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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12 Responses to Should we use questions to teach? – Part 2

  1. ChemistryPoet says:

    Maybe the fact that you appear to be so befuddled by the tensions that have been setup around ‘questions’ tells its own story? Maybe you are being unshackled from dogma and starting to explore what can be effective for you (and the students you teach) at this point in your development as a teacher, and their development as students? On the face of it, it would appear strange for anyone to assert that only exposition can be effective, or that only open questions can be effective – but, of course, such assertions are made. I think it is highly likely that a range of approaches can be effective, and a mix of different approaches. Questioning is one of the tools that can be used. There are no simple answers, I think.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Two things we should consider when evaluating the importance of questioning:
    1) The process of think and answer questions make us ‘smarter’ – I’m not 100% sure of the research on this but Dylan Wiliam talks about it as the reasoning behind ‘no hands up’: if we allow students not to answer questions we permit them not to become more intelligent.
    2) Rober Bjork (professor of cognitive psychology) says that questions are a crucial ‘desirable difficulty’ which teachers must use if they want to value long term retention and transfer of knowledge over short term gains in performance. Here he is talking about this:

    Many thanks for such a thought provoking post.

    • krisboulton says:

      Thanks for the link David. He says a lot of my favourite buzz words: Inerleaving, Spacing, Variability, Multiple Contexts and so forth.

      Much of what he says I wholeheartedly agree with, and it’s always nice to hear another voice telling you you’ve got it right. There were a couple of parts where I either wasn’t sure what his point was exactly, or where I felt less convinced. Will give it further thought though.

  3. Great post – thank you! I completely agree that questions are not per se “good”, that there’s a spectrum and the teacher’s role is to manage them. For what it’s worth, thinking about your when question, the two key times questions work for me in lessons are a) at the start. (I think all learning starts with questions) and b) when students think they really know something (I think humility is a great thinking tool. e.g. Asking kids “How do you multiply?”, getting the confident “we do it like this” response, and then showing them this – – and explaining I only discovered it recently too seems to work)

  4. Very good post, thanks for this. I’ll throw in my two (or more) cents here because I think this a very important issue to be discussed.
    “I strongly suspect it would be different between subjects, so subject specific rubrics would be the way to go.”

    I think this really needs to be emphasised. Much as we as professionals would not be keen on admitting it, we use our own educational experience as one of the key determinants in how we teach, at least the ones we found to be successful. This heuristic is probably informed by what we perceive as being the pinnacle of our education – university. There is a wide and increasing gap between the approach of the humanities and STEM teaching, and though each is undoubtedly correct in terms of the course, they often don’t fare so well when we try to apply them across to another subject area. Scientists stare blankly when told that lectures don’t work since in our narrative they clearly do – not only are we the result of those lectures so largely are the scientific advances around us. The humanities often have a contrasting style are more used to the open, seminar based inquiry which also works absolutely not only for the teacher who came through that system but also for the wealth of creativity that has come from this approach. The drive to find the unifying approach has not been helpful and is becoming actively damaging in some cases. I have supported many teachers where the main problem has been identified as ‘doing too much talking’, but I strongly suspect that some of those views have come directly from a constructivist approach that assumes that any direct telling is incorrect. People’s careers and livelihoods are resting on unchallenged heuristics being blankly applied.
    I’m sure this will put some people’s noses out of joint but some ways of knowing are preferred to others in some situations and STEM is one of those times. There is going to be a degree of ‘telling’ – throughout your two posts I got a sense of doubt that what you were doing was either correct or allowable, yet everything you wrote was simply good teaching, applying experience of when and how to question. The fact that people are questioning (no pun intended) their own teaching to make it fit into a method suited to another subject grinds my gears no end. STEM and maths in particular holds an odd place in the curriculum because there are strong, negative emotional responses to maths for some people and science in general will tend to challenge people’s narratives about the world, again provoking an emotional response. Yet the idea that these emotional responses come from a close-minded approach, rote learning or some kind of mechanistic (lock-step and factories are usually mentioned at this point) is gibberish of the highest order and should be challenged. There is no bifurcation here; it is not either or but subject differences should absolutely be recognised.
    I would also suggest that the temporal factor you touched on is also conveniently ignored when questioning is considered. There is always the tension between learning and covering the content. I would be wrong to spend too many lessons on one concept at ‘A’ level since there is an absolute limit imposed – to gain entry to university courses you have to gain a certain number of points. I cannot afford to not cover a crowded syllabus. I’m well aware of the benefits of a deep understanding of a subject but how many students will get on the course they want unless they have the grades? It sounds terribly reductive but there it is – you don’t get the result you don’t get on the STEM course. I would be wrong to risk a student’s education on this. I may be wrong, but I need to see evidence before I change my mind, not hand waving; there is simply too much at risk.
    Yeah, started a rant and angried up the blood…anyway, good post again, good link to Hunting English too.

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