Never ask pupils a question to which they have not already been told the answer.

Never ask pupils a question to which they have not already been told the answer, unless they know enough that answering the question requires them only inching forwards.

Years ago I wrote on questions and questioning, a seemingly important aspect of teaching.  For anyone interested, here:

28th May 2013

29th May 2013

16th June 2013

15th March 2014

Which is really all to say that despite the irreverence, three years on and the question of questions hasn’t disappeared.

At this point, I would say they are a vitally important part of teaching.  During my training I was told that they were a vitally important part of teaching.  So where did it all go wrong?  Our understanding of the role of questions is flawed.

Consider the following two views:

1 – “Never ask pupils a question to which they have not already been told the answer.”


2 – “Use questions to ‘move pupils’ thinking forward,’ or to give them a chance to ‘apply what they have learned.'”

The current status quo is focused on Point 2, but does it badly, leading to bad results.

Point 1 is immunisation from questions such as:

“What do you think we mean by Globalisation?”

A question I’ve seen posed to a Y12 BTEC class.


“What is a revolution? What revolutions have you heard of? What might be the key features of a revolution?”

Posed to a Y9 class *before* being taught anything about revolutions.

These are both highly typical, but terrible sets of questions.  I’ve discussed them with teachers, and can say that people really, really think that these are appropriate questions to use in educating.

They stem from the view that we need to ‘explore what pupils know,’ or that pupil voice matters. It’s true that prior knowledge is the greatest indicator of future success, and that pupil voice in a lesson can be important, but these kinds of questions:

(a) aren’t the best way of evaluating prior knowledge *and*

(b) given the context it’s probably simpler and more efficient to assume no knowledge, and try simply to anticipate prior knowledge that might interfere with current understanding

With respect to (b), a good example of this for me was in learning about the Carnot Engine in Year 1 Thermodynamics. The lecturer didn’t quite set up the introduction well enough, so when she started talking about this hypothetical heat ‘engine,’ I struggled to dissociate it from the kinds of physical mechanical engines we’re already familiar with in everyday life, like in a car.


A Carnot Engine is absolutely *nothing* like this

So there *is* some important need to estimate the kinds of prior knowledge that might interfere with future conceptualisation, but, again, as in point (a) these kinds of questions are not the best way to do it (I’m not going to go into what is.)

Point 1 above is therefore powerful inoculation against this kind of sloppy thinking – if you’re going to ask pupils a question, make sure you’ve first taught them the answer.

Problem: following this line of reasoning, all Q&A becomes ‘factual regurgitation;’ to use less loaded language, there is no opportunity for pupils to try to generalise or apply what they’ve learnt to novel contexts – this would be a limited form of education.

So Point 2 above *is* necessary; the real question is how do we find the line of demarcation between when Point 1 is valid, and Point 2 becomes valid.

For this, variation theory in mathematics and ideas such as those from the Michel Thomas and Pimsleur language courses become a source of inspiration. These all rely on:

  1. Telling pupils explicit facts
  2. Asking them to recall those facts in response to questions
  3. Then carefully moving them on to something that hasn’t been previously taught
  4. But which is eminently within reach of their minds, given the new knowledge.


Michel Thomas

Voy‘ means ‘I am going,’ and ‘a‘ means ‘to.’

How would you say ‘I am going to?’ (Voy a)


If 2x + 5x = 7x, what is 2y + 5y equal to? What about 5x + 2x? 5x – 2x?

How do we apply this to modify the kinds of bad questions I noted at the top?

History example:

Do lots of work explaining what revolutions are. This can come in many forms, including teacher talk, reading, lists of key features, knowledge organisation, fact systems (see Engelmann), comparative case studies of situations that are and are not considered to have been revolutions.

In terms of questions, we now have two forms:

(1) Having studied the French revolution, ask pupils to explain what made it a ‘revolution’ (‘regurgitation of facts,’ or more precisely, responding to a question with the answer they’ve been taught – recall / testing effect)

Then later

(2) Give them something about the Russian revolution to read, and then ask whether is was a revolution or not. Or, the industrial revolution.

(I’m not saying these are great examples considering the structure and constraints of a real school curriculum and time in class, and my limitations as a history teacher!  I’m just using them in an attempt to exemplify the theory)

Globalisation example:

In this case, preempt in speaking to pupils that they have probably heard the word before, along with some of the things they *might* think it means; explain that there is much more to it and that it has some technical specification beyond how we use it in everyday speech; explain these features as above with revolutions; then go into questions around the fuzzy boundaries ‘Are these a feature of / or caused by Globalisation?’ ‘How will Globalisation impact on that other thing we previously learnt about?’ etc.  The challenge is in ensuring enough knowledge has been previously embedded that these don’t become questions that require ‘guessing,’ but rather require only a small leap in logic.

Perhaps this is a good summarisation:

Never ask pupils a question to which they have not already been told the answer, unless they know enough that answering the question requires them only inching forwards.

This is worlds apart from ‘guess what’s in my head,’ sprawling ‘what do you think,’ or ‘who knows how to do this and can tell everyone else, so I don’t have to’ style questions.

It’s hard.  Really hard, to do this and get it right.  The goal in variation theory and the language courses mentioned is not to ‘explore’ what students think about the language, but to help them connect prior knowledge to new knowledge in a novel context (whilst leveraging the retrieval effect.)

The goal is generalisation, transfer, flexible knowledge.  In these programmes, students should always be able to respond correctly to the questions based upon what they have been taught before, and getting that right is damned difficult; it places all of the responsibility for pupil success viscerally on the shoulders of the teaching.




About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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3 Responses to Never ask pupils a question to which they have not already been told the answer.

  1. Really interesting, Kris.

    What do you think of the following with number bonds:

    Option A
    1) Tell them e.g.:
    0 + 5 = 5
    1 + 4 = 5
    2 + 3 = 5
    3 + 2 = 5
    4 + 1 = 5
    5 + 0 = 5
    2) With the above facts visible, quiz them with 20Q in 1m of the form:
    _ + 4 = 5
    3 + _ = 5
    3) Remove the facts, and run a similar 20Q 1m quiz.
    4) Spaced repetition/quizzing and eventual interleaving once overlearning has occured in one domain.

    My thoughts – quick wins – they are thinking about recalling the facts so that gets remembered.


    Option B
    1) Tell them how to work it out i.e. that to answer the question 1 + _ = 5, you get out your 5 blocks in a rectangle and make a pile with 1 in it and check how much is left in the other pile? 4, yes, the answer is 4.

    2) Sit them down to struggle working out a load of the above.

    My thoughts – slow wins – they are thinking hard about how to work it out – so they remember something about blocks, maybe they develop a visual number sense for 5 but don’t necessarily remember the abstract number facts..?

    Is there benefit to both tasks? Doing them in a particular order? If they’ve mastered option A, B will become obsolete because ‘I already know the answer, sir, these blocks are pointless’.
    But when they move onto number bonds to 6, the group that practiced option B may be able to work them out eventually using the ‘how to work it out’ method, the option A group will poop their pants because I haven’t told them the answers yet. What are your thoughts on balancing these two?

  2. chrismwparsons says:

    Is another word for this simply ‘implications’ (in an open-ended generative manner)? In other words, what are either the deductive consequences, or inductive posibilities of this? “Since we know that munchkins fear gremlins, and gremlins like to hang-out in forests, what are the implications of this?”

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