Category Archives: Effective Questioning

Die Hard…Or Not At All

Die Hard…Or Not At All

We have both lived in our small home town for 12  years. There is one route through the centre. After the first 3 years, the local council changed the road markings at a junction. You no longer had to make a right turn in order to exit the town, you just had to continue. You still drove on exactly the same roads but there was no longer a need to signal.

However, despite the fact that this change was made 9 years ago, both of us automatically signal a right turn as we approach the former junction...unless we make a conscious effort not to do so. We are not the only ones. I frequently follow drivers who signal needlessly at this junction and a knowing smile of empathy appears on my face. Old habits die hard…or, in this case, not at all.

The original pattern of neural pathways that must be triggered when approaching this junction seems deeply and irreversibly ingrained.  The flow of neural information needs to be consciously re-routed each time. This got me thinking about pedagogy, (sad but true), particularly ‘effective questioning’. Read on…

Image 1 - Version 2There is a place for ‘lower-order’ recall questions but I have been in many classrooms and settings where they are the only type of question posed to learners. Sometimes, it is just a straightforward ‘Who was Henry VIII’s second wife?’.

Sometimes, it’s the ‘finish my sentence’ variety, ‘…and the day after Tuesday is…is….hands up…anyone?’’

Then there is the ‘guess what’s in my head’ question – a recall disguised as a higher-order question – ‘How can we use Pythagoras’s Theorem in real life?…C’mon…you should know the answer…I told you last week!

Encouraging learners to engage in higher-order thinking, beyond recall, requires ‘thoughtful’ questioning from the practitioner. Of course, many of you reading this may have attended courses on ‘Effective Questioning’, ‘Higher-Order Thinking Skills’, ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ and ‘Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy’! You may have walked away with handouts of ‘levels’, ‘question starters’, etc. etc. You may even have walked away with inspiration and good intentions!

Despite the best efforts of your course presenter/trainer, it is unlikely that you walked away with a new, deeply-ingrained pattern of neural connections – unless, of course, your trainer was Derren Brown! Your automatic, habitual style of questioning is probably deeply and irreversibly(?) engrained. Effective questioning, one of the pillars of formative assessment, may not come naturally to you. Eek! What to do?

Speaking personally, I was educated and ‘trained’ in the traditional recall style. This was the pattern that I heard from my teachers and to which I responded. It is no effort for me to emulate them and think of recall questions. However, when I started to think about how I could engage my learners with ‘better’ questions, I found myself quite challenged. It was not as easy as simply following a ‘starter’ pattern listed on a handout. But, like most skills, the more I practised and experimented with formulating ‘thinking’ questions, the more comfortable I became with the process…and the results.

However, I can still slip into the habit of closed answer or recall questions, especially in a potentially stressful situation. The old neural patterns kick in and I have to consciously over-ride them.

Many moons ago, after attending a ‘thinking skills’ course, I scoffed at the idea of preparing questions in advance of a lesson, believing that any educator worth their salt would be able to create questions as needed. Since then, I’ve reassessed that view. I have always invested time and effort into preparing physical resources. Effective questions are a powerful resource. It seems strange to me now that I baulked at the idea of preparing questions to deeply engage learners with their learning. I can forgive myself because it was not part of my original training as an educator and thankfully, experience has been a wise and challenging mentor.

The good news is that by putting in the effort to design effective questions we are engaging and exercising our own grey matter in higher-order thinking activities…and I like it when educators actually model the skills they want to develop in their learners, instead of blindly following a commercially produced script. They call it integrity…I think. 🙂

OK. So, old habits die hard (…or not at all) because we may be up against forces at a molecular biology level – myelination and the like! That is forgivable. Knowlingly condemning learners to day after day of ‘Guess what’s in my head?’ is not. I echo this sentiment for every aspect of education where educators resist developing their own pedagogy because they believe they are ‘too set in their ways’. If we are are in the business of learning we need to be model learners…and sometimes we need to unlearn…and sometimes that can be tough…but in the words of John McLane “Yippee-ki-yay [ inset plural noun of your choice ]..!

For those of you who like/need to know this stuff…

*The image used  is a portion Sylvester (The 7th Doctor) McCoy’s costume from The ‘Dr Who Experience’, Cardiff.

** ‘Yippee-ki-yay + expletive’ is the character John McLane’s catchphrase, in the ‘Die Hard’ movies…when he leaps into action and violently destroys the bad guys/gals.

 

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Good Afternoon (Two Days in Stirling Part Four)

Single Steps Learning's Stirling Adventure

Re-caffeinated, and accompanied by the sound of screeching of brakes, we arrive at Riverside Nursery. It’s great to see Jackie Elliot and Lorna McAllister again (we are late but they are smiling!). We are excited to be here. We have already seen the ‘Documentation’ (annotated and pictorial record of learning) and we have been invited to observe the children collaborating in order to solve a problem. 

They receive a phone call from ‘The Zoo’. One of the animals has escaped! Can they help return the animal (represented by a soft toy), negotiating a series of obstacles…and without direct ‘hand’ contact. 

There is an assortment of resources that the children could use. They are immediately engaged by the scenario and ideas are flowing freely. Resources are chosen and one group settles on using some ‘tools’ to lift the animal into a carrier bag. Using a combination of readily available classroom materials, the children successfully cross a ‘river’ and a ‘swamp’. There is much celebration followed by a ‘debrief’ in which the children reflect on how they solved the problem and interacted with each other. 

Debrief with nursery children sounds a bit ominous and formal but it is a brief reflection and exploration of their learning. Unfortunately, we have seen, in a discussion forum of a national publication, disparaging and mocking comments about asking Early Years children to reflect on their learning. But isn’t this what ‘good’ parents do naturally – question, discuss, show interest and value the thoughts of their offspring? So why would we do anything less? The perception that the educator’s role is to fill empty heads with important stuff is still one of the biggest barriers to effective learning – but not in Riverside Nursery!

The careful questioning we observed, guided the children’s thinking and enabled them to ‘crystallise’ their experience into something tangible. There will, of course, be different learning outcomes for different children – some will be able to articulate reasoning, some may only be able to recall events and feelings and yes, some may not be ready to engage fully. However, taking part in the ‘ritual’ of valuing experiences has to begin somewhere – do we wait until children formally understand all the concepts of a birthday celebration before we allow them to take part in the ‘rituals’? No, we don’t.

We then have our own ‘debrief’ with Jackie and Lorna, who are modelling high quality learning themselves, using collaborative tools and strategies to develop reflective practice within their setting. Thank you both!

We leave the nursery building at a respectful walking pace, run to the car, then back to Bannockburn and Park Drive Nursery. The ‘Drive’ was easy…the ‘Park’ was more difficult. We arrive just as children are being collected…not a parking space to be seen…

Eventually, we meet with Jackie Dupont, discard our coats and bags and have a tour of the setting. We are delighted to meet Sharron McIntosh again and see how she has been visibly recording the children’s ideas for developing their learning. There are some wonderful questions about animals – ‘Can a giraffe fit in a house?’, ‘Why does the farmer put ‘jobbies’ on the field?’

We are thankful for some refreshments and settle down for a chat with Jackie, Sharron and Head of Nursery, Joan Gillanders. Our informal chat turns into an exciting and productive brainstorming/planning session. The minutes fly by and it is time to leave. Thanks to you all for the invitation and the welcome.

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