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Asking questions

Modern language teachers ask a lot of questions. What's the best way of doing it? The question is worth asking. It is fundamental to what we do. I was trained meticulously back in 1980 on how to ask selected and graded questions. We learned a hierarchy of questions from simple yes-no questions, through either-or, on to the toughest type of question, the open-ended question. This was good and I have continued to ask questions a good deal, though fewer than before as pair work has rightly gained ground.

I was reading the other day a section of a booklet about assessment for learning written by academics at King's College, London. In their section on questioning techniques, they cited research which showed that pupils attain more if you do not let them put up their hands to answer questions. You should choose who answers yourself, but maybe allow students to "phone a friend" if they are stuck, so as not to put too much pressure on them. Their rule of thumb was: only put up your hand to ASK a question. The argument goes that if you let kids put up their hands it will always be the same ones who answer and that it will be these students who make most progress whilst the quiet ones fall behind.

I guess we can all relate to that. But should we abandon "hands up" and go for just choosing students to answer questions? Now, I have often done that in the past for parts of a lesson because I know that some kids sit back and let others do the work, but should we do it all the time?

I have some doubts. We are told (and I tend to believe it) that children learn best in a supportive, unthreatening environment. Now, I don't know about you, but if I am in a classroom situation as a student, I feel a little fearful if I think the teacher could ask me something at any moment. I like time to reflect and maybe even switch off occasionally. On the other hand, maybe this is just a bit soft, and putting a little pressure on kids is a good thing. Maybe it keeps them focused, a bit on edge, more alert. Instant response in language learning is rather important after all.

Maybe next term we'll do a little departmental experiment on this. We could choose a class (maybe Y8 or Y9) and try the "no hands up unless it's a question" approach for a limited period to see how it goes. If managed sensitively it might be productive.

My guess is that I shall conclude that "hands up" is generally alright, but that more frequent sessions of "picking on students" would be productive.


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