“Questioning is a powerful tool”

Many teachers spend a substantial amount of their lesson time questioning students. These questions have many purposes: checking student understanding, challenging them to think more deeply and ensuring that they can express ideas articulately in speech – a helpful precursor to doing so on paper.

Well-used, questioning goes a long way to ensuring that students’ experiences match Professor Rob Coe’s stipulation: “Learning happens when people have to think hard.”  In the classroom of Susannah Meersand (Ambassador, West Midlands), her questioning stood out as demonstrating all three of these roles superbly.  As her mentor put it:  “She challenges her class.  Her use of questioning is amazing.  She literally interrogates pupils, which is brilliant.  It sounds bad, but it’s not.  Pupils are there to be interrogated, to get the best out of them, to know what they’re doing and what they understand and really to push them in their learning.”
Testing understanding and articulation
Susannah pushes her students to retain and deploy their knowledge of religions effectively.  No student gets away with a response which is only half thought-through or which employs a key term idly.  Instead, she challenges them to be absolutely clear in what they are saying and the terms they are using.  As her mentor puts it:  “I think we have to step up as teachers to really get them to explain, to think, and to challenge their thinking.  Susannah does that so well.  The moment they come up crossed with a point of view, she will want to explain it fully.  ‘What is the point of view?  Why do you think that?’”
Going deeper and wider
Susannah’s questions often encourage students to link different pieces of knowledge and go deeper than they would do instinctively.  As she puts it:  “Students plan to give the minimum answer they can, the most basic answer.  I think that if you push them as much as you can, giving them more open questions to answer, it’s going to develop their understanding even more.”
Justifying and debating opinions
Susannah’s questioning is not simply a dialogue between her and individual students – she involves the whole class in carefully structured debate.  This helps ensure that all students are participating and thinking, and that lessons are highly engaging debates.  Her mentor noted:  “What’s brilliant is that when she’s questioning the particular pupils, other pupils want to get involved as well, which immediately shows how engaged they are.  They say: ‘I disagree with that.  I think this’, and that just says everything.  The environment, the culture she has created in this classroom, through questioning and other methods, has allowed pupils to flourish – which is brilliant.”
Susannah feels these debates are an important tool to keep students focused:  “It means that they have to be on it.  If you say to them: ‘Why do you agree?  Why do you disagree?’ they have to remember what the other person said about their beliefs.  Also, it promotes tolerance around the room because you can disagree with someone quite frankly and openly, but you have to do it in a polite way.  It takes time to embed this in your classroom, at first you can get: ‘Oh, that’s a rubbish comment.’  Especially in RE, you need to try and get that safe environment.”
Three key aspects of Susannah’s questioning – which any teacher could use, are:
  • Never stop at a student’s first answer; ask a follow-up question which challenges them every time.
  • Invite students to use key terms and to explain what they mean in full.
  • Ask them to give their opinions, then challenge them to justify them.
As Susannah concludes: “Questioning is a powerful tool that you can use for any course, for any age group.”

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