Teaching and learning Gem #24 – questioning for students to connect personally with the ideas

This Friday Gem comes from Steph Harel, who I saw use this sort of questioning in a lesson I observed.

She frequently asked questions that encouraged students to develop their own engagement with the learning, helping them think about the broader context of their learning, but also about what that learning means for them from an individualpersonal, ethical as well as academic perspective.

I found these three questions from Steph particularly effective. They can be answered from different perspectives: personal/ethical/academic:

  1. “Why do we care about…?”
  2. “Are you surprised by…?”
  3. “Why does it matter…?”


 This sort of questioning is effective because:

  • It develops a student’s personal connection with topics: what do these topics mean to them as individuals. The learning resonates with them as thinking, feeling humans?
  • It encourages students to interrogate their reactions to new ideas: great for metacognition.
  • It helps the teacher build strong a strong rapport with the class, getting to know their students’ personal perspectives.
  • Linking the academic work to a personal response will help the learning be contextualised for the individual. It will thus build it into a schema/network so it sticks in the long-term memory.
  • It prompts debate and encourages student’s to raise their voice…if this is their opinion, they are less worried about being right or wrong.

George Cook, explores ideas from The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) and Radical Candor (Kim Scott)

George Cook, Head of Hockey at WHS, explores ideas from The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) and Radical Candor (Kim Scott). These books show that it is less about the questions we ask, and more about the environment we create that enables us to ask them. Culture is everything.

Questioning is a hot topic in the world of education. What type of questioning do you use? What type of questioning should you be using?

There is no doubt that questioning allows us, as the teacher, to identify areas of strength and weakness in our classes. It gives opportunity to really challenge the most gifted, stretching and pushing the limits of their understanding. It is a great tool because in the same breath we can use questioning to give great confidence to those who are unsure or perhaps, normally, quieter and more reserved in lessons.

However, according to the two books listed above, the type of question you use and who you ask it to, is irrelevant if the environment we create is not quite right.

The Culture Code examines many high performing groups ranging from high end military task forces and airline pilots, to successful start-up companies as well as big hitters like Google. On the face of it, none of these groups have much in common. Apart from the culture they have developed, built on honest two-way communication and trust.

It was found that regular small snippets of communication within these high functioning groups allowed them to not only know each other better, but made sure they stayed on track throughout the task at hand to complete it in the most accurate and efficient way possible. The opposite of this in a classroom situation would be to wait for over an hour into a lesson before catching a pupil off guard with a challenging question to answer in front of their peers. Small and frequent two-way communication is much more effective.

Radical Candor states that if we are to have open and honest communication in our groups and teams then we must instil two key elements first. Firstly, care personally about all those in your class, and show it! As teachers we do this more often than we might expect and can be as simple as asking a pupil how their weekend was etc. The second element is to challenge directly. Challenge the beliefs of pupils directly, but also actively encourage them to do the same to us as this is more likely to build trusting relationships where more in depth and honest discussions and conversations can be had.

If we can take these lessons and implement them into our classroom and practical teaching, then we are far more likely to have open and lively debate and discussion that includes all members of the group and not just those that feel confident in the subject area. This is why I think the culture we build around questioning is equally important as the type of questions we use.

Steph Harel, explores the journal article ‘Developing enquiry through questioning’

Steph Harel, Acting Head of Geography at WHS, explores the journal article ‘Developing enquiry through questioning’

Wood, P. (2006) Developing enquiry through questioning. Teaching Geography, 31(2), 76-78.

“Any student wising to develop their capacity to enquire geographically requires a clear capacity to question” (Wood, 2006; p. 78).

Many classrooms, and even national strategies, focus on teachers as the main questioners; however, if students are to develop an independence in their work they must gain experiences which allow an opportunity to play a central role in framing questions of interest.

Wood accurately argues that students need to develop their questioning skills if they are to act as autonomous enquirers. His valuable exploration into different ‘levels’ of questioning in Geography highlights meaningful ways in which to support students to develop their own capacity for independent questioning:

1. Simple questioning: Simple questioning games can be used to develop and sharpen students’ questioning skills. For example, when revising a physical geography topic, students are given a post-it note with a keyword written on it, which they stick to their foreheads. Students then pose each other ‘yes’ ‘no’ questions to decipher which process they have been allocated.

2. Questions to compare: Students are asked to develop questions which will produce a clear and detailed comparison. For example, students studying tectonic hazards might explore two case studies, one from an AC and one from an LIDC, and are asked to compare their volcanic eruptions by posing questions. Importantly, students then reflect on why they have chosen their questions.

3. Questions to enquire: Wood uses an example of a KS3 class, who recently completed a unit on agriculture. Students were prompted to consider the underlying patterns and processes they studied and asked to formulate five questions they would use to investigate the agriculture of India. For example, “How does landscape and climate affect farming in India”? I was particularly struck by Wood’s focus on the importance of recognising that enquiry questions can lead to ‘dead-end’ responses, and that learning and understanding is not a simple or linear process.

4. Questions to research: When students have developed a questioning capability, they can be given a large amount of autonomy in both framing and researching questions. Wood explores this idea in KS5 Geography teaching, with students studying the global economy. Students were offered a new context in which to explore the changing economic fortunes of two contrasting locations and the opportunity to decide on questions they felt were pertinent to ask. The process culminated in a written report, which demonstrated deep and critical understanding of the information researched.

As an educator, it is my belief that the geography classroom is an ideal environment for developing the use of self-questioning. I found huge value in Wood’s article, which argues that it is crucial that teachers not only learn how to pose their own questions to greatest effect, but also guide and support students in developing their own enquiries about the world around them. “By focusing on the student as questioner, we can help them become more active, reflective learners, and this can only help in developing active, critical classrooms where quality geography [my emphasis] can blossom” (Wood, 2006; p. 78).

Teaching and learning Gem #21 – Kinaesthetic questioning

This Friday Gem comes from Dan Addis and the Classics department

There are several different ways you can incorporate some physical movement into your questioning of students.

  1. Simple use of physical movement in multiple choice questioning. Simply labelling each direction as an A or O you can ask the students to hold their hands straight in the air and lean to the side they think is correct and say either “AAYYY” or “OOOH”.
  2. Creating physical gestures  with aspects of understanding so that questions can be done using physical gestures rather than words.
    1. E.g. Mark Wilmore connects the Latin verb endings to a physical gesture “-o = I (thumb pointing at own chest), -s= you (s) (finger pointing away), -t = he/she/it (thumb pointing to the side)”. The question then can be asked or answered by gesture rather than vocally.
    2. E.g. Catriona Irvine adopts a pose connected with the meaning behind a grammatical point (Superman pose for the Subject doing the action and crossed arms for Object receiving the action)
    3. This can also be used to prompt students in their answers and to help model correct answers for students.

Kinaesthetic questioning is effective because

  • It helps students strengthen storage in long-term memory, as the variety can help increase the number of neural pathways connected to certain aspects of knowledge.
  • It helps interleaving as it is a quick and easy way to start or end a lesson to remember previous material.
  • It requires students to focus on the front of the class rather than at their device, which helps ensure engagement in the lesson.
  • It helps all students focus, especially those with ADHD, by adding a physical component, especially important in KS3 groups where they are not moving around between lessons
  • In example 1. It helps students stretch their lumbar area and helps improve posture.
  • It encourages students who don’t want to speak up to demonstrate their knowledge, as well as allow for easier assessment of knowledge in the group.
  • It’s FUN! Fun to do, fun to watch. Just generally fun.

Points to bear in mind

  1. Ensure students understand the rules and boundaries you want in place before such activity. They will get excited but if the rules aren’t clear they can become raucous.

We hope you enjoy some physicality in your lessons!

Dan Addis and the Classics Department

Teaching Backwards

Nazlee Haq, teacher of Maths at WHS, looks at the book Teaching Backwards and what it says about the teacher as detective and the power of metacognitive questioning


“Over a series of lessons, students should be asked metacognitive questions. These can be posed at any point in the lesson.”


Reduced face-to-face contact with students due to Covid-19 restrictions has highlighted how vital it is to get questioning right in the classroom to assess students’ understanding of the curriculum.

In ‘Teaching Backwards’ we learn that questioning is a tool for “looking for proof of learning”. The role of the teacher detective is to establish the quality and depth of learning that has taken place over a period of teaching. Teachers should also be able to forecast the types of questions students will ask, using the lesson plan as a prompt to do so.

As a teacher you know what you want your students to have learned by the end of the lesson, so that when they are assessed they can demonstrate a clear understanding of the concepts.

The right questions can act as proof as to whether students are on the right track to understanding content. Questions can take several forms:

  • To check for weak understanding
  • To create deliberate confusion to see how students deal with the challenge, although this tangential approach may not be appropriate for all students
  • Ask students to provide evidence for their answers
  • Help teachers to understand whether the students’ thinking process is robust and on track or not

Initial questions might be open, but also require students to provide support for their verbal answers. For example, “Tell me what you have learned so far about …..?” followed by, “Can you provide evidence for ….?”.  By setting this type of expectation in questioning students, Hattie argues that teachers establish academic rigour in the classroom.

However, others have argued individual, pair, group or whole class that giving students ‘wait time’ is also valuable. By giving this allocated time students become increasingly skilled at giving detailed answers, enhancing the quality of their reflection.

Over a series of lessons, students should be asked metacognitive questions. These can be posed at any point in the lesson.

At the start, ‘Have you seen a problem like this before?’. Or during, ‘What part of this is easy/difficult to explain to someone else?’ and ‘What stages are crucial in explaining this concept?’ At the end, ‘How will you remember this learning?’ or ‘If you did this again, how could you do it better?’

I particularly liked this last set of questions as they prompt students to think about how they are working through problems.




Teaching and learning Gem #20 – Popcorn Questions

This Friday Gem comes from Priscilla Abeelack who shared this idea with the Geography and Economics department.

  • The teacher starts by posing a question. At the end the teacher says “Popcorn + student name”
  • That student then responds fully and then asks another related/development question to take the discussion further. The student says “Popcorn + student name”
  • Or the student asks another question that is unrelated, for a good bit of interleaving!
  • And so on…until the whole class has been ‘popcorned’.
  • The teacher could start with something very ‘small’ and see how ‘wide’ the discussion goes, or vice versa; or the teacher could start on one topic, and see whether students can move to another topic through their questioning.
  • This would also be relevant for languages and other subjects to consolidate new vocabulary or terminologies. For example, ‘define …’, ‘what is the formula for …?’, ‘Explain one effect of …’, ‘Explain one cause of …’.

Popcorn questions is effective because:

  • It helps students create networks of ideas, proven to strengthen storage in long-term memory.
  • It could be useful in revisiting past material (interleaving!).
  • It requires students to really listen to each other and to respond appropriately.
  • It encourages a questioning mindset for students, identifying ways to develop and deepen discussion through asking questions.
  • It puts the responsibility on the students to shape the discussion – they are not reliant on the teachers.
  • It encourages students to take ownership of their learning and classroom experience.


Mrs Wei Fang reviews Kris Boulton’s blog post: ‘Should we use questions to teach?’

Mrs Wei Fang, teacher of Mandarin at WHS, reflects on her own experience of questioning in the classroom, before reviewing a blog post by Kris Boulton ‘Should we use questions to teach?’

 “…the question is not why questions are better, it is when.”

As a language teacher, I have been thinking a lot about questioning in the classroom, getting students to really think about the grammar and vocabulary they learnt, in order to improve their understanding and memorising. For example, ‘how’ questions are particularly useful in assisting students to remember Chinese characters, or hanzi: ‘How do you know the meaning of this character?’ Students would answer: It means juice 汁  because it has water radical (the components of characters that indicate meaning). I then would retrieve other learning from their long-term memory by asking an elaboration question: ‘Where else can you see this radical?’. Giving students the thinking time, asking them to connect their learning and expecting a better answer are very important strategies of questioning.

However, questions do not always go well. At times I asked a series of questions and felt like my questions were much longer than the students’ answer. They seemed to be confused about why I asked those questions. I then reflected on my lesson and realised that: why didn’t I just explain it?

So, it is time to think about why we ask questions. Kristopher Boulton argues that questions are not necessarily better than explanations, though sometimes he switches to questions when he feels the need to promote understanding. In his blog post ‘Should we use questions to teach? -1&2”, he addresses that the question is not why questions are better, it is when. He concluded that: ‘questions can be very effective tools of teaching, but they must be used with incredible care.’ A very structured grid of various question types concluded by him and another blogger can be found here:

Question Spectrum

The above matrix is made for Maths, but one can be also useful for other subjects. It brought to my attention the pointlessness of allowing students to guess without establishing their prior knowledge. In Mandarin, there is language content that is better to be explicitly taught first, especially the content that doesn’t exist in English, for example: tones, measure words, characters (not randomly drawing it but with certain orders), as well as unique culture conception such as Hukou (a system of household registration used in China), etc. In order to enhance understanding, I once asked year 7 students to analyse the tones, by asking them the differences between Chinese and English sounds. As a result of lacking enough input of Chinese, some students were struggling to tell the differences among the four tones. They told me that the rising and turning tones sound the same. In this case, further questions on this will confuse them. It made all the difference the next time when I made them practice tones for enough time, and then asked them to tell me which tones they have heard and why (verbalizing burgeoning understanding). A key quotation from Boulton that I keep in mind for my subject is ‘never ask pupils questions to which they have not already been told the answer, unless they know enough that answering the question requires them only inching forwards.’


Kristopher Boulton





Autumn Focus: Questioning

Teaching and learning Gem #16 – questioning for neurodiversity, the miracle of the pause.

This comes from Isabelle Alexander, thinking about the experience of class questioning for neurodiverse students.

  • Isabelle says that these students have been used to working at their own pace during lockdown, and are finding the speed of lessons on return to school a challenge. When ‘cold called’ to answer a question they freeze and feel the attention is sharply on them.
  • Her top tip is, “It’s not how you question, it’s how you let them answer.”
  • It is essential to give all students time, but especially those with those with slow processing.
  • Formulate a rigorous question, and tell students “I don’t want any thoughts about this for 3 minutes”. Allow students to collate their thoughts in any way – jot down bullet points, draw diagrams, do a mind map, or just sit and think. By saying ‘thoughts’ it shows that you are no expecting a ‘right’ response and encourages students to be exploratory who might otherwise be anxious.
  • The educational researcher John Hattie says that teachers well know which students do or do not know the answers and they “use this [knowledge] about whom to ask to maintain their flow of the lesson. Students are given, on average, one second or less to think, consider their ideas, and respond (Cazden, 2001): the brighter students are given longer to respond than [others]” and thus those students who most need the wait time are least likely to get it. Let’s break that trend!
  • In addition, writing the question on the board will help those students stay focused on track. It reduces their cognitive load, freeing up their working memory to consider a response to the question.

Giving significant pauses before getting answers is effective because:

  • It allows neurodiverse students and those with slower processing to think and be in a position to share: it facilitates participation from all learners.
  • It reduces “I don’t know” answers.
  • It builds students’ confidence and reduces anxiety.
  • It increases the number of speculative responses.

Friday Gem #15 – big questions with Oxplore

Autumn Focus: Questioning

Teaching and learning Gem #15 – big questions with Oxplore


This Friday Gem comes from Monique Nullens, who recommends this brilliant (and snazzy) website – Oxplore.org. The site is created by Oxford University and offers approaches to challenges and questions underpinned by the latest thinking and research.

  • It poses a plethora of big questions on socio/political/economic/scientific/cultural issues.
  • They are thorny and provoking.
  • For example, ‘Does fake news matter?’, ‘Are humans more important than plants?’, ‘Are Explosions always destructive?’, ‘Would it be better if we all spoke the same language?’
  • Importantly, the website is beautifully crafted, and the big questions are springboards to an astonishing range of engaging articles, videos, quotes, facts etc.

Check out the website…it will be a genuinely fascinating experience.


Asking big, open questions in class is effective because:

  • With such big questions, there are no right answers. It discourages perfectionism and ‘learning for the test’.
  • It helps students realise that they don’t have to get everything right first time. In fact, in ‘big discussions’, students can get things wrong, reassess and change direction. That’s part of the fun and the freedom of these types of discussions.
  • It encourages students to play around with ideas and to throw things into the discussion to see where they lead. You could contribute an idea big or small.
  • It encourages higher order, critical thinking that transcends subjects. It draws concepts/knowledge from across a spectrum of disciplines. These discussions epitomise our STEAM+.
  • To quote Dan Addis in his recent WimTeach article on scholarship: “we can encourage students to attack a problem from multiple angles, playing with the blurred lines between the subjects, and discovering links that were hidden to them before. Quite apart from the fact that this lateral thinking is a skill that will benefit them in whatever avenue they wish to pursue in later life, it is also fun and rewarding.” 

    Try out a ‘no right answer’ big question as a starter to set the tone for the sort of experimental engagement you’d like from students for the rest of the lesson.