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.