Questions, questions, questions. Questions from teacher to student and student to teacher are to my mind at the core of life in the classroom. Big questions, little questions, fat questions, thin questions, Socratic questions, probing questions. What you ask your students and what they ask you can be the key to a successful lesson. I have been musing, thinking and reflecting on my questioning style for a while now.

I read an article last year about a teacher who used a pack of named cards, to randomly select students to answer questions in his high school maths class. I too have used a pack of cards with the students names on, as well as named paddle pop sticks kept in a mug. Particularly in lessons when I really want to ensure everyone contributes. What I don’t want though, is to ever make a student feel uncomfortable and there have certainly been times when through no fault of their own a student just hasn’t known what or how to respond and has felt embarrassed at being singled out in this way. So although at times I use my cards and my paddle pop sticks, it is not the only questioning strategy I have at my finger tips.

You see in my classroom I have the usual mix of students who thrust their hands in the air at the merest hint of a question, before they can have even heard, thought about or reflected on the question. I also have some students who will never volunteer an answer, even when I know they have the ability to respond with a sensible well thought out response. So one of my well used strategies is to ignore the eager hands and randomly ask students to contribute. I often follow this up by asking for other points of view or asking if others want to add to the classroom discussion.

This week though, thanks to James Anderson, I have a new idea. My school is planning on implementing Habits of Mind as a whole school initiative this year and this week I was lucky enough to be able to attend a two day course which introduced me to the Habits. A course which I found both interesting and informative. I was particularly happy to discover that the research behind Habits of Mind reflects my own reading. I was affirmed that my classroom is on the right track. I have much I want to blog about as a result.

The questioning strategy that I picked up though is this. Wait time. James discussed how questions that require a thoughtful response require wait time, in his view a wait time of ten seconds. His key point is that If a teacher poses a meaningful question and the eager hand raisers leap into the air, then that becomes a signal for everyone else in the classroom to stop thinking. James’s strategy is to ask his question and slowly tap his toes to the tune of ten seconds, as he does this he refuses to acknowledge the hand raisers and the callers. He then requests that everyone turns to a partner to discuss, elaborate and reflect on his question. He will then randomly pick a student to report back to the class what their partner’s answer was. Doing this on a regular basis he argued will assist students to develop the essential concept that cognition takes effort and time. As well as ensuring that the choice to opt out and stop thinking is not given because that of course is what we all want in our classrooms.

So now I have a new questioning strategy to use in my classroom. Do you have more? I would love to learn them too.

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  1. Lee Hurst

    Love having the Homer “doh” moments. Your strategy seems so obvious to me…now you have explained it. Thanks for posting as I’m embarrassed enough to say it never occurred to me to wait 10 secs and I’ve been teaching for years! Love learning new stuff. Your blog will be in my feed.
    Oh, I use ping pong balls my students have decorated, for randomising.

    There’s iPhone apps also:
    Stick Pick by Buzz Garwood
    Teachers Pick by brad Brooks

    They are Ok but I want to build suspense. So I’m waiting for an iPad app that selects a student in the fashion of the game mousetrap. That would make my students hold their breath!

  2. Thank you for your kind comments and for your advice about the iPhone apps. Maybe you should have a go at designing your own app around the game mousetrap. It sounds as if it would be a fabulous resource.

  3. I never thought about the fact that students stop thinking about the answer once other students raise their hands first to answer. I suppose this makes them feel defeated, like they don’t have a chance to answer because they couldn’t think of the answer as fast as the other students. This isn’t a good feeling for students to have. I think that the wait time questioning strategy would help eliminate this problem with the students. I will definitely keep this in mind when I get my own classroom.
    Maybe you could make a weekly question and have the students write down their answer and put them in a bowl or box, and each day you choose a few, read them, and have the students discuss how they agree or disagree with those answers. Then there would be no chance of the student being embarrassed because no one knows who wrote the answers.

  4. You can also use your Smartboard to randomly choose a student or even classdojo.

    Great post!

  5. henriettami

    Thanks for that heads up Scott, I always forget that that my Smartboard has that ability. I have not tried Class Dojo as a student selector. I must do so, thanks.