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Teacher-led questioning

‘Questioning is a central and important skill which teachers need to consciously develop.’

Wood, 2008

Topics on this page:

Why is teacher-led questioning important? | Questions in the classroom | Thinking further about questioning | Whole-class questioning techniques | Questions to make students think | Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce | Higher order questions | Taking forward your questioning practice | Reading

Why is teacher-led questioning important?

Teacher-led questioning is an essential tool for a geography teacher. You should work on developing proficiency in this because it is another of the ‘bread and butter’ of good geography teaching. It is an essential part of explanation and modelling so that teaching is interactive and checks for students’ understanding. The three teaching skills – explanation, modelling and questioning – are interwoven.

There are three main reasons why teacher-led questioning such an important tool for a teacher.

  • It is used to check students’ knowledge and asses their understanding. This lets a teacher identify any gaps and decide if further instruction is required.
  • As guided practice it provides students the opportunity to retrieve and articulate what they have learnt to consolidate their learning.
  • It also provides the opportunity to deepen thinking by making students think hard about a topic and have productive thinking.

Because questioning can serve different purposes, you need to carefully consider the point of every question.

Questions in the classroom

Questioning commonly consists of three elements, which Roberts (2023) refers to as IRF/IRE, standing for Initiation, Response, Feedback or Evaluation (see Figure 10.2):

  • initiation (I) when the teacher asks a question
  • response (R) when the students answer
  • feedback (F)/evaluation (E) when the teacher comments on the reply.

The initial question must be chosen carefully. A teacher must decide its purpose, such as to elicit prior knowledge or to check understanding. It could be:

  • a closed question that seeks a specific answer which is either right or wrong. The teacher has the ‘correct’ answer in their mind
  • an open question that challenges students to think and invite a range of answers. There is not only one correct answer
  • a low order question that requires little thinking from students
  • a high order question, which is more demanding and challenging.

Teachers can use both product questions (calling for a single response from students) and process questions (calling for explanations from students).

An initial question may have a ‘hidden agenda’ to reflect the type of geography that is to be promoted in that lesson. For example, it could be about ‘facts’ or ‘analysis’ or ‘values’ – all are common emphases in geography lessons.

A teacher must listen carefully to the student response. Does it show full or partial understanding, or none at all? Is the correct geographical term used by the student? This is where they must make a rapid assessment of a student’s level of knowledge and what feedback to give to that student. Should they praise, encourage, correct or even admonish? Do they call on another student to add to the answer, or give an alternative? Do they ask a further question?

Good teacher-led questioning will use follow-up questions to scaffold student answers and help them to explain their ideas. This will extend and challenge their learning. Thus, a teacher might ask for follow-up: ‘Why?’, ‘What does that lead to…?’, ‘Is there a better term for that?’ or ‘What might happen if…?’

  • Read about IRF/IRE routines and their limitations in Roberts (2023) pp. 91-3.
  • Focus on the questioning of expert geography teachers as you observe lessons and look for all of these things mentioned above. Refer to Observing questioning in action to guide you as you observe and as you prepare for your own teaching.

You should read widely about how to use questioning effectively and there are many references listed in the reading at the end of this section. Some of the key geography ones are King (1999), Roberts (2023) and Enser (2019).

Here are some things to think about:

  • Be very clear about why you are asking the questions and the type of question you ask.
  • Write out the key questions you want to ask during the lesson on your lesson plan.
  • Give students time to answer.
  • Consider how you are going to deal with wrong answers. It is important that you correct errors sensitively and treat all answers seriously.
  • Don’t carry on a questioning episode for too long.
  • How are you going to avoid asking a question and answering it yourself? Think about follow-up questions.

Thinking further about questioning

As you plan your own episodes of questioning in your lessons, bear in mind what you have observed and read, and good questioning. Here are some things that you should NOT do when you are questioning students:

  • Don’t regularly complete the answer for the student.
  • Don’t accept partially correct answers without probing for more detail.
  • Don’t accept imprecise terminology, which can confuse other students who are listening to the response.
  • Don’t ask general, self-reported questions such as ‘Does everyone understand?

If you do any of the first three, you are setting your expectations too low and are not extending students’ learning. The last one is pointless. Students are unlikely to say they do not understand in front of their peers. Moreover, they are unaware of what they don’t know or if they hold any misconceptions. Asking a general question to all also does not let you know which students understood and which didn’t. It is for you, as the teacher, to uncover this.

So, asking questions might not be as straightforward as you first thought! Skilful classroom questioning requires deep teacher subject knowledge to know which questions to ask and how to make sense of students’ responses. Good questioning is challenging.

You want students to listen intently to the questions and others’ answers, and be aware that you might ask them for a comment on what has been said. Your follow-up questions should build on students’ answers. Draw in other students to contribute until you arrive at an accurate and clear response to the question.

  • Watch Dylan Wiliam: Questions
  • Read Weeden and Lambert (2006) Section 5 Questioning and dialogue in geography classrooms pp. 7-13.

Whole-class questioning techniques

As you practice your questioning with different groups, you should work on developing different techniques. Some of these are detailed below.

No ‘hands up’ approach is sometimes described as cold calling because the teacher chooses the students they want to respond. It is good to establish a routine that anyone in the class could be asked, not just those that volunteer by putting their hand up. It works in this way – the teacher asks a question to everyone, pauses to give students thinking time and then invites one student to share their answer.

This approach has several advantages. It is an inclusive strategy because all are encouraged to participate and think of an answer. Every student is given time to work out their response. It stops a few students dominating while others ‘opt out’. Harris (2017) describes this as a ‘no passengers’ approach. It sets high expectations that all students will engage with the lesson and it gives the teacher the opportunity to tailor a question for specific students, as necessary.

Multiple choice questions can be useful for checking whole class understanding. Give the class time to think and then all respond at the same time using fingers to identify a number or by writing the answer on mini whiteboards. This approach again involves all students and can create a classroom climate where students feel less vulnerable than giving their answer in front of the whole class.

Think Pair Share also involves everyone. It is a good strategy for a question that requires a longer answer, such as explaining the hydrological cycle, or migration push factors. Everyone has a partner pre-established and after the question is posed, the pair think about and discuss the answer. The teacher should ‘cold call’ the pair to offer their response, and choose another pair to compare answers (see Roberts (2023) p 94).

Five ‘dialogic moves’ based on Howe (2022) to counter the limitations of IRF/E. These include to: wait after questions; invite more detail from a student in response; pass on by asking other students; stay neutral and not judge; include yourself creating a collective enterprise (see Roberts (2023) Figure 110.3).

David Rogers extends this to ‘Think, pair, write, share’. He believes that we are often in too much of a rush to move on and so give students little time to think about a question. Slowing a lesson down can help every student to get involved. He explains:

One of my mantras as a teacher is that we should encourage students to be “stuck”. The problem with this is that we are often so worried about getting through the content that we don’t allow students to be stuck for long, quickly rattling through question and answer sessions. Remember that some of the best teachers slow down. Using the “think, pair, write, share” idea can help.

The teacher needs to monitor the pairs carefully to identify misconceptions and some might not fully explore the ideas in the detail required. Sherrington (2020) provides some very good advice managing this activity and recommends that it should be a ‘frequent, punchy, productive, disciplined thinking activity’.

  • Refer to Figure 5 in King (1999), which gives lots of ideas for strategies to develop your questioning skills. When you plan your geography lessons, try to incorporate some of these ideas to develop your questioning.
  • Read Harris (2017) for further practical geography guidance.

You will need to practise and rehearse good questioning techniques so that they become second nature. Questioning is at the heart of good geography teaching because it helps to focus on a student’s knowledge and understanding.

Questions to make students think

So far, we have focused on teacher-led questions that have the purpose to check students’ knowledge, asses their understanding and help them to consolidate learning. Another very important role for teacher-led questions is to challenge students to do, what Dylan Wiliam describes in the video above as, productive thinking and bring about new learning.

This type of questioning requires a teacher to give students time to think or reflect before they answer. It is particularly important to allow sufficient ‘wait’ time, when asking open questions. Good questioning in depth should get beyond the surface of short responses.

Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce

Higher order questions

Making students think requires higher order questioning that puts cognitive demands on them. This means you need to plan the questions you want to ask carefully. Higher order questions that engage students in productive thinking are not made up in the spur of the moment.

Look at the diagram from Roberts (1986) that shows the increasing cognitive demands that can be made on students by higher-order questions. It also shows how these questions can be closed or open, depending how they are asked.

Two dimensions of questioning diagram

Roberts (2023) p 94 discusses closed and open questions and points out that it is possible to justify the use of closed questions for rapid recap and recall, but open questions are needed to find out what students are thinking.

Dylan Williams explains that high order questioning is all about making students think. Both open and closed questions can do this, but they must be planned in advance and students must be given thinking time to respond.

Appropriate wait time between question and response is important so that students have time to consider more developed answers. You will need to pay attention and practise this.

Higher order questions expect students to apply, analyse, synthesize and evaluate information instead of simply recalling facts.

  • Application questions require students to transfer knowledge learned in one context to another.
  • Analysis questions expect students to break the whole into component parts, express opinions, make inferences and draw conclusions.
  • Synthesis questions expect students to use old ideas to create new ones using information from different sources.
  • Evaluation questions require students to make judgements, explain reasons for judgements, compare and contrast information and develop reasoning using evidence.

Take your time to read the Think Piece carefully and reflect on what you have learned about questioning. Consider the classification that Wood describes and decide the questioning skills you need to work on. 

Pay particular attention to how you can use questioning to develop students’ geographical thinking. You will see from the Think Piece that Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy can be used as a questioning framework. This is also described in Doherty (2018). The same article has a range of questioning ideas to try in the classroom – why not try out ‘phone a friend’ or ‘more than me’?

  • Look at Bloom and questioning, which indicates some words to use and stems for questions as applied to Bloom’s hierarchy. Use this table to prepare some questions to use for the topics you are teaching in coming lessons.
  • For a critique of Bloom’s taxonomy, subsequent revisions and its limitations see Roberts (2023) pp. 94-5.
Note that on the matter of categorising questions into higher or lower order, Roberts comments ‘ultimately, however, what is important is to consider the demands made on students’ thinking made by particular questions in specific contexts, rather than trying to allocate a question precisely to one of the categories‘ (2023, p 95).

Continue to take every opportunity you can to learn from expert teachers when you observe their lessons. What factors do you think influences the types of questions you have seen? Do different teachers favour particular types of question?

  • As you observe different lessons, take the opportunity to observe the different types of geographical question in short ‘question and answer’ episodes. Record the questions verbatim and the responses from students or record the Q&A to analyse later (with the teacher’s permission).

    Observe how Q&A is managed.

    • Is it a ‘no hands up’ approach? Cold calling? Are students given opportunities to ask questions? What is the intonation of the teacher?
    • Can you identify IRF?
    • What wait-time is allowed before students respond?
    • Do they use pose-pause-pounce-bounce?
    • How does the teacher handle students’ answers? Do responses from learners differ?
    • Does the teacher use any multiple-choice questions or ‘think, pair and share’?
    • Does the teacher use higher order questions?
    • Can you identify any students in the class that are ‘keeping their head down’ and avoiding answering questions? How does the teacher deal with these?

    After your observation, use your notes to consider the different types of question you have observed and the responses. Categorise them as open/closed. Analyse the cognitive demands made on students, e.g. recall, application, analysis, synthesis or evaluation?

  • To read about questioning and higher order thinking in the context of post-16 teaching see Rawlings Smith (2017).

Dylan Wiliam explains that high order questioning is all about making students think. Both open and closed questions can do this, but they must be planned in advance and students must be given thinking time to respond.

Taking forward your questioning practice

Make an audio/video recording of yourself asking questions in a lesson. (See Videoing a lesson). Afterwards, analyse the questions by thinking about the following.

  • Did you ask closed or open questions?
  • Did you ask ‘guess what’s in my head ’questions?
  • Are you asking questions for productive thinking from students?
  • Did you build a sequence of questions leading up to more difficult ideas in small steps so that the students understood what you were asking?
  • Did you direct questions to specific students?
  • Did you probe for more information?
  • Watch the video Eliciting evidence of learning by Wiliam, which focuses on the formative assessment strategy of ‘Engineering effective discussion, activities, and classroom tasks that elicit evidence of learning’. Also see the related Powerpoint slides.
  • Read Howe (2022) and the caricature he presents of typical classroom exchanges between teachers and students. Do you recognise this in your classroom, or in those you have observed?
Explore Howe’s five ‘dialogic moves’ in detail. Take each in turn and focus on using it in your classroom. Evaluate what happens and discuss your findings with your mentor.

 

Roberts (2023) encourages teachers to take forward their questioning to focus on different aspects of geography and encourage different types of geographical thinking. She advocates a range of different frameworks for geographical questions (see Figure 10.5). She urges you to critically examine questioning practice and sets out some thought-provoking questions to consider on page 96.

Discuss each of these questions with your mentor. You should draw on lessons observed, yours and other teachers, to consider these questions.

Reading
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 75- 80.
  • Cannell, J., Hopkin, J. and Kitchen, B. (2018) Critical thinking in practice, Geographical Association.
  • Doherty, J. (2018) ‘Skilful questioning: the beating heart of good pedagogy’, Impact. Chartered College of Teaching, June.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing, chapter 6.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Questioning: when and how to use it in the classroom, TES, 11 March 2019.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher. Routledge, Chapter 5.
  • Howe, A. (2022) Disturbingly Different: Five great dialogical talk moves.
  • King, S. (1999) ‘Using questions to promote learning’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Rawlings Smith, E. (2017) ‘Post-16 geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 19.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, 2nd edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp. 91-6.
  • Rogers, D. (2017) 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Geography Lessons, Bloomsbury.
  • Sherrington, T. (2020) Top Three! High-impact, inclusive questioning strategies, Teacherhead blog, September 14, 2020.
  • Weeden, P. and Lambert, D. (2006) Geography Inside the Black Box. London: nferNelson, pp. 7-13.
  • Wood, P. (2008) Think Piece – Questioning, Geographical Association on-line.