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Questioning questions

Last night our school staff meeting was about assessment for learning or AFL. For the uninitiated, AFL, in theory, is the mechanism by which we gather the information that is fed into the next planning phase in the manner described in my previous post.

We looked at questions as one method of achieving this. Our headteacher challenged us to record the questions we asked during one lesson and reflect on what we thought. I took the plunge and, Blackberry Voice Recorder in hand, I taught a lesson with the objective, I can find the missing number in a sequence. I worked though 4 examples and asked similar questions for each. Here is a record of each, unique question I asked. I have not recorded how many questions I have asked altogether.

What do you think the next number is in our sequence? (closed)

What makes you think it is 21? (open)

How many did you have to count on to get 21? (closed)

Who agrees with what ‘John’ says? (closed)

‘Jenny’ how do you know that the next number is 21? (open – sort of?)

When you counted on from 13 to 17, what number did that give you? (closed)

How did you know that you had to add 4 again? (open)

What was it, that made you add the 4? (open)

What number, do you think, might go here? (I’m not sure if this is open or closed!)

How do you know it is 6? (open)

Does anyone disagree with this? (open)

What is half of 6? (closed)

What is the difference between 12 an 22? (closed)

If the difference between 12 and 22 is 10, how can we use this information to find which number goes here? (open)

What would the next number in the sequence be? (closed)

What would the number after that be? (closed)

What number would that have to be to mean that this one was 15? (closed)

I summary I asked 17 unique questions. 9 were closed and 6 were open and 2 were not clearly one or the other. In 20 minutes of carpet time, I questioned my children for around 6 and a half minutes. The rest was discussion time and feedback.

If my frazzled, end of day mind serves me correctly that leaves me with a ratio of 2:3 open to closed questions. For every 2 open questions I asked, I asked 3 closed questions.

I should confess that I felt very aware of what I was doing, and deliberately worked hard to include open questions as I became aware of how few I would naturally have asked. I think my true ration might be closer to 1:5

Of course any question is a good question if it elicits what you want it to, or generates the thinking that you intended it to. What became obvious to me as I listened back to my recording, was how much I had to stretch my brain to work out what I was hoping each question would achieve. I was working on auto pilot to a certain extent. As a result, some of my questions generated the response I was aiming for but I wasn’t necessarily aware of it at the time. This immediately led to the realisation that it couldn’t be informing what I was doing.

The next thing that I noticed was how the structures of all my open questions, were basically the same. They all effectively ask for a justification for a comment or opinion. I wanted the child to justify so that I could assess whether they had chanced upon the answer, had it whispered to them by a friend or actually worked though the process correctly. I even began to wonder if they were in fact, closed questions in disguise. I thought for sometime about other questions I could ask, particularly ones that I felt would promote better discussion, disagreement and reasoning. Questions that would draw in the other children and push the limits if their understanding differently. I struggled to come up with any.

I tried to imagine being on the receiving end of my questions. Sir obviously wants me to tell him what the next number in the sequence is? Sir wants me to tell him how I know to make sure I am not cheating. Sir wants to know what the next number is the sequence is.

This is pure speculation of course, but possible none the less. I hope my readers will believe me when I say this is not what I intended. My intention would read something more like this.

I wonder what the next number in the sequence is? What clues can I see? What is my theory? Can I rationalise my theory? Can I respond to challenge by others? Can I modify my theory in light of what others have said? The next number in the sequence is….. Today I have learned….

The challenge of course is to develop questions that lead to this, not something I currently have the answer to, but a challenge that I am looking forward to.

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