This blog starts with a riddle: Teachers do this on average 400 times a day and roughly twice per minute. This means that in total they will do this, on average, 70,000 times per year and between two and three million times in their careers. If they do it well children’s understanding and learning is transformed and if they do it badly they can halt a child’s enthusiasm and interest in a nanosecond.
So what is this thing that teachers do so often with such importance and power? Simple: Ask questions.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers” Voltaire
There is one question which every parent hears. At times the question helps keep conversations flowing and at times it has parents begging for a moments time to think. That question is a simple, one word question: ‘Why?’
I remember, not too long ago, that my son’s favourite question was ‘why?’ Though at times I may have silently thought ‘please, no more whys…’ I appreciate just how important the question was for him understanding the world better. Every time he asked ‘why?’ in response to something which I thought I had explained excellently he was simply trying to find out more. Asking why was his opportunity to keep on finding out more and better understanding things.
We encourage children to ask questions at Coupals for a number of reasons. Children asking questions develop better skills around reasoning and critical thinking but most importantly questions help children to stay curious. But more than this the questions that children ask are used to check their understanding. In this context, if children don’t ask questions they are never taking the time to check their understanding.
So what about teachers? What type of questions do they ask? Teachers ask questions naturally – it’s hard not to when you are working with children. But, like anything, some questions are good and some aren’t so good. We talk, as teachers, about open questions (where the answers are explanations) and closed questions (where the answer is a simple yes or no).
Neither of these better or worse than the other but how they are used is the important thing. Teachers are very good at selecting questions depending on what they want children to share. For example if they want a short answer they will ask a different question to if they want an explanatory answer. The best example of this is when your child comes out from the gate at the end of the school day. If you want your child to tell you about their day at school then asking ‘Have you had a good day’ doesn’t really work. All they will give you is a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ But ask ‘what did you learn at school today?’ and there is no easy one word answer (though you might get the stock, ‘I can’t remember’ until you’ve made it a little way down the road) that they can give.
We know that children ask questions to find out more and to check their understanding but why do teachers ask so many questions? There are lots of reasons for asking questions. Like children, we ask questions to check our understanding: think of any time a child is explaining a long, complicated description of an event to you. Checking understanding is essential. But most importantly teachers ask questions to check the understanding of pupils’ learning. There are lots of things that teachers can do to understand how well pupils understand, for example quizzes, written assessments and tests and questions. But no method is quicker, more immediate or useful than asking questions.
Teachers have to think about questions constantly. 400 a day is no mean feat and the best teachers I have worked with (at Coupals and in other schools) have refined their skills of asking good questions carefully over years of teaching. But you don’t have to be a teacher and spend hours of your life thinking about the questions you are going to ask. Any question gets children thinking. A question where they can’t simply answer yes or no will get them thinking in a deeper way. A beguilingly simple question such as a ‘thunk’ (see the Thinking Corner page of our website) will get children thinking deeply on a range of different levels.
Next time you ask a question make it trickier for the children. Don’t let them get away with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, it will get them thinking. More importantly, it’s your chance to get them back for every time the asked ‘why?’…