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How to encourage students to ask questions?

By Alan Peters,

24 Jan 2020

Excuse Me Miss, why…? We all want active pupils in our classes but it can be difficult to encourage students to ask questions.  Except during that end of term lesson when we need to get onto google maps to plan our route for the holiday break, and so it is silent reading, colouring or word searches…no, not really.  Active participation leads to better learning.

Passivity is poor.  Usually. Active pupils are engaged with the lesson, passive sitters are probably looking interested but thinking about the weekend’s football.  And a way to keep our young people active is to encourage students to ask questions. Like many of the readers of this blog, I have sat through, slept through and been inspired through numerous training sessions of various quality and interest over the years.  Here is a personal list of the things that have helped to encourage students to ask questions and therefore demonstrating more interest in their learning. Hope it helps… Creating The Right Environment It’s a bit of a cliché but is still the truth for all that.  The environment in which it is OK to get things wrong is one that encourages children to ask questions.  Nobody likes to feel a fool, not the least able pupil in the class, not the best student, not the teacher and not the Headteacher.  And we all sometimes say and ask daft things. A response from ‘Sir’ that puts down the questioner might be ok for that person, who enjoys the banter and loves any kind of attention, but for the quiet one in the corner, who has picked up on the teacher’s reaction, the message is clear.  Ask a question and risk being humiliated.  It is a lesson quickly learned and hard to forget. It creates a problem, as we can see.  We want our classrooms to be fun, lively places because that too encourages pupil voice, but there is a fine line between that and causing fear or upset.  With apologies to those to whom egg sucking is about to be taught, when we hear, at parents’ evening, the adult tells us that their child is scared of us, we probably need to take it on board. Of course, our natural reaction is to be offended, annoyed and upset.  But, we are the professionals, and if the child is scared (even without just cause) we are going to be handicapping their willingness to ask. Conversely, in an environment where getting things wrong is the first step towards learning how to solve the problem successfully, it can soon be the case that everybody grows in confidence. Don’t Forget To Reinforce It’s something every teacher does, except when they forget.  Whether your student is four, fourteen or forty four they like to hear positives.  Comments such as ‘Good question’, ‘Clever thinking’, ‘Well done’ are worth a book full of smiley stickers. Encouraging The Right Questions If teaching were easy, we’d all be able to do it.  So, there we have it, our lovely warm, cuddly classroom where it is OK to get things wrong, ok to ask what the remainder see as a completely pointless question, because we are all important and all have the right to learn.  A room where compliments flow like champagne at a wedding. Yes, but, that allows freckle faced Daniel to fire off the distracting, ludicrous question that is actually purely a means of getting attention.  Having spent five minutes explaining the task, and asking if everybody is clear, the class is just getting down to work when up he pops.

‘So, do we do Page 32?’  Or, reinforcement Rosie, who proudly comes up to the desk to tell you she has finished the page, and can she turn over? ‘Do we do it in our books?’ ‘No, you screaming idiot, you write the answers on your best friend’s book bag, and make sure you use indelible ink!’ ‘What’s inedible?’ I once saw a very good practitioner.  He was teaching Year Nines, new to him, and he simply ignored any question he thought had already been covered, or that the asker could solve for themselves.  At the same time, any good, incisive question would get a lot of attention.  He told me that it took about a term, but after that the quality of pupil questions would really be high.  He was a very successful teacher, who gained excellent results, and therefore his system probably worked.  But I couldn’t help wondering whether he was deterring the nervous pupil from putting their hand up. No Hands Up Which leads neatly on…you might almost thing I’d planned this.  No hands up classrooms definitely encourage high quality comments and questions.  It takes some time, and the teacher has to be very firm in the beginning, but after a while pupils do learn to take their turn and use their freedom wisely. Thus, the question that has already been covered tends not to be asked, unless it is articulated in a different way. The teacher in the no hands up classroom does not insist on silence.  They recognise that verbalising ideas helps them to be reinforced.  Therefore, when a question is asked, a point made, or a solution offered, it is fine for students to talk together briefly to get the concept in their minds.  A good teacher can tell the difference between talk on the area of triangles and talk about last night’s ‘Love’s Triangle’ and allows such discussions to happen. Pairs and Group Work Really on a roll now, as that leads with stupendous structure to the importance of pairs and group work.  We are all happier to encourage students to ask questions where we feel confident, and we feel most confident with our peers.  So, encourage lessons where pupils work together; the quality of questioning will be extremely high. We have all sat through numerous INSET session advocating ‘talk partners’ and suchlike.  And the thing is, it really does work. Not Everybody Wants To Ask – It Doesn’t Mean That They Are Not Learning A very important point here.  And an important one to use when somebody has been assessing your lesson and offers the criticism that you did not include all of the class in your discussions.  Some children simply do not like asking questions.  Or, for that matter, answering them.  I know, I have a daughter who dreads being picked on, or put in a one to one situation where she will be forced to communicate with the teacher. She likes to absorb, and does so well.  She has sorted out numerous ways to solve problems.  It might be talking with a friend, asking at home, looking in a book, researching on her phone.  But what she will not do is draw attention to herself in the classroom.  The teachers she loves, and works hard for, are the ones who recognise this; the ones for whom she has no time are those who pin her into the corner by expecting her to ask when she is stuck. As a rosy spectacled, doting dad I like to think that this nervousness has allowed my daughter to reach where we all want to be with our pupils.  That is, that they have reached a stage where their learning is metacognitive. This pedagogic theory states that learners have reached the point where they know what they need to learn, and how to go about doing it.  Thus, the questions they ask are usually of themselves, and the answers are ones they discover under their own steam.

They will use their teacher as a source of knowledge or trainer of skills when required, but their learning is truly independent. It is an irony, but perhaps the teacher most successful at encouraging pupil questions is the one who gets asked the least.