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Creating a classroom environment where pupils openly explore ideas

Written By: CUREE
4 min read
Practical approaches for interactive learning

Feedback that opens up thinking and discussion involves engaging with responses to questions and offering pupils opportunities to express themselves. Classrooms where effective interactive learning takes place are characterised by use of feedback to create a conversational environment.

This research review outlines some practical approaches to two-way feedback and open questioning, drawing on two school-based case studies.

Two-way feedback in the classroom

Two-way feedback involves a sustained and iterative cycle of information exchange, designed to help pupils and teachers refine and focus their contributions and make progress towards learning goals. The exchange during questions between pupils and teachers can help teachers evaluate the effectiveness of their support and refine their approach to helping pupils engage with both the content and process of learning (Coe et al., 2014).

Making questions more explicit and visible enhances communication and helps create an environment where pupils feel comfortable in answering the teacher’s questions. The cumulative information exchange between teachers and pupils should have the effect of making the links between the teaching and learning activities, their purposes, and the way they connect explicit; in doing so they make the teaching and the learning process visible and explicit to both partners.

Classrooms where effective interactive learning takes place are characterised by the teacher’s effective use of feedback to stimulate classroom talk. The teacher supports pupils to articulate more complete and elaborate ideas. Feedback creates opportunities for the teacher to involve more pupils and share ownership of the dialogue. By encouraging pupils to develop their ideas and thoughts, teachers can plan next steps in their learning and pupils can be supported to develop a greater understanding and ownership of their learning.

Open questions

Open and closed questions can play a significant role in eliciting feedback from pupils; each have their own uses. Research suggests that the key difference is in the opportunities each type of question creates for classroom interaction.

Open questions, for example, have a range of possible responses, with no one pre-defined ‘correct’ answer. Teachers can use open-ended questioning and tasks to enable pupils to express their ideas and beliefs, for example by asking pupils to draw how their senses work or demonstrate how scientific or mathematical phenomena work in the real world.

Teachers can draw on pupils’ existing understandings and beliefs by asking them to identify both similarities and differences between phenomena to reveal multiple ideas, connections and tensions.

Case study one – the use of conversational feedback

A study about the role teachers play in facilitating interactive classrooms through the use of feedback found that the classrooms where effective interactive learning was taking place were characterised by teachers’ use of feedback to create a conversational environment (Higgins and Smith, 2006). These classrooms had a more even distribution of dialogue between the teacher and pupils than classrooms with poor interactive learning. Teachers used a range of feedback techniques, including:

  • Opening up pupils’ responses to closed questions
  • Encouraging peer-to-peer feedback
  • Facilitating longer responses to questions
  • Engaging with pupils’ ideas, comments and personal reflections
  • Adopting a flexible approach to using pupils’ input to shape lessons.


The study also discussed the nature of open and closed questions. It found that a key difference between open and closed questions lies in the opportunities each type creates for classroom interaction. It also illustrated the potential benefits of adapting closed questions to make them more open (Higgins and Smith, 2006).

Case study two – developing pupil voice through Philosophy for Children

This two-year project was conducted at Lark Rise Lower School, Dunstable, Bedfordshire involving 280 pupils aged 3-9, 12 teachers and 24 support staff (Attard, 2008). The school wanted to develop its use of pupil voice through action research approaches, so that all pupils learned to express themselves and were able to think about and contribute to the learning process. The school turned to pupil voice as a way of challenging assumptions about education. They decided to develop all pupils’ skills in pupil voice processes and adopted several strategies to do this.

30-minute Philosophy for Children lessons

As a first step to involving children in pupil voice activities, 30-minute Philosophy for Children lessons were introduced into all classes, based on the research of Joanna Haynes (2002), so the children could gain positive experiences of discussing together and expressing themselves. The philosophy sessions enabled the children to think more widely about the learning processes they were engaging in. This led to a shared, active questioning in all classrooms by children and staff. Exploration of classroom conditions for learning began with frank discussions about what it felt like to be a child in the class.

Reflective logs and focus groups

Semi-structured interviews with staff, reflective logs kept by the staff and focus groups with children showed that relationships between children and adults were enriched because adults showed curiosity about the children’s points of view, rather than simply telling them what to do. Instead of adults being seen as authority figures, they were seen as expert partners in learning. This led to a greater feeling of trust and caring.

The Philosophy for Children lessons helped the children to develop more flexible views about how their classrooms might look and how lessons might be structured. They also helped teachers to feel more willing to experiment in their classrooms.

Evaluating lessons differently

Furthermore, instead of evaluating their lessons in the usual way, teachers used the philosophy approach for the plenary which involved the children stating what they saw, heard and felt about the activities completed in the lesson. This enabled them to understand learning from the children’s perspective.

Relationships between children and adults were enriched because adults showed curiosity and asked questions about the children’s points of view, rather than simply telling them what to do. Instead of adults being seen as authority figures, they were partners in learning. This led to a greater feeling of trust and caring in the learning environment.

Questions for reflection/discussion

  • Which kinds of questions from you or from each other do you find pupils respond to most openly and extensively? What do your pupils think is the purpose of different kinds of questions?
  • Could recording questions and dialogue in a lesson help you reflect with a colleague on the way two different groups of pupils respond to questions?
  • Although open questions are more likely to generate exploratory talk, teachers’ and pupils’ purposes in posing questions matter too. Could you work with a colleague to record and analyse the patterns and purposes of teachers’ and pupils’ questions in two different lessons to explore how the form and purpose in questions interact and affect how safe pupils feel to take risks?
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