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Encouraging students to ask questions in the classroom

Written By: Beth Budden
12 min read
A research project examining why pupils avoid asking questions and how to counteract this

Two years ago, I embarked on an action research project for my Master’s (MA) dissertation. I began by attempting to find out how effective Assessment for Learning (AfL) practices were at my school. Rudimentary practices like sharing learning intentions, exemplars and formulation of success criteria were used across the school, but how far were these really contributing towards authentic independent learning, so that pupils were active agents with a sense of enquiry about their learning? All too often, pupils demonstrated quite a passive and compliant approach when such practices should legitimatise and promote pupil voice and ownership of their own learning. 

AfL strategies are now common practice in most classrooms (Swaffield, 2011). These strategies aim to enable pupils to engage in independent, self-assessment of their own learning, moving towards increasing autonomy as learners (Swaffield, 2011). Much emphasis is placed on teachers’ questioning and feedback to assess pupil understanding and support progression; however, little reference is made to pupils’ questioning, with there being an historic ‘scarcity of pupil initiated questions’ in lessons (Whittaker, 2012, p.588). This was also my experience as a teacher of twelve years. If a critical aspect of self-assessment is the learner recognising when further clarification is required, pupils’ questions should dominate classrooms where AfL strategies are used; however, often they do not. There is a conspicuous absence of pupils’ questions in classrooms paralleled with a powerful presence of those asked by teachers.

What children and teachers talk about in classrooms is important, but how talk unfolds is equally as important.

Classroom talk

Researchers like Alexander (2008), Mercer (2006) and Skidmore (2006) have shown that a dialogic approach to teaching, where pupil talk is central to learning, is more effective. However, as Alexander (2008, p.15) suggests, British and American classrooms have long since been dominated by a seemingly unnatural ‘question-answer recitation script,’ as opposed to continental classrooms where more time is devoted to dialogue and enquiry. Alexander (2008) also finds that ‘authentic questions’ – questions which the teacher has not ‘prescribed or implied a particular answer’ are rare in British classrooms (Alexander, 2008). Could it be that pupil conceptions of questions in classrooms relate more to testing and checking rather than to genuine mechanisms for learning?

Lyle (2008) finds that the dominance of the Initiation, Response, Feedback (IRF) interactions in classrooms means that pupils’ own questions rarely fit into the traditional model of classroom talk. We also know that within AfL there is much emphasis placed on teachers’ questioning in order to assess pupils’ learning. Indeed, Wiliam (2011, p. 79) asserts that it is the quality of a teachers’ questioning that matters in AfL, as many teachers’ questions neither ‘cause thinking’ or ‘provide information for the teachers on what to do next. This suggests that questioning, as interpreted within AfL, is focused on the immediate needs of the teacher in situ, positioning them as the key agent who drives learning forward with the potential that pupils forget the value and purpose of their own questions.

I wondered if this threw up an internal conflict for AfL as on the one hand it aims to drive pupils towards independence by making learning explicit at every turn, while on the other hand there is this emphasis on constant interrogation of pupils by teachers which suggests a form of dependence.

There is no doubt that teachers need to ask questions – to say otherwise would restrict the role of the teacher to something like a bystander when teachers need to get inside the heads of their pupils in order to help them learn. However, if the interactions between pupils’ and teachers are dominated by the IRF type communication then are we in danger of perverting the genuine nature of enquiry that should be at the heart of authentic and enduring learning? We might ask, to what purpose do such ‘ping pong’ or even ‘pause, bounce, pounce’ questioning interactions serve in the quest for true learning, except to confirm that much of the time education is about working out what ‘they’ want you to say so they’ll leave you alone, or so that you can get your credentials and be on your way? 

When a child first enters school, they are full to the brim with enquiry, yet school appears to suffocate this.

Conceptions of questioning

Ironically, teachers often do as little as possible to invite pupils’ questions and if they do arise, they are more often shut down as quickly as possible in order that the lesson continues in the direction envisaged by the teacher.  As Rop (2002, p. 17) describes, ‘questions hold contradictory meanings as powerful conflicting pressures come into play in the everyday patterns of classroom dialogue’. In essence, teachers feel that they haven’t time for pupils to ask anything much at all. Similarly to  Whittaker (2012), Rop (2002, p. 17?) found that pupils’ questions can mean ‘an interruption to the normal flow of things which then ‘pose threats’ to ‘control’ and the ability to cover content.

Over the years we have adopted a recitational style of teaching, with the need for speedy coverage of a prescriptive curriculum and pupils’ questions play little part in this it seems.

In 1976, when I was just starting out at primary school, Hunkins (1976, p. 4) asserted that in order for pupil’s questions to flourish, pedagogy is required in which ‘the major actor or actress in the learning drama’ is the pupil. While I hope this might be more of a reality these days, for too long, curriculum coverage, data, progress and the performance of the ‘skilled’ teacher have dominated the landscape while learning and the experience of the enquiring pupil have ironically remained secondary.

When a child first enters school, they are full to the brim with enquiry, yet school appears to suffocate this. As Whittaker (2012) finds, the number of questions pupils ask declines as pupils get older and when pupils do ask questions they are mostly operational, asking for resources, the toilet or when break will come.  Baumfield and Mroz (2002) found that nursery children asked 50% per cent of questions at home, but the moment they crossed the threshold at nursery this fell to less than 5% and again these were largely only managerial or permission questions rather than questions to help them learn. Pupils’ questions seem to have little place in schools.

A whole world was revealed to me that had gone largely unnoticed … a hidden climate where asking questions was considered a sign of weakness.

Pupils’ self-esteem as a silent barrier

If we have seen that many barriers exist to pupils asking their own questions, then the classroom climate also features here. Baumfield and Mroz (2002) found that the lack of pupils’ questions was also associated with the general dominance of the teachers’ voice over that of the pupil. However, they also found that where teachers deliberately sought to change this and encouraged pupils to ask questions, creating ‘communities of enquiry,’ not unlike Alexander’s dialogic teaching (2008), pupils’ ability to reason improved (2002, p. 31). In essence, when pupils ask questions, their learning is enhanced. 

However, taking a dialogic approach to teaching is still not enough to enable pupils to utilise their innate desire to question their teacher and to fulfil the potential of self-assessment within AfL.  It seems that pupils’ self-esteem around asking questions sits as a silent barrier and my own small-scale classroom research confirmed this.

As Whittaker (2012) found, protecting self-esteem and avoiding loss of status in the classroom act as barriers to asking questions for the majority of pupils. The pupils in my research project talked about not wanting to ‘look dumb in front of the class.’  Through interviews and anonymous surveys, a whole world was revealed to me that had gone largely unnoticed.

Pupils talked about the mere look from other children on their table being enough to prevent them from asking for help, a nudge and a giggle, the whispers of ‘what, don’t you know?’ all added to a hidden climate where asking questions was considered a sign of weakness rather than an essential tool of self-assessment to take their learning forward.

I had taught this class for two years; I knew them as well as I would ever know any pupils yet I had not foreseen this. I took a dialogic approach to teaching, deliberately making pupil talk a central theme to the way I taught. Lessons often began with pupils talking in groups to agree on quality and establish success criteria; listening to pupils talk to each other was the way I assessed during lessons, while stand up questioning of pupils in a whole class setting took less precedence. I also thought I encouraged questions within a spirit of openness. It seemed to work too, I had great results year on year, yet I knew there was still something not quite right, an underlying reserve that clipped their independence from fully flourishing.

This wasn’t about data or raising attainment, this was about setting children up as life-long learners so that they left primary school filled with confidence and tenacity, not content with ticking boxes or waving their credentials, but wanting and knowing how to take control of their own paths in learning. And what had I got? Pupils who were scared of ‘looking dumb’?

Those children who were regular questioners were also those children tending much more towards a flexible view of intelligence.

Pupils’ conceptions of intelligence

My research led me towards the work on pupils’ conceptions of intelligence by the phycologist Carol Dweck (2000), which is often misunderstood in schools where ‘Growth Mindset’ displays encourage children to ‘try harder’ and ‘never give up’. Needless to say, this is unlikely to have an impact if pupils’ and teachers’ conceptions of intelligence remain the fixed.

According to Dweck (2000), children who have fixed conceptions of intelligence are more likely to avoid situations where a perceived lack of intelligence might be exposed, such as asking a question in class. This is because these children possess what Dweck (2000, p. 2) calls an ‘entity theory’ of intelligence. Here, intelligence is viewed as a ‘fixed trait’ of which a fixed amount is possessed and no more (Dweck, 2000). For these children, the quota of intelligence resides within and cannot be altered. Consequently, children with this view of intelligence try to ensure they are always perceived as possessing enough. ‘They must look smart and, at all costs, not look dumb’ (Dweck, 2000, p. 3).

Alternatively, Dweck (2000, p. 3) found that children who viewed intelligence as ‘malleable’ and changeable were much more open to revealing difficulties in learning and taking risks. These children possess an ‘incremental theory’ of intelligence and see it as something that can be improved through effort (Dweck, 2000, p. 3). I asked myself, is it those children who appear to have a more fixed mind sets who are holding back on asking those all-important ‘questions for learning’? 

I began buy taking simple surveys in class and I was able to establish three groups of children. Those who asked learning questions regularly (a tiny minority), those who asked them very occasionally and those who rarely ever asked me anything, ‘reluctant questioners’. Then through interviewing and further surveying I was able establish which children were more inclined to view intelligence as fixed. At the same time, I noted pupils’ background and present learning ability alongside this.

Interestingly, I found no correlation between those children who had more flexible, incremental views of intelligence and learning ability or background.  Those children who seemed to have a growth mind set were from all types of backgrounds and were at all levels of ability. When I analysed this information alongside the type of questioners the children were, those children who were regular questioners were also those children tending much more towards a flexible view of intelligence. In other words, children who recognised intelligence as a changeable entity were more likely to ask the questions they needed to in order to move on, thus utilising the self-assessment opportunities that an AfL framework affords.

For the first time, I had pupils stop me in mid-flow and ask me to repeat an explanation or explain a term in a different way.

The benefits of my participatory approach to research

I deliberately took a participatory approach to the research so that at every juncture I discussed the results with my pupils and sought solutions. We had long and passionate debates about how it felt to feel ‘dumb’ and how divisive this was when children ridiculed each other over learning. Quiet pupils suddenly opened up about out it happened and how it made them feel – I don’t think I’d ever seen pupils so animated, tenacious and in control. We also talked about what we thought intelligence really was and why some pupils might feel like ridiculing others because of their own lack of confidence in themselves. I’m not sure I will ever have more profound and mature conversations with eight years olds. The impact of those deeply honest and sometimes uncomfortable conversations was tangible. 

In the end, the pupils made their own ‘charter for questioning’ and created posters they hung up in class. We shared the types of questions pupils could ask in order to clarify learning and they stuck these up too.  In a very short space of time, things really changed; pupils really began to use me to forge their way forward. For the first time, I had pupils stop me in mid-flow and ask me to repeat an explanation or explain a term in a different way. I had to face my own conflicting feelings with wanting to keep the lesson ‘on track’, a deeply misguided instinct that valued ‘task completion’ over learning; the true distinction between lesson and learning pace really came home to me.

Researchers so far may have overlooked just how far pupils’ conceptions of intelligence affect pupils’ questioning and curtail effective self-assessment.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it seems it does not follow that using AfL practices will automatically produce learners who possess the agency to self-assess and ask questions. This agrees with Swaffield’s (2011) ideas concerning the use of AfL in schools (2011). A range of factors are required in order to enable this end and some of these derive from the innate ideas pupils possess about themselves as learners. We know that pupils’ questions are important within the learning process; however, researchers so far may have overlooked just how far pupils’ conceptions of intelligence affect pupils’ questioning and curtail effective self-assessment.

While Whittaker (2012, p. 588) identifies the ‘social barrier’ of pupils avoiding revealing ignorance and losing status, he does not examine the root causes of this. My research found that pupils avoid asking questions because of the fear of appearing to lack intelligence and this is likely to be linked to how they view intelligence itself. In short, AfL practices appear to be less effective in pupils who avoid exposing deficits in intelligence, and pupils who do this are more likely to understand intelligence as being fixed and unchangeable (Dweck 2000). 

As Swaffield (2011, p. 433). describes, ‘AfL has gained increasing international prominence in both policy and practice but some of its proliferation…has been accompanied by distortion of essential features’. Swaffield (2011) focuses upon the ritualistic implementation of AfL where pressure for curriculum coverage and raising standards has perversely undermined the fundamental AfL endeavour: the autonomous, independent learner.  In short, the implementation of classroom practices is not the same as making an impact on children’s learning. This impact can only be assured through understanding the distinction between enactments of learning and authentic acts of learning which are easily disguised by acts of compliance.

Consequently, educators need to be alert to the kinds of conceptualisations held by both pupils and teachers which will support authentic learning, as well as understand the key pedagogical aim of AfL as developing independent children who ask questions.

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