At any level, in any sector, in any setting, questioning is one of the most vital and fundamental tools we have to support, assess and guide students. Whether used at the beginning of a lesson to identify prior knowledge, throughout a session to evaluate student understanding or at the end of a session (and in the subsequent days, weeks and months) to assess knowledge retention, the questions we ask (and which students answer) is a constant focus.
All teachers are aware of this: research indicates that teachers ask as many as 300-400 questions per day, and up to 120 questions per hour. So why then, do so many questions represent wasted opportunities? With so many questions being asked on a daily and hourly basis, why do so many questions focus on individual students, individual responses and a failure to identify the needs of the majority of students?
Mainly, this is as a result of the approach that so many teachers use – that which Dylan Wiliam calls ‘table tennis questioning’. The majority of questioning follows the ‘IRE’ model:
Initiation: the teacher will ask an individual student a question
Response: the student will contemplate the question and offer an answer
Evaluation: the teacher will review the answer that has been given and provide some form of feedback about the response (strengths, areas for improvement, amount of detail given etc.).
Although this method can be enormously effective, it also has significant drawbacks. For starters, if this style of questioning is being employed in a large class (say in a Secondary school English lesson), there are likely to be 20-30 students in the lesson. The consequence of using IRE means that when a question is being asked of an individual student, there are then 19-29 students who are not being engaged in an effective manner. In worst case scenarios, we now have most of a class who are sitting idle whilst one student is assessed.
To take this to an extreme, if 29 out of 30 students in a session are questioned, and each question requires 30 seconds for completion of IRE, there remains a student who has not given a single contribution or been assessed in 15 minutes.
So then, what is the alternative? Easy: PPPB.
If IRE is more table tennis or badminton (requiring interaction from individual students), PPPB works more like a game of basketball, including several students at a time and giving opportunities to assess groups of students and developing discussion along the way:
Firstly, pose the entire class a question (not simply aiming a question at one individual). Before doing this, emphasise that students shouldn’t shout out or discuss answers with a peer.
Next, give time for students to formulate an answer. This is vital. Too many teachers are afraid of the silence which reigns after a question has been asked, but it is so important to give students this time.
It’s time to ask for a response. Identify the lucky student and ask them to give their response (and the reasoning behind this response) whilst again making sure others don’t interrupt or begin to give their answer.
And now the main difference from IRE and the essential step which makes this approach so much more effective and valuable: having initially heard from a student, do not give any feedback at this point, but instead move (or ‘bounce’) to another student and ask for their response to the initial answer. Do they agree or disagree with the initial student response (and why)? If they could add to any part of this response, what would they add? What is their answer? What if the parameters of the initial question changed, would the initial response still hold true?
With this final step, teachers are then able to effectively assess student knowledge and understanding, as well as ensuring engagement from all students. When we deliver the evaluation component of IRE, what we are actually doing is communicating to students what we feel is the ‘right’ answer, which will then automatically become the student answer (as most students will look to give the answer that they think we want to hear).
With minimal preparation (some pre-planning can help when creating and developing potential questions), this approach is enormously effective, and students feel much more liberated in giving responses in comparison to the narrow focus which IRE allows. As well as benefits for students, we can begin to ask questions which have a massive impact on our ability to assess students and, crucially, begin to formulate a deeper level of questioning as opposed to asking many hundred ‘shallow’ questions.
Less work: more impact – what’s not to love?
About the author
Jonny Kay is Head of Teaching, Learning and Assessment at a college in the North East. He has previously worked as Head of English and maths in FE and as an English teacher and Head of English in Secondary schools. He tweets @jonnykayteacher and his book, 'Improving Maths and English in Further Education: A Practical Guide', is available now.