Asking real questions in the classroom

One of the main ways in which teachers ‘give’ feedback to pupils is through follow-up questioning. This is sometimes the case in written feedback, but is particularly the case in oral feedback, as part of dynamic classroom teaching, in which feedback is folded into learning and is indistinguishable from the discussion and exploration of ideas. It is one key way in which teachers insist on deeper thinking.*In English, it is one of the key ways in which we push analysis and explore response.

Questioning, after all, is how people usually give each other feedback in the non-classroom world. If, in conversation, someone says something which falls short of what we need from them – in scope, in clarity, in depth, in accuracy, in precision – then we simply respond with a question. We don’t tell them that they should have said it differently and set them a next-step target.

Conv 1.JPG

Skilled teachers have a repertoire of types of follow-up question, which elicit different sorts of response and therefore point pupils towards different directions of thought, or different refinements of practice. For example, these are some:

Questions which push for more clarity or more depth.

What do you mean by…?
Can you say more about…?
In what way…?
How exactly…?

Questions which require re-evaluation or justification of thinking.

But how do you know…?
Why do you think that…?
Are you sure that…?
But what if…?

Questions which move thinking across to another example or topic.

So is it the same as/for/when…?
How does it/that compare to…?
Can you think of other/a different…?
When else…?

Questions which ask about the thinking or learning process behind an idea or point.

When/how/what did you discover…?
How did you find/work out…?
What made you think of…?
Why did you decide…?

Questions which move the pupil towards greater complexity or difficulty.

Could you explain…?
What would happen if…?
Does that suggest any other…?
What might be the problem with…?

Questions which ask for a more personal angle or an evaluative response.

What do you, personally, think…?
What’s your own view about…?
How well…?
In your opinion, why…?

A lot of guidance and training categorises questions according to Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive domains. There are well-rehearsed problems with how Bloom’s theory is invoked in pedagogical thinking but, to me, the main problem with applying it to oral, classroom questioning is that it’s not how real conversations work. In the non-classroom world (in discussion or in chat) we don’t construct questions in order to require a particular kind of thinking, but because we want to know something.


The questions listed above all have a primary social function, rather than just a pedagogical one. They can all be genuine enquiries. You might genuinely want to know more about a pupil’s thinking. You might genuinely need something clarifying. You might genuinely want to know more details. You might genuinely be interested in their opinion. And so on.

At a talk a few years ago, I heard Michael Rosen say – as an aside – that he believed passionately that we should never ask a question in education to which we already know the answer.*2 This may be rather an absolute position, but it’s a challenge which is really worth taking up sometimes, if only as an experiment. (It’s easier in my own subject, English, than in some others…) His point, of course, is that there is power and there is respect in genuinely dialogic teaching – in which pupils are actually telling you something, rather than just performing. Pupils tend to think more deeply and with more investment when they feel that they are being asked something out of genuine interest, as parties to a conversation.

Of course, such ‘real’ questioning can still be highly didactic, in the true sense of the word – intended to teach. And there may also be an element of dissembling – of pretending curiosity, puzzlement, wonder or confusion, in order to draw pupils’ thinking out. Teachers are trained to bear themselves with authority, to project status and to develop an expert presence. This is, quite rightly, how we are meant to be. And just try searching for an image of a ‘teacher’ who doesn’t look like they already know everything.Teacher.JPGThis is one reason why, if you watch teachers asking questions in class, their facial expressions tend typically to be authoritative, knowing, testing or expectant. There’s nothing wrong with being these things, but my theory is that when teachers are looking puzzled, quizzical, curious or wondering then they are probably likely to be getting more interesting responses to their questions. Dialogue is likely to be more genuine. Pupils are likely to be feeling less like they are performing, and more like they are participants. It will also be easier to foster a culture of inquiry, of intellectual experimentation and of debate – all helpful for creating real challenge in the classroom.

indekx.pngOne of my Year 11 students once commented: “The thing about Mr Durran is that he teaches as though he doesn’t know anything.” I wasn’t quite sure how to take this: I do believe completely in the role of the teacher as subject expert, and in the central importance to good teaching of powerful explanations and of authoritative instruction. But she meant it as a compliment, and the phrase “as though” was key: she wasn’t fooled by all of my puzzlement or intrigue, but she still appreciated the way lessons felt exploratory and how what she had to say seemed to mean something.

At least I hope that’s what she meant.


*1 Notoriously, the most challenging follow-up question is Why? Any parent of small children knows that it usually only takes about four of these to reach the most fundamental properties of the universe.

“What’s that bird doing?”
“It’s eating a worm.”
“Because it needs food, I suppose.”
“Well, because it needs energy.”
“Because nothing can happen without energy.”
“Well, that’s just a fundamental law. It’s all about thermodynamics. You see, the sum of the entropies will…”

*Michael has since modified his position to this, which seems unquestionable to me:

a) We should make time for asking questions for which we don’t have an answer.
b) If ever asking questions for which we do have an answer, we must ask ourselves why are we asking?!

See also Who is doing what in the classroom? A tool for planning and reflection
See also Folding feedback into learning

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