S3 E7 - Getting Questions Right From the Start

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Hi there, it's Jocelyn here with the Structured Literacy Podcast. It's wonderful to welcome you to this episode recorded here in Pataway Burnie, Tasmania, the land of the Palawa people. Just now, I'm sharing a series of episodes focused on helping you build and refine your explicit teaching muscles. After all, it's wonderful to have an evidence-informed program or resource in your hands, but it's what you do with it that matters. 

This Week's Topic - Getting Questions Right From the Start.
In our last episode, I shared five alternatives to asking students to put their hands up. Finding alternatives to this common practice is about ensuring full engagement across the class instead of just having some students responding to instruction. In the last episode, I shared that it's not just about changing up how we elicit student responses, it's also about increasing the number of opportunities that students have to produce correct responses. There's no point in students giving answers if you haven't had robust teaching leading up to asking them the questions. So this episode is all about how we do that. If we want great answers, we need to ask great questions in the right way and at the right time. Let's dive in.

What Are Some of the Pitfalls of Questioning at the Start of New Instruction?
The first element of questioning that I'd like to discuss today is what happens at the start of a new unit of work or topic, and I'd like to share two real-life scenarios with you that I've come across this year. One example is from a primary school, and another is from a secondary. The first example of a 'start of unit folly' was shared by a parent who had attended a start of the year parent information session. She was informed that the students were going to be learning about democracy. (All well and good.) The parents were then told that there would be certain vocabulary learned throughout the unit. (Well, that's great.) But when asked how that vocabulary was going to be taught, the response was that the words were to be written on the board, and the students would be asked to share what they thought the words meant. The second example of something that could be done better comes from a secondary student I know. Their class was beginning a new history unit. The first lesson of the unit included an activity where the teacher displayed a series of images from the time period and asked the students to guess what they were. Now, I'm sure that if I asked that teacher about this particular practice, they'd say that it was designed to get students thinking or to activate prior knowledge. I'll return to those ideas in a moment, but first, I want to come back to the two scenarios I just shared and please understand, I'm not sharing these examples with you so that we can all sit around in judgment of these teachers as if those practices are not occurring in most schools and even our own classrooms. After all, let's not pretend that we've never done something like this ourselves. People who live in glass instructional houses probably shouldn't throw stones. Me included. I'm sharing them as an example of practices like 'hands up' that are so ingrained in our educational toolkit that we don't even think about it.

The problem with these two examples of practice isn't the fact that words or pictures were displayed for the class at the start of the unit. The problem with them is that students were asked to respond and answer questions about things that hadn't been taught yet. This brings me back to the type of questioning that occurs at the start of new instruction. Usually, this is described in terms of activating prior knowledge, creating a hook, or finding out what students already know. The difficulty with questioning at the start of a unit to activate prior learning is that you have to have prior learning in order to activate it.

What are The Negative Impacts of Making Assumptions about Students' Prior Knowledge?
We make so many assumptions when it comes to students' prior learning and prior knowledge. If we are asking questions about things that children don't know, we put them in the position of being unsuccessful in their learning right from the start of the unit or the lesson. The student who had the images displayed said, "But my teacher said that it was okay if we didn't know what they were. So, I don't know what the point of that lesson was." There's two things going on here. Firstly, the kids didn't know why they were doing what they were doing. The second thing was that this student does experience moments of anxiety. So when the teacher asked a question, this student's brain said, "Uh oh, she's asking a question. I'm supposed to have an answer." It doesn't matter how many times the teacher says that, and it doesn't matter if the kids don't know the answers because that's how school works. Teachers ask questions, and kids are expected to answer them. So, asking questions about something students haven't learned about yet immediately puts them in the position of being unsuccessful and I think that this can break trust between the teacher and the student in the learning process. The teacher wants the students to be vulnerable enough to take risks in their learning but then unintentionally and probably unknowingly creates a risky learning environment that can hinder full engagement. 

What Are Some Effective Ways to Determine Student Knowledge?
The next reason we might ask questions at the start of a unit or lesson is to determine what students do and don't know. Sure, we can ask questions, but another way to do this that has worked really well for me in the classroom is to ask students to do a bit of a brain dump on a piece of paper about everything they know about a topic. I recall that I was teaching about symbiosis with a Year 3-4 class some years ago, with a focus on reef environments. So, I asked them to draw what their current understanding of a reef was. They were openly told that the purpose of this was so that I could see what they did and didn't know. They were also told that if they didn't feel like they knew anything, they could just stick a big question mark in the middle of the page, and that was just fine. I told them that I didn't want to be spending a lot of time on something they already knew a lot about, and I didn't want to assume any particular knowledge and make learning harder for them. The final task of the unit happened to be a re-creation of this image with annotations. So, we were able to compare the two images and show what each student had learned, and the students were able to see their learning in front of them. It was literally visible. The diagnosing task, as in determining each student's current understanding, was framed exactly as that, not as a game of ‘guess what's going on in my head’.

Why it can be Difficult Creating Effective Hooks for Students.
Finally, there's the idea of creating a hook for learning. A hook is fine and can be fun and engaging, but hooks are supposed to get us engaged in thinking, not make students anxious or confused. They are also not supposed to distract from the learning at hand. If you find yourself putting more time into funsy planning to create the hook than in teaching the lesson and thinking about students' experiences of learning, it might be time to rethink things. When it comes to hooks, they can take a few forms. You could share a story or scenario that puts students in the position of imagining how it feels to be someone or doing something, provide a demonstration, watch a clip, or complete a reading. When I Googled ‘learning hooks’, loads of ideas came up that were about fun and entertainment rather than learning. Suggestions like, "Have the students create a Play-Doh model fall" into our category here at Jocelyn Seamer Education of frou frou. Things that engage kids in funsy activities but don't lead to learning outcomes. Frou-frou tasks are pretty easy to spot, but there can be quite a fine line between hooks that pique a student's interest and putting them into the position of asking them to come up with responses or answers about things we haven't taught them yet and you know what? Maybe that's the difference. Hooks are presented for students to experience or observe, and the unhelpful version asks the students to provide an answer. So perhaps for you, in your own instruction, the difference here is not about going back to the drawing board and rewriting everything but about thinking about, "Is this an experience or if am I asking the children to produce a response?"

Why it's Important to Focus on Student Learning Outcomes.
Now I can hear people saying, "Oh, but Jocelyn, aren't you taking the fun out of teaching?" Well, that's not my intention. I don't think that's what I'm saying. What I'm asking us to remember is that the point of what we do is student learning outcomes. After all, if I want to learn a new knitting stitch, I go to YouTube to find someone who can show it to me and explain it quickly and simply. I'm not looking for someone to display various bits of knitting equipment and ask me to guess what this thing is or what that thing does or to do a drawing of my finished knitting piece so that I can imagine my way to learning the stitch. I want to be told what to do and shown what to do. I do understand, though, that my knitting video example wouldn't necessarily hold for a longer course or something that I was going to have to think deeply about. In that case, I can see the value of a scenario or big-picture question that will set the scene for the learning to come. I just don't want to be asked to answer that question before I've learned what I need in order to do so. 

Your Task for this Week.
Some of the points made in today's episode might leave you thinking, "Well, that just seems like common sense. Why haven't I thought of that myself?" And if that's the case, please don't be hard on yourself. I still remember reading the book Explicit Direct Instruction and feeling like I'd been smacked over the back of the head about not asking questions about things we haven't taught yet. I felt excited and foolish all at once. I was excited because I could see the possibilities and the positive impacts on my students, but I felt foolish because I genuinely thought, "Well, if I was a good teacher, this would have already occurred to me. I would have already thought about it." But, actually improving practice doesn't work like that. I felt like that now I knew what I needed to do, I was never going back to my old style of teaching again and that's the process of transforming instruction. It's when you get that excitement; it's almost like being at the top of the rollercoaster. Where you're like, "Whoa, look, what's coming. I'm so excited."  It's scary, but actually, it's going to be really great. That's the stuff to pay attention to. And yes, learning new things takes effort, and it can be scary, but it's well worth it if it is leading to better student outcomes.

Your takeaway task for this episode is to reflect on your own teaching, or if you're a leader, observe what happens in your school. How often does what I've described happen today? Then, get to work adjusting how you approach questions, particularly at the start of a lesson or a unit. 

Let's Wrap It Up.
The key points here are just three things.

1) Don't ask students questions about things you haven't taught them yet.

2) Don't put content in front of children and ask them to guess.

3) Think carefully about the hooks for learning that are used and ensure that they are experiences and not tests.

In the next episode, we will be introducing a brand new research to the classroom series to help us make explicit teaching the core of instructional practice so that we can get the absolute best out of the programs and tools we have available to us.

Until next time, happy teaching everyone. Bye.

Looking for teaching resources to help you teach explicitly across the literacy block? Join us inside the Resource Room today! 

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1 comment

Kalpana Jayashankar

Hi Jocelyn,

This transcription, really resonated with me.

I am Montessori trained as well. In Montessori , we never ask random
questions before asking kids questions. In fact the Montessori teacher goes
through explicit direction by showing but not telling before the first
question is asked. She then follows a beautiful sequence called the three
period lesson that I still use in my class. The three period lesson is
three steps to questioning that progresses to match the levels of

I see teachers asking questions before the content is asked all the time!!
It’s even built into our planners at school.

Thanks for bringing attention to damaging questioning practises and funsy
hooks that create more anxiety and confusion instead of building clarity.


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