It is really hard to ignore a pupil’s waving hand, especially if its accompanied by that endearing thing when they point at themselves with the other at the same time. Ignoring a child’s request for attention, especially if they want to ask a question, can feel like a betrayal of our core purpose.
Many of the children we teach seem to feel this way too, working themselves through annoyance to indignation and sometimes to outright fury if they feel they aren’t given the attention they believe they are entitled to whenever they want it. Whether it’s an absurd request to go the toilet five minutes after break or a sensible one about the meaning of a tricky word, many children I have taught have picked up the belief they have the right to be heard whenever they want to be.
But allowing questions at any time is a mistake and by indulging a culture in which this is permitted we do our children a disservice.
- When hands go up brains go down.
When a child puts their hand up the rest of their world often stops existing. As life goes on hold, everything that happens after that point passes them by. Sometimes they’re so fixated that they even miss the answer to the actual question they’ve raised their hand to ask and are blinkingly surprised when told this. This, of course, isn’t limited to children; exactly the same thing happens to me when I raise my hand (far too often I know) at conferences.
Children waiting to ask a question don’t just risk missing the answer to their question. They miss everything else too, which means when the teacher sets work they can find themselves lost.
Their only solution is to ask another question, which often goes something like “I don’t understand what to do.” The only option for the teacher is to re-explain, which can very easily lead pupils to believe listening hard the first time isn’t necessary as any time they choose to put their hand up they can get a personal catch-up. Even if this worked for an individual pupil it is unfair for the rest of the group, who have to listen to an explanation they’ve already heard when they should be being taught new material.
- Classroom discussion becomes dominated by a few confident children.
We all know that unless we take steps to stop it, usually it’s the same children who ask questions. It’s worth considering whether this is because by allowing confident children to ask questions too freely, we allow them to disproportionally affect the content of the lesson and dominate the time of their teacher. Sometimes, in the midst of what seems a really productive back-and-forth it can be easy to miss that only three or four children are involved while the rest sit as silently as a crowd at a tennis match, increasingly mystified as the discussion moves further and further away from the aims of the lesson.
By reducing the amount of time children are allowed to freely question, we may actually end up teaching clearer, more purposeful lessons that benefit more pupils.
- Children stop listening to each other.
Allowing free-for-all open questioning sessions can result in children believing the best way to learn is a one-on-one dialogue with their teacher and that it is in their interests to get as much one-on-one attention as possible. This means they don’t listen to whole class instruction or each other because they are focused on waiting for their ‘turn’. Those that have to wait the longest may get frustrated and begin shouting out, causing disorder. Those that through either shyness or a developed understanding of what is polite and what isn’t, don’t want to shout out find their own learning gets shoved to the side. Furthermore, it means that when a child asks a really good question and gets an answer, the explanation is often missed by the other pupils.
- Questions are often inappropriate
Whatever children have been told in the past, it is not true that there are no bad questions. There are loads of them. Often they begin with “what if..” as in “what if Senlac Hill was a volcano and it erupted when William’s knights charged up it?” Most teachers, especially of able children, are used to this sort of silliness and quash it quickly, by saying something along the lines of ‘that isn’t a relevant question.’ The problem here is in the unfairness of expecting novices to be able to work out what is and what is not an appropriate question to ask. By definition, novices lack the knowledge they need to understand whether their burning question is worth asking or not. The problem here is by condoning or worse, encouraging questions at any time we imply that it’s up to our pupils, without any real guidance, to form good, relevant questions independently; without the prerequisite knowledge, which they are in the process of being taught, the only way for them to do this is by a convoluted process of trial and error, which is at best inefficient and at worst, destructive to the careful path of learning that we, as subject experts, have mapped out for our novices.
For any teacher it is difficult to keep to well structured, planned explanation when it’s delivered to a forest of waving hands and impossible for anyone to do if children think they are allowed, or even expected, to interrupt it with whatever happens to pop into their head.
So what do we do?
I am not for a moment suggesting that we should not allow questions during our lessons, but I do think many of us, myself included, need to be more intentional and careful about how we plan to include them. Here, as just a start, are a few suggestions as to how to turn student questions from irritating bugbear to productive learning mechanisms.
- Plan periods for questioning into the lesson.
Planning discrete periods into the lesson for questions is a good start. These, using strategies Doug Lemov (and Lee Donaghy) would call ‘bright lines’, can be flagged well in advance so pupils know that there will be opportunities to ask questions at a planned point, which means they don’t have a reason to interrupt at other times. For example, it might be worth saying “I’m going to explain this for five minutes. Then I’m going to take three questions about it. While I’m explaining, keep your hand down and listen.”
- Don’t allow pupils to raise hands while someone else is talking.
When a pupil is asking a question, insist that all others put their hands down and listen to it and the answer, whoever is giving it, even in the periods of the lesson explicitly designated as being for questions. Start by telling pupils you are going to do this and the reason for this rule, then remind them and show you are serious by stopping the questioner or your own explanation if other hands go up.
- Model good questions and allow pupils time to develop and practise their own.
After an explanation, before allowing pupils to ask questions show examples of good and bad ones, and explain the difference between the two. For example, after explaining reasons for William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings it might be helpful to show a class the question “Why did Harold’s army fall repeatedly for William’s feigned flight tactic?”, and then explain this is a really good question because although it is based on your explanation, the answer wasn’t included in it and it is genuinely difficult to understand. A modelled bad question, might be the silly volcano one, because there was nothing in the explanation that referenced a volcano and that historians aren’t generally in the business of making guesses based on very unlikely premises.
- Make yourself available .
Contrary to how I may sometimes come across on this blog I am not actually particularly grumpy and I’m never mean. Sometimes really enthusiastic children come to my classes with books they’ve got out of the library or have been given by their parents full of extra material not included in my lessons and they’re so full of pride and questions they look as if they’re on the verge of popping. When this happens I’ll make time at break, lunch or after school to sit and talk to them about it properly. I make a big fuss about how happy I am (I actually am, which helps) and allow them all the time they want to ramble away.
Perhaps some might feel that this is an intrusion that adds to workload. I’d say that if talking to a child about something they’ve found particularly fascinating about your subject feels like work, then either your school’s working you too hard or you’ve got your priorities wrong.
For me these moments are some of the best there are.
Any questions? I’ve finished now so it’s the right time. Hands up. I’ve only got time for three, so make sure it’s good!