David Gimson describes how cross-curricular observation helped teachers to develop more effective questioning techniques – and also led to them asking their own questions about the G&T ‘label’

Our school (an 11-18 urban mixed comprehensive) is probably in much the same situation in terms of G&T as many other schools. Colleagues run some really inspirational out-of-class activities, and there is a lot of very good practice within lessons, but we can’t be sure that our most able students are consistently getting the stimulus and challenge to which they are entitled.

Cross-curricular observations

We decided that the key to improving provision was to develop teacher expertise in questioning and discussion because we felt that these techniques were crucial to getting students ‘switched on’ to academic subjects. With support from Dr Julia Ipgrave at Oxford Brookes University, we used a Developing Expertise Award from NAGTY to set up a cross-curricular research group, involving teachers from maths, English, biology and history. The teachers:

  • observed each other teaching in Years 10 to 13, and met to discuss feedback
  • carried out interviews with pupils and collected their views on what makes for really exciting questioning and discussion.

We found that looking at learning in different subject areas was a liberating experience. Outside our own subjects, we were taken out of our usual role as ‘experts’, and enabled to see the lesson from the perspective of learners. Because we were forced to think hard about the subject matter, we were able to understand in much more depth what the teacher was trying to do. It gave us a much broader view of what it is like to be a student. We gained additional respect for the professional skills of colleagues, and developed more confidence in our own professionalism as we realised just what a sophisticated art it is to manage questioning and discussion effectively. Feedback from the observations, and very clearly from the students we spoke to, suggests that classroom atmosphere and ethos are the most important factors in making questioning and discussion work. It is perhaps an obvious finding, but we realised more deeply than before just how important it is to know your classes really well. It is essential to plan for the specific human dynamics of the group in order to make small group and whole-class discussion work. Students told us that discussions were usually better at GCSE than in Key Stage 3, and better at A-level than at GCSE because groups were more cohesive and more committed. They also suggested that discussions got better as the school year progressed and students became more comfortable with each other. They did not want to take risks in front of comparative strangers. It was also very important that teachers modelled the behaviour they expected to see in discussion, and showed a readiness to ‘be wrong’ when faced with higher-order questions. Arranging the seating so that everyone could see each other was important.

Interestingly, students expressed strong dislike of artificial ‘bonding’ exercises at the start of the year, being forced to work with people they did not know well, and being forced to contribute by the teacher when they did not feel ready. One of the most encouraging pieces of feedback that they gave us, was to emphasise that the fact that someone is not contributing does not mean that they are not enjoying or benefiting from the discussion, and that firing questions at quiet, (apparently) non-participating students can spoil the atmosphere and break the flow of the discussion.

Creating the right conditions for lively discussion

  • Plan carefully – choose stimulating questions to ask.
  • Be flexible – allow participants to digress (within reason).
  • Get to know your students and help them to feel comfortable with you and each other.
  • Model the behaviour you expect to see in discussion; show a readiness to ‘be wrong’.
  • Arrange seating so that everyone can see each other.
  • Acknowledge that a student who is not contributing may still be thinking hard and benefiting from the discussion.
  • Avoid breaking the flow of discussion, particularly by firing off questions at quiet, apparently non-participating students.

Preparation We discovered early on that planning for questioning is absolutely fundamental to success. We have found Bloom’s famous ‘Taxonomy’ a useful tool for understanding different levels of questioning, but greatly prefer Morgan and Saxton’s ‘Taxonomy of Personal Engagement’ as an aid to planning questions. This taxonomy takes the student from interest (being curious about the task), through engaging, committing, internalising (gaining ownership of new ideas), and interpreting, to evaluating (being prepared to put new understanding to the test). Morgan and Saxton’s  Asking Better Questions (1994) is full of practical advice, examples and model lessons, and we cannot recommend it too highly. We have found that without preparation we tend to ask lower-order questions, which are unlikely to generate a creative response. ‘The kinds of questions the teacher asks will reveal to the pupil the kind of thinking that is expected of them.’ Our experience has been that getting the overarching question right takes lots of thought but often shapes the lesson and ensures that the discussion will be productive. It also allows the teacher to feel in control of the discussion even if it goes off in an unexpected direction. Students have told us that they very much like discussing controversial topics, and that the best discussions happen spontaneously, and about topics that relate to the subject and not directly to the syllabus. One teacher found himself beginning a lesson looking at whether Hitler controlled Nazi Germany more through terror or through propaganda, and finishing it with an impassioned debate about the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Powerfully held views were expressed with respect on both sides. Students tended to see this kind of debate taking place in RE, English, or history. They felt that it was difficult to have this kind of discussion in maths or science unless you are very able or very confident – the technical language which these subjects demand is too complex for the average student. However, students said that they enjoyed working in small groups on problems in chemistry, biology, and maths, because peer explanations helped them to grasp concepts much more thoroughly, and observations suggested that this kind of team work, which promoted student talk, was very effective.

Both the literature and the observations gave us some specific techniques which we have found useful. We have tried to:

  • give students more time to answer questions by handing them out in advance, or simply (as is well known) by giving them more wait time
  • in history, borrowing a technique observed in English – giving students a column for what we know, and a column for inferences based on what we know – has transformed factual note-taking, enabling sixth formers to think critically about the work even of highly respected academic historians
  • provide structure to small group work by being very definite about individual roles, such as scribe, researcher and reporter.

None of these improvements are particularly original or ground-breaking, but they have helped us to make incremental improvements to our practice.

Radical rethink

One unexpected outcome of our work has been a radical rethink of what it means to be gifted and talented in our school. We have a register of G&T students partly based on CATs taken in Year 7, and partly on staff, parent, and student recommendation. However, observing outside our own subjects led us to re-examine and question this register. The section of our register based on CATs is heavily weighted towards students from ‘professional’ backgrounds. We came to feel that many students whose potential has perhaps never been recognised, because they bring less ‘cultural capital’ to school, are missing from the register, in a way that is disturbing. We also felt that the register was a blunt instrument: it was very encouraging to see students who were not doing well in one’s own subject area, show real talent in another, but it also made us realise that labelling particular students as ‘G&T’ on staff lists could be confusing.

G&T label

Finally, we became very concerned about the effect of labelling students as ‘gifted and talented’ – as we have had to do when recommending students for NAGTY membership. The phrase ‘gifted and talented’ has inflated the self-perception of a minority of students in a damaging way. Some of this group are poorly motivated and underperforming, but don’t recognise the need to try hard: they are ‘gifted’. By contrast, each time letters have gone out to members of a year group about NAGTY membership, some students have felt deflated because friends or siblings have been identified as ‘gifted and talented’ and they have not. Given the evidence that self-perception has a major impact on academic achievement, this is a disturbing phenomenon. We are fully committed to developing the talents of our most able students (as part of our commitment to the comprehensive ideal) and agree very strongly with Professor Deborah Eyre, director of NAGTY, that ‘the basic curriculum must be specifically designed to anticipate excellence if the needs of the G&T are to be properly catered for.’ We think that it is right that we should try to identify the most able students as they emerge through all stages of their education. We are very grateful both for Excellence in Cities funding, and for NAGTY support for our research. But we have a real problem with the phrase ‘gifted and talented’.

We may have to use this phrase, which has been determined nationally, in dealings with bodies outside the school, but within it, we would like to recast ‘G&T’ as I&E – independence and enquiry. Independence and enquiry are qualities that are open to all, and which we would like to promote across the whole curriculum. They are particularly appropriate for able students who want to extend their learning beyond the conventional demands of ordinary homework and classwork. As Professor Eyre suggests in her recent paper, Gifted and Talented: What Really Works (11 June 2007), ‘pupils should begin to identify themselves as G&T through their response to the high challenge curriculum’. Pushing independence and enquiry would help students to self-identify in that way, without giving the suggestion, as the current terminology does, that to be ‘gifted and talented’ is to have arrived, rather than just to have begun a long journey towards excellence.