Steve Mynard, editor of Primary Headship, considers the practicalities of helping young children to develop higher-order questioning skills

The first part of this series argued the case for developing higher-order questioning skills. Part two looks at the practicalities in your setting.

How can we develop questioning skills in our schools?

Questioning skills need to be treated as an aspect of education in their own right and as such will require detailed analysis of their use in your school, training for the teachers and possibly even a policy to back it all up. Before going on to the aspects of promoting questioning skills that are the focus of leadership and management here are some examples of what you may find in different parts of a school.

Questioning skills in the Foundation Stage

Here is a conversation between a teacher and a Reception child: Teacher: What is your favourite toy? Child: My racing cars. Teacher: Why do you like racing cars? Child: Because they are fast? Teacher: Who do you play racing cars with? Child: My dad Teacher: Do you have a track? Child: Yes, it goes round and round and up and down and there are bends. Teacher: It sounds great! Where is your track? Child: In the loft. A fairly standard conversation in an Early Years setting. The question words are highlighted and show that the teacher was aiming to ask a range of questions. These are lower-level questions. The teacher is accessing information that the child has.

Questioning skills in Key Stage 1

A Year 2 class had a visit from an actor in role and in costume as Samuel Pepys. The children interviewed him about his diary and The Great Fire of London. They had not prepared the questions in advance as they had been working on the theme for some time and were knowledgeable about the subject. The session developed from a straightforward question and answer session into a more conversational-style discussion. In this work there was evidence of knowledge and comprehension. The children were moving up Bloom’s taxonomy. (As described last month, this is a classification of intellectual levels that goes from knowledge, the most basic level, via comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis to evaluation, the highest level.)

Questioning skills in lower Key Stage 2

A Year 4 class were involved in a competition to promote healthy eating among children. One part of this was to produce a healthy and appealing salad. The children staged a tasting session for pupils from throughout the school where they could sample different fruits and vegetables. The class then designed some fruit salads and tested them out on other pupils. The sampling involved gathering feedback and this involved a questionnaire. The children were using the full range of Bloom’s taxonomy in this work.

Questioning skills in upper Key Stage 2

A new development of sheltered accommodation for elderly residents was being built at the end of a school field. A class of Year 6 pupils were asked by their teacher: ‘How could we welcome the new residents to our community?’ The children discussed the matter and decided that they would like to make a welcome pack including a guide book that they would create and useful leaflets/booklets from the local authority and local community groups. The children generated questions that they thought the residents would want to have answered: When do the buses run? Where is the nearest chemist? What facilities does the community centre provide? These older children are using questions in the lower range of the taxonomy, but the project is driven by higher-order needs.

Have you spotted the weakness?

Examples similar to those above could be found in any primary school and they may lead us to think that questioning skills develop from lower-order in Reception to higher-order in Year 6. They don’t! It is important that young children experience all levels of questioning skills just as much as older children. Otherwise, how are they to develop the full range of skills? Medium-term projects such as design and technology include many opportunities for analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Learning through play in a Reception class will involve children problem solving in ways that encompass the whole taxonomy. As children grow older and more experienced we can be more explicit about when they are using simple knowledge and when they are using more sophisticated evaluation.

How can we lead and manage the development of questioning skills?

A question skills audit is a good place to start and can be incorporated into your current system of classroom observations. Over a period of a term make questioning skills the focus for these observations. Those conducting the observations can use a checklist to identify the different levels of questions asked by both the teacher and the children. At the end of the process this qualitative data can be analysed and you will have an accurate benchmark of the current level of questioning skills in your school, as well as an indication of where you will need to focus any improvements. Staff training on questioning skills could take the form of initial input from the literacy coordinator with specific input from each subject leader as to how these skills can be developed in their area. More formal training will take the form of ensuring staff are familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy and the implications for learning of extending questioning skills in your school. Include questions in planning and you are more likely to use them. This doesn’t need to be an over-structured list of every single question you will use in a lesson; a guide to the variety of questions is more appropriate. Questions can also be incorporated into lesson objectives. Display questions prominently in classrooms. Build displays around a question. Put up a question board in the school library where children can pose a genuine question about something they want to know and other children can write a response. A termly or half-termly subject focus will encourage all staff to get involved in developing questioning skills. The way that individual teachers have approached this with their children can be fed back to a staff meeting at the end of the period in order to share good practice. A question skills policy is the natural conclusion of all this development so that what you have achieved can become standard practice throughout the school. It doesn’t need to be a long document and could even be an addendum to your planning policy.

How can we promote higher-order questioning skills?

A good starting point is to ensure teachers are using a balance of open and closed questions. A closed question is one in which there are a limited number of acceptable answers. An open question is one in which there are several or many acceptable answers. There can be a tendency for teachers to ask closed questions as the correct answer is predictable. Asking teachers to plan a list of questions for a lesson so that half of them are open and half closed is a good starting point for developing questioning skills. But does it necessarily take us to higher levels? Look at these questions, which may be asked in a Year 3 lesson focused on rivers:

  • What do we call a bend in a river? (Closed and lower-level question.)
  • It has rained a lot recently; do you think the water in a river will be deep or shallow? (Closed and higher-level question.)
  • Why do rivers run downhill? (Open and lower-level question.)
  • How do people benefit from rivers? (Open and higher-level question.)

We need to be aware of both open and closed questions and lower level and higher level, which brings us back to the taxonomy. How do we get to the higher levels? Let’s look at the levels again and try and assign some school work to them.

  • Knowledge – We do so much questioning in this area that we need not give any further details. Suffice to say that there is a lot of closed questioning going on.
  • Comprehension – ‘How’ and ‘why’ are the key words at this level. ‘Could you explain to me why the car rolls better on tiles than carpet?’ The questions are beginning to open up.
  • Application – After a series of experiments on the characteristics of different fabrics it would be appropriate to ask, ‘Which material would you use to make a waterproof coat from?’ The child is using the information they have learned to solve a problem in a new context.
  • Analysis – The word ‘why?’ is used a lot here. Children can be encouraged to try and make sense of their observations; to understand what is going on and to make inferences from their findings that may be useful as they move on to the next stage. A secondary word in this context would be ‘what?’ Children engaged on a floating and sinking project may ask, ‘What could we change?’ after they have asked, ‘Why did the raft made of metal sink?’
  • Synthesis – We are in the realm of creativity here. Children need some freedom to develop and trial ideas. The role of the teacher is to ask sensitive questions, which will not put the child off imaginatively developing their own idea. Children can also be encouraged to ask questions of themselves and their ideas. Explicitly ask them, ‘What have we done before that is a bit like this? How could we use what we have done before in this situation?’
  • Evaluation – This is an area where we don’t do badly; we generally ask children to appraise their work, particularly in areas such as design and technology.

In summary, lower levels are appropriate for:

  • evaluating comprehension
  • diagnosing strengths and weaknesses
  • reviewing and/or summarising what has been learned.

Questions at higher levels of the taxonomy are most appropriate for:

  • encouraging children to think in more depth with more analysis
  • problem solving
  • promoting discussion
  • stimulating students to seek further information by themselves.

What we need to avoid is the suggestion that young children develop lower-level questioning skills and that older children build on these as they develop higher-level skills. Open and closed, lower and higher can and should be used with all children