We tend to take questioning skills for granted; they certainly seem to develop quite readily in young children. Steve Mynard, editor of Primary Headship, explores the reasons why we might choose to guide our children towards higher-level questioning skillsWhat are questions and why do we place such importance on them?

A question is any spoken or written communication that is constructed in such a way as to elicit a response and gain information. That’s the definition I came up with. The Oxford Concise Dictionary agrees with me: ‘A sentence worded or expressed so as to seek information.’ We all use questions in order to get what we want or need; questions are an essential part of the communication system that has evolved in humans and they are certainly helpful in a gregarious species such as ours where we need to exchange information for our survival. Quite simply, we value questions because they are useful. Anyone can ask a question. Does that mean we should just let children get on with it and develop their questioning strategies willy-nilly? No. As in so many aspects of education our aspirations are higher. A child who is fully equipped with a good range of questioning skills is a more rounded citizen; more self-confident, more ambitious and more involved in the world around them. That is the central proposal of this piece. In this article we will ask questions about questions and in answering them aim to leave you with the desire to help your children aspire to higher-level questioning skills.

Are there different types of questions?

It is very easy to fall into the trap of teaching children to use who, what, where, when, how and why and feeling that we have done our duty in teaching them to use questions. A bright Year 2 child will quickly point out that ‘can’ is a question word and the flood gates will open; would, do, could and so on are all questioning words. We need a structure if we are to understand the different types of questions. Fortunately there is one. In 1956 the American academic Benjamin Bloom and a group of educational psychologists developed a classification of intellectual levels that are important in learning. This has become known as Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. The levels of Bloom’s taxonomy are as follows:

  • Knowledge – At this lowest level is the straightforward remembering of previously learned material, which can be demonstrated by the recall of dates, events and places, facts, basic concepts of the world and answers.
  • Comprehension – Understanding the meaning of remembered material comes in at this level and evidence is usually demonstrated by being able to explain something in one’s own words. Interpretation of the knowledge is the key principle.
  • Application – Here the individual is able to use information in a new context to solve a problem, to answer a question, or to perform another task. Applying knowledge, facts, techniques and rules in a different way is in the realm of application.
  • Analysis – Breaking a piece of material into its parts and explaining the relationship between the parts. To infer and to find evidence to support the inference.
  • Synthesis – Using old ideas to create new ones. Putting parts together to form a new pattern or structure. This is how new ideas emerge – building on the foundation of what has gone before.
  • Evaluation – This is the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy and is the realm of appraisal; where judgments are made about new ideas. This is where the validity of ideas and the quality of work is checked.

The higher levels include all of the cognitive skills from the lower levels. This structure should make clear why we talk of lower and higher-level questioning skills. Bloom found that over 95 % of the test questions students were asked required them to think only at the lowest level – the recall of information. This finding has major implications for education.

Where do questioning skills come from?

Children in the early years will often limit their questioning to immediate need: Can I go to the toilet? Can I have my water bottle? Are questioning skills therefore innate? No. The very young child learns to get what she needs by screaming, crying and looking cute. As visual, auditory and oral communication develops the infant will make noises and point or go and tug on their carer’s clothing to indicate that they have a need. As spoken language becomes more sophisticated the child is able to ask for what she requires and questioning skills are born. Children learn this behaviour. The level of skill that children have in questioning when they come to school is inextricably linked to their general communication skills and the amount of purposeful interaction they have had with other people. Questioning skills develop from a starting point of zero. An important part of our job as teachers is to help these skills develop to their greatest potential.

When is it appropriate to introduce questioning skills?

Questions are an essential part of speaking and listening and as such should be introduced from the very earliest age. In fact, parents will often be heard to say to a young baby, ‘Would you like your feed now?’ when the child has no chance of responding, ‘Yes, I would like that very much, thank you!’ The child simply hears a noise in the form of a sound that he is familiar with, his mother’s voice, and over time he comes to associate the facial expressions and cuddles that go with that sound with food, warmth and love. Attachments develop and through this initial relationship and subsequent relationships language gradually emerges. In terms of pre-school and school experience these skills continue to develop and very young children will respond verbally to questions such as, ‘What is this?’ when the person playing with them indicates a ball or crayon or may respond by touching or pointing when asked, ‘Where is the sand?’ It is debateable when the crossover comes from simply hearing and recognising the word ‘sand’ and knowing that a question has been asked and that it requires an answer. The quality of a child’s communication skills will clearly depend in large part on the quality of their early relationships and the environment that they grow up in. You know this! Let us move on to take a look at what we can do to influence the development of a child’s questioning skills once they have arrived at school.

How could we develop questioning skills in the early years?

The document Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, with its stepping stones and outcomes, has given children from the age of three to five and those who work with them a fantastic opportunity to get learning-focused questioning off to a flying start. The emphasis on learning through play and the development of speaking and listening skills in particular and the development of social skills in general means that the enthusiasm of young children is harnessed so they lead their own learning to a great extent. Good early years practitioners walk the path with them and are alert to opportunities to extend play into new areas for learning. Under these conditions questioning does arise in a seemingly natural way. Of course, the very naturalness has been carefully planned for and this is the art of the early years.

What does the Primary Framework for Literacy say about questioning skills?

As questions are essentially a communication skill their development is largely contained within the literacy component of the curriculum. The objectives for questioning in the Primary Framework for Literacy are mainly in the listening and responding and sentence structure, punctuation strands of the framework. As far as they go they provide a good basic structure for developing questioning skills, but these objectives don’t make explicitly clear the need for us to lead children towards developing a full range of these skills as outlined in Bloom’s taxonomy.

And the QCA schemes of work?

Questioning skills will develop best in a broader curriculum so we also need to consider how well they are catered for in other areas of the curriculum. Not all schools use the QCA schemes of work but a huge majority do. The biggest drawback of QCA is the fact that everything you need to do is written down for you. This has lead to many primary practitioners delivering the schemes of work verbatim. This stifling of creativity is, in itself, a barrier to the development of higher-level questioning skills. Many of the titles of units of the QCA schemes are presented as questions:

  • Should the High Street be closed to traffic?
  • What is faith and what difference does it make?
  • What is sculpture?
  • Why did Henry VIII marry six times?

This should not lull us into believing that by consuming this very dry fodder children are gaining the nourishment of a questioning skills based curriculum. Clearly schools need to go a lot further than the recommended (but non-statutory) guidance would suggest.

In conclusion

Questions are an important element of any conversation. If we are to develop a learning environment and approach where questions come readily to children then we need to use questions in a conversation rather than simply to start a conversation. Social learning through group projects and research through, for example, interviewing someone who knows what we do not yet know is the key to creating life long questioners. This approach will also help children to learn how to listen. The world is full of interesting stuff that children want to know; real-life information that will feed their desire to learn – get them out their and asking questions!

In the second part of this article I look in detail at how you can develop higher-level questioning skills in your school