If students are to be expected to develop independent learning skills and critical thinking facilities in geography, we need to instill and practise questioning skills. Phil Wood and Colin Patterson explain how students in their school are being encouraged to ask questions of their own

Questions are the backbone of communication between students and teachers in any classroom. We use questions to develop ideas, to challenge students, to quickly assess the level of understanding of a topic and to steer and ignite interest and thinking.

To understand how and why we ask questions is a fundamental area for teachers to consider and develop. As such, we can begin to develop and understand the framework for effective questioning. We believe this is a very important area for teachers to master. Over the past year we have been developing frameworks in our school through a desire for the students to become more adept questioners. The following two ideas have guided much of this development:

  1. In which situations, other than a classroom, does the expert focus the questioning on the novice? This demonstrates the artificial social and cognitive structure of a classroom.
  2. Tizard and Hughes (1984) found that four-year-old children took part in 27 conversations per hour with their mothers on average, each having an average of 16 turns, with half the conversations being initiated by the children, asking an average of 26 questions per hour. As the children entered school, conversations fell to 10 per hour, and the vast majority were started and controlled by adults. A consequence was a fall in the amount of speaking, questioning, the number of requests for information, restricted language, and less active reflection and planning.

If students are to be expected to develop independent learning skills and critical thinking facilities, we need to instill and practise questioning skills with the students. We need to give them the central role in questioning. Below are some initial ideas of how students can be tempted to take centre stage and develop their ability and confidence in asking questions of their own. All our examples are drawn from our experiences in the Geography classroom, but can be easily translated to any age group or subject area.

Getting students started

To initially develop questioning techniques in students, we made use of a simple questioning game. We wrote a number of important words down on post-it notes that related to the topic being covered. We then stuck a note to the forehead of students, and told them they needed to find out what the word they had been given was. The only rules were that others could only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to their questions, and that they only had three minutes to gain a correct answer. This had a surprisingly rapid effect on the development of their questioning skills over just a few minutes.

Questions to compare

Early in the development of our work, we started by working with students to develop questions that would allow comparisons to be made. They were asked to write down questions that would develop a clear and detailed comparison between two pieces of related information. As in the examples below, students were asked to develop questions by working alone to begin with, then snowballing through pairs and small groups to whole class consideration, from which common questions were used. This allowed for extensive modelling of good questions as well as a discussion of different types of question, such as closed, open, etc.

Questions to enquire

Having met with initial success in a confined task, such as a comparison, we then moved forward to set wider boundaries, allowing the students to shape the curriculum they followed when focusing on a particular area of work. This time, initial stimulus material was provided to set up an overarching question, and then the students had to decide on the sub-questions required to respond. Again, they were asked to snowball ideas based on their initial stimulus material and the overarching question given to them. They then decided on questions as a group that we would investigate to develop a response.

Questions to research

At the level of Year 8, we aided students’ subsequent work by working together on the questions asked, supplying information, etc. However, at A-level, we have worked towards making students wholly independent. As we worked through Lower 6th, we developed the skills outlined above, until we were happy that students were able to use the skills efficiently. This then led to a final stage in the development of students’ questioning skills. This entails students being given a section of their learning and a brief on what they need to cover, in essentially loose terms. From this they develop not only the questions they need to ask, but also where they might find the information needed to answer the questions generated. We then act merely as a facility to check that they are on the right path, and to give generalized feedback if amendments to learning plans are required.

Conclusion

We are still at the stage of developing these ideas, and the use of the techniques above have slowly permeated into areas of the curriculum from Key Stage 3 to 5. Due to the very clear success these techniques appear to enjoy, further work is to be developed to allow for full integration and clear routes to development in questioning techniques by the students we teach. We hope, ultimately, that these techniques will allow us increasingly to play the role of facilitators at GCSE and A-level, the students (at all levels of ability) increasingly being confident and able to dictate the focus and progression of their own learning through structured questioning and guidance.

Example 1

A low ability group in Year 7 were given a series of words that described buildings found in different parts of a city. They had to find out which word they had been given, including words such as ‘shopping centre’, ‘offices’, and ‘terraced houses’. The students all managed to gain a correct answer in the time given. We then came back as a class and worked together on deciding which part of a city, i.e. city centre, inner city, inner suburbs, outer suburbs, the buildings would be found in.

Example 2

A Year 10 group had been completing some GCSE Geography work on volcanoes. They had carried out some research work on two case studies of volcanic eruptions, one taking place in an economically poor country and one in an economically rich country. The students brought their studies to the lesson, and were asked to read the two case studies together. Having done this, they were asked to work in silence to write down five questions they would want to ask to compare their two eruptions. Having done this we snowballed the exercise, finally ending up with groups of four students, each with their five chosen questions. At this stage, they were asked to select their favourite two questions that were then written on the board at the front of the class. We discussed what makes a good question and then they voted for the best five questions and used these for a homework exercise on comparing the eruptions. The resulting questions were:

  1. What is the tectonic setting of the volcanoes?
  2. What were the characteristics of each volcano?
  3. What were the warning signs of the eruptions?
  4. What were the primary and secondary effects of the eruptions?
  5. How do the differences in effects correspond with the development of the affected areas?

Example 3

A group of Year 8 students had been working on agriculture and agricultural change in the U.K. Having finished this work, we had decided to help them develop an understanding of the characteristics and issues relevant to agriculture in India. Therefore, they were asked to consider the important underlying principles with regards to U.K. agriculture and then use this to decide on 5 questions they would ask to enquire about agriculture in India. As before we snowballed their ideas and they voted for the best 5 questions. The questions then provided the focus for some enquiry work. The questions chosen were:

  1. What is farming like in India?
  2. Does landscape and climate affect farming?
  3. What is the best time in the year for farming?
  4. How popular is farming in India?
  5. Do you approve of GM crops?

Example 4

Upper 6th students had reached an area in their studies where they were required to compare the outcome of changes in industrial location due to the process of shift in the global economy on two regions. At the start of the lesson used to introduce this, we told the students that we wanted them to gain an understanding and explanation for the changes in the economic fortunes of South Wales (which they had considered at GCSE), and South Korea. We told them to use past knowledge and understanding of the changes in South Wales, and we gave them some stimulus material on South Korea. We then gave them 40 minutes to develop questions which would allow for a detailed response to the area under consideration, and where they intended to gain the information necessary. We then absented ourselves from the lesson to ensure that the students had no opportunity to involve us. On our return, the exercise had been completed to a high quality, resulting in extremely high quality written work. The questions they developed were:

  1. What has been the relative experience of the two regions under the process of globalization and global shift?
  2. Outline the characteristics and reasons for economic change in South Wales and South Korea.

References

Young Children Learning: B Tizard and M Hughes (1984), Fontana, London.

Phil Wood is Subject Leader in Geography and an AST; Colin Patterson is Subject Leader in Psychology, both at the Deepings School, Lincolnshire.

HINTS AND TIPS How can you maximise your learning at work?

L Listen – ideas and advice are all around us. Sometimes we are too busy giving advice and sharing ideas with other people, to listen to what other people have to say to us.
E Evaluate – not all advice is good advice! Decide what makes sense for you and then…
A Apply! Learning without application is useless. Give the things you learn a chance to make a difference by putting them into practice.
R Reinforce – once you have learnt something, review it, revise it, rehearse it. Anything and everything you do, to reinforce your learning, will be time well spent.
N NOW! There really is no time like the present to decide what you are going to do to build on the learning you have already done and commit to promoting a love of learning in the people around you.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, September 2004.

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