Asking the right questions

effective questioning sketchnote

I presented at the 2017 NSW Secondary Deputy Principals Association Conference this week on embedding effective questioning into assessment for learning. According to research, teachers ask 400 questions a day, wait under 1 second for a reply from students and most of these questions are lower order questions that require students to recall facts. The research also shows that increasing the number of higher order questions leads to increases in on-task behaviour, better responses from students and more speculative thinking from students.

There are other reasons why teachers ask question, like asking a question to wake up the student daydreaming at the back of the class, or asking students to repeat instructions to an activity to make sure they know what to do. These are fine, as long as teachers know the reasons for those questions (and these types of questions do not dominate the majority of class time).

tenor

Strategic questioning is key to assessment for learning. While questioning is essential for students in all grade levels, teachers can take the opportunity of new syllabuses and school based assessment requirements for the HSC to re-think how they design and implement assessment for learning in Stage 6. However, questioning is often viewed as an intuitive skill, something that teachers “just do”. At a time when many teachers are creating new units of work and resources for the new Stage 6 syllabuses, it may be a good opportunity to look at strategic questioning and embed some quality questions and questioning techniques.

What do good questions look like?

For assessment for learning, there are two main reasons why teachers ask questions:

  1. To gather evidence for learning to inform the next step in teaching
  2. To make students think

For these questions to be effective, it depends on how the question itself is designed, how the question is asked, and how response collected and analysed, to inform the next step in teaching and learning. Here are some strategies:

Hinge questions

Hinge questions are often multiple choice questions (they don’t have to be). They are asked by the teacher to the class towards the middle of the lesson for the teacher to decide whether the class has understood the critical concepts of the lesson to move on. Hinge questions have four essential components:

  1. The question is based on a critical concept for that lesson that students must understand.
  2. Every student must respond to the question.
  3. The teacher is able to collect every student’s response and interpret the responses in under 30 seconds. (This is why many hinge questions are multiple choice).
  4. Prior to the lesson, the teacher must have decided what the teaching and learning that follows for:
    • the students who have answered correctly
    • the students who have answered incorrectly

Here is an example of a hinge question:

hinge question example

The question assesses students’ understanding of validity, reliability and accuracy in scientific investigations. Many students confuse the 3 concepts. This hinge question can be used for a lesson on investigation design where validity, reliability and accuracy have been explained. Towards the end of this explanation (typically around the middle of the lesson), this question can be asked to all students. Then the teacher can decide on the next steps for students who “get it” and those who don’t. For this question, the correct answer (key) is B. Note that the wrong answers (distractors) in a hinge question must be plausible so students do not answer correctly with the wrong thinking. A really, really good hinge question would have distractors where each distractor reveals a misconception.

Here is another example of a hinge question from Education Scotland.

hinge question maths example

For this question, the key is B. The annotated blue boxes show the wrong thinking behind each distractor.

So how do you implement hinge questions? How do you ask them so that every student responds and you can collect and interpret their responses, and decide the next step in under 30 seconds?

No hands up

The first thing to do is to create a class culture of “No Hands Up”. Students can only put up their hands to ask questions, not to answer questions. Either everyone answers or the teacher selects who answers. When the teacher selects who answers, it must be done in a random way so that everyone is accountable to answering the question. This ensures that it is not just the “Lisa Simpsons” or the daydreaming student who answers the questions. For this to happen, teachers can use mini whiteboards and a randomisation method.

Mini whiteboards can be purchased or cheaply made by laminating pieces of white paper. For hinge questions, students write down their response (A, B, C, D, etc) and holds up their whiteboard for the teacher to see when the teacher says so. This allows the teacher to scan every board (so every student’s response) to see approximately how many students have understood the critical concept. The teacher can then decide what activities they can do while intervening for those students who do not understand. The key to hinge questions is to intervene during the lesson.

As Dylan Wiliam says,

It means that you can find out what’s going wrong with students’ learning … If you don’t have this opportunity, then you’ll have to wait until you grade their work. And then, long after the students have left the classroom.

Alternatively, you can use digital tools like Plickers, Kahoot and Mentimeter. I personally find mini whiteboards the easiest to implement.

While hinge questions require everyone to respond, other questions are more suited to randomly selecting a student to respond. Teachers can use these strategies:

  • Digital random name generator from tools like Classtools and Class Dojo.
  • Writing each student’s name on paddle pop sticks and selecting a stick out of a cup

paddle pop sticks

Higher order questions

Selecting a student at random to answer is more suited to higher order questions. the key is to create and pre-plan higher order questions to take to class to avoid asking too many lower order questions. To plan a sequence of low order to higher order questions, there are numerous strategies. There are heaps of resources for using Bloom’s question stems (just Google it). The strategy I find less popular, but more accessible to students, is the Wiederhold question matrix.

question matrix

Questions are created by combining a column heading with a row heading. Eg. What is …. , Where did … , How might ….

Teachers can put a stimulus in the middle of the table for students to create their own question, like this source I found via Kate Littlejohn for Stage 6 Modern History.

question matrix history

Some sample questions include:

  • What is an ally? What is an opponent?
  • Who decides who is an ally and who is an opponent?
  • What is WWI? Where did it happen?
  • Why did WWI happen?
  • How would you decide who paid the highest price in WWI? What criteria would you use?
  • How might the numbers in each category compare if a world war happened today?

Both hinge questions and creating a sequence of questions are not easy. It is worthwhile for teachers to look at building a bank of hinge questions and higher order questions as they collaboratively create units of work and resources.

You can find more information and resources on questioning in assessment for learning here.

Wait, wait and wait

Lastly, regardless of what questions you are asking (hinge, higher order questions, questions to wake up students), remind yourself to wait. Wait at least 3 seconds for lower order questions and more than 3 seconds for higher order questions; the longer the better.

Potential of hinge questions in flipped learning

As an interesting note, I think hinge questions can be very useful in flipped learning. The hinge questions can be asked at the start of the lesson to assess who has understood the concept from the instructional videos and who hasn’t so the teacher can decide on how the rest of the lesson should run. Hinge questions can also be incorporated into the instructional video at key points so that the video continues in a certain way if students answer correctly and in another way if students answer incorrectly.

Meeting the challenges of teacher professional learning

As someone who has designed and delivered quite a few teacher professional learning (TPL), I have often reflected on the criteria and conditions of professional learning that will enable teachers to change their practice in a sustained way so that it becomes habit that makes an impact on student learning.

TPL sketchnote

Sources:
What is effective teacher professional development?
Designing effective teacher professional learning for improved student outcomes – research findings from NSW schools
Characteristics of Effective Professional Development: A Checklist

TPL is hard to design and deliver. Teachers can be a challenging audience. And change is hard. TPL is also a large investment, both in monetary terms and time. There’s the cost of the professional learning, travel, accommodation, teacher relief and then there’s the time factor. Teachers are away from their classes, they have to plan relief work and then follow up on these missed classes. Taking all this into consideration, TPL presenters and participants all want professional learning to make an impact on student learning. But how many times have we walked away from TPL, get a few good ideas, never implement them and continue with business as usual?

I have previously blogged about what I personally find to be effective TPL. For me it is essential that the TPL matches the strategy that it is trying to promote (please don’t tell me about active learning by making me sit down the whole day and listen to a series of lectures) and that there is follow-up. It is easy (and inspiring) to do one-hit-wonder TPL but what is being done after that to support teachers in the change process? Teacher professional learning is a process, not an event.

Recently I had the opportunity to design and implement sustained TPL for project based learning with schools that are part of the Connected Communities strategy. Many TPL for project based learning goes for 1 to 2 days where teachers learn the 101 of project based learning and produce a draft project plan for implementation. Then teachers are left to their own devices. There is rarely follow up for teachers to seek advice or receive feedback.

For the Connected Communities TPL on project based learning, we did a two-day, face-to-face conference, where teachers spent two days learning some PBL 101. But we didn’t leave it at that. This is what we are doing to make sure the project based learning PBL has impact on student learning and support teachers in changing their practice:

  • Learning about project based learning through project based learning so teachers experience the pedagogy themselves as learners
  • Teachers left the conference with a project based learning plan they can implement in the following term
  • Teachers are allocated half a term to refine their project based learning plan
  • An online professional learning community established so that teachers can further connect and support each other
  • Ongoing TPL that focus on other enabling conditions of project based learning (formative assessment, student collaboration, teacher questioning and collecting evidence to evaluate the impact of project based learning) – Teachers will access 5 online TPL modules where each module will have a live online meeting via Adobe Connect so that teachers can share their experiences while implementing project based learning and seek advice, feedback and support from each other and course instructors.

The online TPL will run through April to July 2017. I’m looking forward seeing the impact of this type of TPL where teacher learning is seen as a process and not an event.

How to teach “soft skills” in project based learning

team-graphic

I have done quite a few teacher professional learning workshops on project based learning (PBL). Nearly all of them have involved telling teachers about elements of authentic PBL, how to design a ‘good’ driving question’ and the importance of formative assessment and feedback. I am currently working on another series of professional learning workshops on PBL,  but this time the team is also focusing on the “soft skills” of PBL. These soft skills include collaboration, student self-regulation, creativity, critical thinking, etc. These soft skills are included in the NSW syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum as Learning Across the Curriculum. In this blog post, I’m going to focus on collaboration.

PBL often require students to work in teams. If students are to work in teams successfully, they need to know how to collaborate. One thing I learnt very quickly in my PBL journey is that collaboration doesn’t come automatically for students. Simply putting students in groups and getting them to sit in a circle won’t teach them collaboration. If students don’t know how to collaborate, they will find the PBL experience frustrating and the teacher will find it frustrating. Like reading and writing, collaboration needs to be explicitly taught. But how?

In my PBL journey, I have found teaching students how to establish group norms, how to determine and assign roles to team members, how to backward map from timelines of due dates of tasks, and how to negotiate and compromise, to be crucial in PBL to be a successful learning experience. However, I have found the most important aspect of successful student collaboration is a safe learning environment; an environment where students trust each other, respect each other, support each other and feel comfortable enough with each other to take risks in their learning. What are the strategies to enable this? How can students be assessed and receive regular feedback on these aspects. Just like reading and writing, students need to know how they are going with their collaborative skills and what they need to do next to improve?

How do you teach collaboration in your classroom? How do you teach collaboration in PBL?

 

TeachMeet – professional learning by teachers for teachers

teachmeet-audience

This week I ran TeachMeet Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. It was the third TeachMeet I ran and I have lost count of the number of TeachMeets I’ve attended. I went to my first TeachMeet more than 4 years ago. I still find TeachMeets to be one of the most valuable professional learning.

TeachMeets are structured and informal gatherings of teachers and educators with the purpose of sharing good practices and professional journeys. TeachMeets are educator-driven, not organisation-driven. Presenters are not paid; they volunteer their time and expertise to share with others. They are free. They are open to everyone. They happen outside of school hours. They have a strong online community. It is these characteristics that make TeachMeets are valuable part of a teacher’s suite of professional learning.

Because TeachMeets are free and open to everyone, presenters and participants range from pre-service teachers, teachers, educators who work with schools and university academics. Teachers come from all school sectors. It is this mix of people, who are all passionate about student learning, but work in very different contexts, that enable cross-pollination of ideas. Presentations are short and sweet, 7 minutes or 2 minutes so you get lots of ideas to work on and implement with your students. I also find the strong online community valuable. Like many other TeachMeets, TeachMeet Futures had a strong Twitter backchannel. This allowed people to learn from the TeachMeet even if they were not physically there and it allowed connections to be formed amongst presenters and participants beyond the TeachMeet. It also allows the thoughts and opinions of the TeachMeet to be revisited and reflected on after the event if the tweets are curated and saved via Storify. See the TeachMeet Futures Storify as an example.

So if you haven’t been to a TeachMeet, go to one. And if have been to a TeachMeet, go to another one or host one. The power and impact of TeachMeets stems from passionate teachers and educators sharing and learning from each other.

Project NEST – professional learning with a difference


I had the privilege to be involved in ProjectNEST this week, a three-day unconference led by staff from Kurri Kurri High School with over 100 teachers from the Newcastle area participating.

The unconference was focused on project based learning, with many schools planning to implement a cross-curricular approach in open, flexible spaces with teachers team teaching. We all know there are heaps of professional learning for project based learning, but this unconference was different. I have previously blogged about the need to do teacher professional learning differently. This unconference was done differently, with impact on teacher practice and student learning. Here’s why it was different:

  • The unconference was participant driven. All the schools involved wanted to restructure learning differently to further improve student outcomes. They have chosen a cross-curricular project based learning approach. Schools and teachers identified this need and solution.
  • Participants’ needs were identified the unconference. Staff from Kurri Kurri High School designed and sent out a survey to all participants to identify their current understanding and practice in project based learning, and what they wanted to learn. More teacher professional learning needs to be like this. Instead of guessing what participants’ learning needs are, ask them before the professional learning.
  • Presenters were real teachers who have actually implemented and led project based learning. They shared their journeys in this, particularly the challenges and they overcame them. In a previous post, I spoke about how ideas are easy and implementation is hard. The presenters did not try to sell a shiny package of project based learning to teachers, telling them typical things like how we are now in the 21st century and how project based learning is going to solve everything etc etc etc. They shared authentic journeys. They shared failures. But most important of all, they shared what keeps them going in the strive to continuously improve the learning for their students. For my presentation, I made sure I was honest about my project based learning journey. When I first started,  I was doing more project orientated learning than project based learning. When I first started, I did not embed formative assessment as well as I wanted. When I first started, I did not explicitly teach students how to collaborate and set goals, which led to failures. I focused how I learnt about those failures and how they informed changes in the next projects. The other presenters did the same, emphasising the need to try new ways of teaching, take risks, evaluate and learn from failures.
  • Time was provided for participants to modify and implement the ideas they have learnt for their own contexts. The first two days of the unconference were focused on participants learning from presenters and each other. The third day was dedicated to participants working with each other to devise an action plan. The presenters were there to provide support and guidance. This kick starts the process of changing teacher practice.

And it helps when professional learning is held in a stunning location. Newcastle is beautiful.

I hope to see more professional learning like this, and I’m looking forward to following the project based journey of Kurri Kurri High School and its community of schools in the Newcastle area. The staff of Kurri Kurri High School was amazing at putting ProjectNest together.

 

How does teacher professional learning impact on student learning?


I have blogged previously about non-traditional ways of teacher professional learning from hackathons to personalised School Development Days. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about what makes successful teacher professional learning. By successful I mean professional learning that changes a teacher’s practice, that changed teaching practice is sustained so that it becomes a teaching habit and that it has impact on student learning. What elements make teacher professional learning successful in sustained changes in teaching practice?

The best professional learning I’ve attended was Grammar in Teaching. It was a course on how to teach reading and writing, focusing on how to move students’ writing from spoken-like to written-like. It was one of those professional learning courses where it did change my teaching practice, I was able to sustain that teaching practice till today and it did improve my students’ reading and writing. While the content was fantastic, that wasn’t the reason why it was successful for me. The course ran for 2 hours, once a week for 10 weeks. Each teacher was able to implement the strategies learnt in the course, reflect on it, report on it, gain feedback from other course participants and the course leaders then implement the strategies again. It was this repeated cycle of implementation, reflection and feedback that I found was the key to changing my teaching practice and sustaining it. Like Guy Kawasaki says, “Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.” It’s very easy to gain inspirational ideas from one-off conferences and workshops but how many teachers have the opportunity to be supported in implementing those ideas and then fine tuning the implementation so it has maximum impact on student learning? I’m not bagging out conferences. They have their place in the suite of professional learning opportunities for teachers. However, this suite should have a mixture of experiences that result in change in teaching practice, the changed practice becoming a sustained habit and an improvement in student learning.

What do you find are the best teacher professional learning? What elements of professional learning enables you to change your practice and sustain that change?

 

 

Why hackathons are the future of teacher professional learning


Yesterday I went to a OneNote Hackathon. A hackathon is basically a group of people, with similar passiona, getting together to solve problems. In the case of the OneNote Hackathon, it was a group of teachers who were passionate about using OneNote to enable improved student learning. We all had 2 minutes to pitch our problems. Problems ranged from using Staff OneNote notebooks to enhance teacher collaboration and increase productivity to creating out-of-the-box Student OneNote Class notebooks for various subjects that teachers can modify and personalise for their students. We then chose which problem we wanted to work on and spent the rest of the day working together on solutions that can be shared with everyone.


I really enjoyed the OneNote Hackathon. Not only did I learn a lot from the OneNote experts from the Microsoft Education team but also from other participant teachers. The Hackathon provided a time and space for a group of us who had similar goals to share our expertise and experience with others. We were from different school sectors, some of us taught high school or primary school or were in non-school based support roles. This enabled all of us to learn from diverse perspectives and contexts.

What I really liked about the Hackathon is the level of productivity. Unlike traditional teacher professional learning where teachers often listened passively to an ‘expert’, get some good ideas and then find they don’t have enough time or the processes to implement those ideas, hackathons let you collaborate with others to design and implement a solution. Hackathons also recognise that every teacher has something to contribute to other teachers’ learning. Just like TeachMeets, hackathons allow teachers to learn with and from each other.

It will be interesting to see how hackathons will be included in the suite of professional learning strategies available to teachers. Imagine a hackathon on the next School Development Day.