Without Question

30/01/2020

About two decades ago (man, I feel so old sometimes) I was involved in an educational initiative concerned with formative assessment known as ‘Assessment Is For Learning’. In particular, it focussed on how and why we ask pupils questions. After all, that’s what we do as teachers - we ask our students questions to try to determine how far they have understood and learned what we have taught. One of the things I learned from my involvement with this initiative was that the traditional ‘hands up’ approach to asking questions in class had serious drawbacks. In particular it favours those members of the class who feel confident enough in their knowledge and understanding to put their hands up and volunteer an answer. By contrast, those who were unsure or just shy - the very people I  really need to know are struggling - tend to keep their hands and heads down and avoid eye contact at all costs. You know who you are and yes, I’m looking at you.

So Assessment Is For Learning promoted randomly picking pupils to answer questions. Back in the day this involved ice-lolly sticks in with the kids’ names on randomly selected from jam jars. I shudder to think how many teachers traded their dental enamel for random name generation. I have an app on my iPad that ‘randomly’ picks pupils to answer my questions. Almost invariably the one that is absent. Over and over again. This approach doesn’t entirely work either. If a pupil doesn’t want to answer it is hard to get past “I don’t know.” With some students the Spanish Inquisition would have found extracting answers impossible - even with the threat of the comfy chair.

Difficulties in getting kids to answer questions, however, fade into complete insignificance in comparison with getting them to ask questions. I try. I honestly try. I punctuate my explanations of scientific theories and processes with invitations to ask for further explanation. I welcome questions. I long for questions. I have the soul of a Socratic pedagogue and my teacher-spirit aches to be asked to go over, again, what I have taught in a different way. After thirty-five years at the chalk-face I have any number of those. From third year upward, however, pretty much every invitation to ask questions is met with a silence so intense it borders on antisound. Faces are more deadpan than the most professional poker player in avoiding any hint of doubt or uncertainty.

So today I just stopped teaching. I was doing a lesson on electrochemical cells with a class of 4th and 5th Years and invited questions as I usually do and watched the tumbleweed rolling silently across my classroom. So I went no further. “You should have questions, “ I said. “This isn’t easy stuff and it doesn’t explain some things. You should have questions.” Then I changed my question. “What questions should you have?” I repeated this three or four times, leaving plenty of thinking time in between and finally they started to crack. Questions were asked and, I hope, understanding was improved.

The thing is, though, I don’t have this problem with 1st Years. There have been plenty of times when, having asked a 1st Year class for questions, I’ve been prepared to ditch the lesson plan and just deal with the plethora of queries that have come my way and my hardest task has been to inculcate patience in waiting for others to take their turn in asking for further explanation or more information.

So what happens between 1st Year and 3rd Year to change things. To an extent, no doubt, it’s puberty that brings a reluctance to seem ‘keen’ or ‘interested. I wonder, though, whether we teach our students that their role is to answer questions rather than to ask them. Do we teach our students that failure to fully understand what we are teaching them is a mark of failure that they dare not reveal by asking for clarification? Do we suggest that the syllabus is all that matters and that requests for extraneous information is a waste of time? Do they have in their minds the idea that asking questions betrays a lack of confidence at precisely a time in their lives when seeming confident is the essence of social interaction with their peers? If so do we challenge that idea and insist that, actually, the reverse is true?

Whatever the case, I would suggest that an educational system that trains kids to answer questions rather than to ask them ultimately fails them. In the years to come, as technology makes many forms of employment redundant, the ability to question, to ask “What if we did this?”, or “Why doesn’t that happen?”, or “Can we come at this in a different way?” will become ever more important. In the years to come the ability of human beings to do the things machines can’t do - to imagine and create will become ever more important and at the heart of creativity and invention is the ability to question.