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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Highly Effective Questioning in the classroom

Ivan Hannel
Ivan Hannel is the author of the book Highly Effective Questioning: Developing the Seven Steps of Critical Thinking. He has also produced a range of professional development training manuals for teachers.

In most teacher preparation programs, the role of questioning is assumed; that is, teachers are believed to know intuitively how to question students effectively during instruction. After having moved to the classroom, if good questioning practices are not observed, teachers are often simply encouraged to ask 'more questions,' questions at a 'higher level,' or more 'open-ended' questions. These suggestions are not inaccurate, but they are also not sufficiently prescriptive to provide the average teacher with a reliable and effective model for good questioning of students. And yet questioning in the classroom is one of the few means of transmitting knowledge, skill, and attitude from the teacher to the student, from the society to the learner.

In the United States, it is common to hear teachers and students rationalise underachievement on formal tests as a consequence of students not having 'seen questions like these before.' In fact, students rarely fail written test questions due to unfamiliarity with the type of question posed. More likely, they fail because they have not developed the underlying critical thinking skills to be able to answer those questions successfully. While the content of written examination questions changes as the years go by, the underlying language of most assessment questions remains constant throughout schooling. A second grade student who is asked 'What is the main idea of the story?' often encounters the same question in tenth grade, too. The questions remain familiar while the inquiries they demand remain difficult.

What is needed is a pedagogical framework for teachers in years K-12 that deals with these issues. By providing a structured approach to using questions, the cognitive and critical thinking skills of students can be developed. The Highly Effective Questioning technique endeavours to do just that. It uses intensive, tactical, minute by minute oral questioning of students over the course of a lesson, rather than just as a minor note at the end. The framework of Highly Effective Questioning has two main parts: 'The Seven Principles of High Expectations' and 'The Seven Steps to Critical Thinking.'

The Seven Principles

The seven principles are beliefs or assumptions that both teacher and students must share, and that teachers can encourage in students, to create an environment conducive to questioning. The principles help teachers overcome the intransigence of some students to answering questions in the classroom. Consider that if a student can inhibit the teacher's questioning with the fleeting effort of an 'I don't know', then little will result, notwithstanding the quality of any questions asked. Each principle is tied to a specific, observable classroom practice; belief is thus made concrete by action.

The seven principles are:

Principle 1: We believe that students come to school with the need to learn, and when in school do not have the right not to learn.
Practice: Compulsory questioning of each and every student.

Principle 2: We believe that students are under-trained, not under-brained; they are dormant but not dead!
Practice: Initial questions should be at the same degree of difficulty, and all students should be asked approximately the same number of questions in a lesson.

Principle 3: We must learn to use intensive questioning, not just occasional questioning.
Practice: Ask only questions during the lesson and refrain from explaining, telling, hinting and other non-questioning strategies for about one-quarter of all instructional time.

Principle 4: We must follow a question-response-question (Q-R-Q) pattern in our questioning of students.
Practice: Have students justify all responses.

Principle 5: We must not be negative when asking students questions.
Practice 5: Be positive or neutral in tone and inquiry.

Principle 6: We do not ask questions that promote random trial and error behaviour.
Practice 6: Do not ask questions that encourage random guess-making.

Principle 7: We must act to discourage the use of 'I don't know' and similar behaviours as a way for students to avoid classroom participation.
Practice 7: If a student says, 'I don't know', follow-up immediately with one to three additional questions for that student.

The Seven Steps

The seven steps provide the mechanical framework for asking questions according to question type, order, and phrasing. In terms of question type, Highly Effective Questioning instructs teachers to think of questions in terms of the cognitive acts elicited from the student. Teachers sometimes confuse the cognitive act required to answer a question with the actual answer to the question, and consider them to be one and the same. But the answers to questions such as 'What is the theme of the story?' or 'What are the reactants in the solution?' are only the products of certain kinds of mental acts, the entire process of which is called critical thinking.

In addition to question type, there is a certain order to asking questions in terms of the cognitive acts that lead to increased student understanding. This ordering is sometimes called the scaffolding of questions. Even if the right types of questions are asked, if they are presented without a sequence, students will often have trouble answering them. For example, if a student has not mentally identified some pieces of content, questions for a comparison of those elements could not reasonably occur.

Finally, questions can be phrased in such a way that either more or less thinking is required from the student. When the initial questions in a lesson are narrowly phrased - sometimes perceived as a way of 'hooking' the student into some comfortable aspect of a lesson - they often diminish the amount of thinking-work passed on from the teacher to the student. However, teachers cannot ask questions so broad that they lead nowhere. In Highly Effective Questioning, there is a balance between the teachers' broadly phrased questions and the specific, justified and complete answers sought from students' responses.

The seven steps are:

1: label/identify/find

2: connect/compare/infer/disconnect

3: order/pre-summarise

4: decode/interpret/justify questions

5: encode/answer/justify answers

6: apply/predict/project/hypothesise

7: summarise

Though the ideas of Highly Effective Questioning come from sometimes complex considerations about the cognitive acts and attitudes of learning, the actual questioning practices are themselves very concrete and 'do-able' in a regular classroom. Indeed, workshops in Highly Effective Questioning are designed to include a live student demonstration so that teachers can see exactly how the principles and steps work together to enhance student achievement. And, because the process of questioning is available to all teachers under almost any classroom circumstance, the opportunity to ask and be asked questions is afforded to students from all places and of all backgrounds, leaving only their human potential to be developed.

The third edition of Ivan Hannel's book Highly Effective Questioning is now available.
See publication details.

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Subject Headings

Classroom management
Teacher-student relationships
Teaching and learning
Thought and thinking