Why Asking Questions Might Not Be the Best Way to Teach

Most tweets usually evaporate into the ether without so much as an echo. However some bear fruit. I would like to share with you one of the tweets and some of the conversation that flourished out of it.

In February, Stuart Armstrong, shared an article entitled Why Asking Questions Might Not Be the Best Way to Teach by Annie Murphy Paul. Whilst the article itself discusses the merits of the Socratic Method in today’s contemporary world, through a piece of research conducted by four cognitive scientists, the conversation on twitter was about the use of questioning in PE and sport. Stuart (a full time provocateur) asked “Are questions the best way to teach? Are all questions the same? What is a question? Is this article correct?“. To which I replied “it depends”. Which begs the answer, depends on what?

For me the use of questions and the type of questions used when teaching depend on a multitude of factors. What you want them to learn. Prior knowledge or ability. Whether it’s a check for understanding or to elicit further thinking. In core PE and school sport it isn’t as simple as asking a question and getting the right answer.

Stuart responded with ‘I prefer the the game or task to ask the questions’. The only question I often ask is ‘what is the game asking of you?‘”. I like this very much, because it allows us to understand how the individual child perceives the task and that helps us to gain a better insight into their thought process. I have since implemented the question into my practice and have found it to work very well. It dovetails neatly with a Models Based Approach or constraints led approach to teaching activities within PE, but it does require some explicit teaching of technical vocabulary and concepts to younger children so they can begin to formulate answers to that question. ‘What is the purpose of the task/game‘ works very well with older students, especially if they have experience within that activity.

Will Stubbs joined in the conversation and explained his unique approach. He uses questions to drive story telling and then help students find learning in the narrative. By simply asking ‘Someone tell me something amazing that happened!?’ they can then unravel their own or their peers performance through the stories they tell. Will explains that this gives gives greater attachment, context, emotion & understanding to their learning and it is all led through them. He goes on further as says he believes that how questions are pitched to children is the key to social sharing, such as team talks or group answers within PE. He uses a Sky Sports Microphone and asks them to tell the story like they’re commentating. It is essential to informalise the process, especially when surrounded by their peers. Will then continues to question the use of questions by asking how does reflection occur without out a teacher or a coach currently? The answer he believes is through the playground micronarative of social interactions between children when they are engaging in their own physical activity and play.

Finally Will dispenses some more wisdom with a warning about use of questions. If in PE and school sport the questions are always formal, then should we should always just expect stock answers. Children get good at playing the game of answering questions and will try to feedback to you what they think you want them to know. Is this truly understanding, or even more, is this their understanding? How can we begin to help them develop and learn, if we do not really know what they are thinking? If as teachers and coaches we want attachment, truth, engagement and perspective from the children we are responsible then Will believes an environment and questions that elicit their stories are essential. We can develop understanding through sharing the context and even more so, it might make them more socially adept as people.

The conversation then picked up on Will’s point about children giving stock answers. A lot of times they are trying to guess what they think you want to hear. They model their answers based on the perceptions of the teacher and the thinking that there must be a right answer. A good question challenges that assumption and is an invitation to share their thinking. Dave Collins suggested the use of projection as another way of doing that. With this technique, you ask the children to describe what other people are doing, thinking, feeling, believing, and saying. “How do you think X is coping in defence.” with a follow up question “Why do you think that?” to further probe that students understanding.

Finally I thought it prudent to share the comments of Shane Pill within the conversation. The use of questioning is important, especially if as PE Teachers we are using a guided discovery method of teaching and learning. Good questions can make guided discovery stronger and power up learning, where there is no real evidence that weakly guided “game as teacher” does much for the students learning. We need to form questions that set the boundaries for exploration and that are carefully structured to ensure they support positive exploration by being framed in goals linked with the task demands. Clear constraints, with learning outcomes guided by explicit questions with time to practice and reflect on that practice.

Reflecting on my own questioning within lessons and after school coaching I do ask a lot of ‘stock’ questions. I think that the majority of the time it’s because I put myself under pressure for children to learn within the the session, so I use questions to guide their answers. It becomes counter productive and basically a poor attempt to make the learning tangible. The conversation the initial tweet started has given me some clear examples of how to improve my questioning in the future and hopefully it has for you as well. By questioning what the ‘game is asking of you’, by getting the children to tell me and each other their stories and by the use of projection I can begin to change my stock questions and hopefully the stock answers children give me within our lessons together.

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10 thoughts on “Why Asking Questions Might Not Be the Best Way to Teach

    1. Agreed! Will Stubbs thoughts on using questioning as a tool for teaching and learning in PE are very different than those I’ve come across before. He has promised to with a guest blog post in the future with some more details of his practice.

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  1. Another interesting article which challenges the reader to reflect on their current practice. I constantly ask questions throughout throughout a session – with the aim of prompting, checking for understanding, gaining feedback, giving the participants a say, and assessing what the participants have learnt. Two of the most important questions to help a coach or teacher review their session are: “What did you most enjoy about the session?” and “What did you learn?”. I loved some of the examples of questioning that you provided and will be trying some of them out over the next few days.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Darren. I begin to see that the manipulation of verbal information provided to the student/athlete is a constraint that helps shape behaviour and elect movement learning and skill acquisition. The key tools we have are instruction, feedback, questioning and silence. The key is picking which one to use in that moment in time, to best support the learning of the person in front of you. The type and quality of the verbal information we give can have a huge impact on the individual we are interacting with. I would be very keen to hear how the use of the questions go.

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  2. Visible Thinking Routines have completely change the way in which I ask questions in my classes. ‘What makes you say that?’ and ‘Claim/Support/Qu’ type routines are so powerful because you are not asking a stock question and the answers can be so very different and so the game does speak to each participant very differently based on their experience, position, skill level, motivation, powers of observation etc – great to read what is happening.

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    1. Hi Mel. I’ve read a great deal about VTR but haven’t used them within my lessons. I try to keep writing tasks to a minimum (avoiding them if I can). Mainly because I want to keep the students active as possible and I think oracy goes hand in hand with movement. What do you feel are the benefits in implementing VTR within PE lessons?

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      1. Hey Sporticus – I don’t get the kids to write if I don’t need to! But their answers to guide me as to whether they understand the task and leave things very open ended (so they can say whatever they are thinking not what they think I want to know or be guided by me as a leading question).
        I would also say that I have stopped saying ‘why’ to kids – and thinking about What makes you say that? (less aggressive) and also it leads to them detailing their ideas/observations and questions helping me consider whether they do understand the game and have thought about what is being asked of them. If they can’t detail it out then I need to do some review or checking of my progressions – as there isn’t a link to this. Love this blog. Well done.

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      2. Thanks Mel. I keep coming back to it myself, especially if I’ve had a few lessons where my questions have been poor. I’m really beginning to think I need to spend more time on constructing my initial questions before the lesson, to ensure a good start. I would imagine inquiry based PE that the IB advocates ensures that the questions are constructed well in advance of the the actual initial teaching?

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