Questioning questioning 

Since Geoff Petty shared his ‘which questioning‘ strategy with me around 6 years ago, I have been on a mission to hone my questioning. It is a great little activity that really gets you thinking about making effective use of questions. To this day, I use an adapted version of the activity with my own trainees. Indeed, I often focus observation feedback on the development of questioning as an essential formative assessment approach.


It’s easy to see why this is the focus of many teachers up and down the country. Hattie’s synthesis of classroom experiments (2015) found questioning to have a modest, but positive effect size of 0.48 and the resulting classroom discussion a huge 0.82.

The thing is, I’ve found more and more that trainees are focusing too much on questioning individuals (they do it well), and less time on the instructing or allowing learners to practise. It seems that ‘the question’ has taken precedent over ‘the answer’.

I observed a session recently where the teacher insisted on working their way around the class with questions, yet many of the learners didn’t have sufficient prior knowledge to allow them to explore understanding through discussions. It appeared that the opportunity cost of such a strategy was not as fruitful as one might have thought. Due to questioning being a strategy held in high regard, I can understand why they persisted, but it just didn’t help the learners. Instead, the group lost interest rather quickly and low level disruption ensued.

Were the teacher to use questioning more efficiently (second time I’ve used this term in as many posts), through a selection of multiple choice questions which can be answered by all in a short time, the teacher may have realised that the learners required some input/guidance to increase knowledge and enable greater participation in discussions.

Arguably a good starting point for thinking about questioning in the classroom is to ask yourself what the purpose is. Is it to assess learner knowledge/understanding, or is it to teach learners something through discussion? Perhaps it is both, but the main reason should influence the type of questions used. Personally, I use questioning as an assessment tool and the quicker I am able to assess ALL learners the better, so that I can identify gaps in knowledge that need filling. I’m not dismissing questioning as a means to generate good class discussion, but appreciate that time is of the essence with our learners and we should aim to maximise every last drop of it.


ResearchEdFE – Oliver and me

Last week (03.12.16), Oliver and I delivered our ‘Choose Science, Not Myths’ presentation at the first ResearchEd devoted to Further Education.

Below are the slides from the presentation and Oliver kindly put together the presentation notes in his blog here and here.

The first part of the presentation explored a range of myths and while it is acknowledged that the jury is still out on some of these, it is important to remember that we were attempting to be contentious in order to spark debate. The second part of the presentation explored a range of effective learning strategies which are supported by both classroom experiments and cognitive science.

Minimal guided instruction

Using problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching is likely to be ineffective with novices. 


My last post explored the difference between novices and experts, demonstrating that they think and act very differently due to a contrast in their knowledge and experience in a subject area.


In Further Education, specifically in vocational areas, learners arrive with little to no knowledge/experience in their subject. Take Engineering, Automotive, Hair and Beauty and Construction for example – likely to have never been studied previously.  Then there are subjects where there may be prior knowledge/experience but many misconceptions, for example English and maths. Therefore, learners are arguably still novices when they join us…


The thing is, there seems to be an obsession in FE to teach learners as if they are experts. CPD sessions across the country are riddled with the promotion of minimal guided instruction methods such as: discovery based, problem based, experiential and inquiry-based learning. I get it, I really do. We are trying to reach an audience that is getting hdownloadarder to reach, so if we can make the learning interesting and give learners more autonomy, then we might just crack the problem…

‘You will assume the role of a Wella colour expert and figure out what is wrong with Deirdre’s highlights’


The problem is, we are not doing them any favours by doing this. Once learners have a solid foundation and begin to develop expertise, then these approaches to learning may be very effective, as they can draw upon prior knowledge/experiences to assist them with their learning. Novices on the other hand don’t have this knowledge and experience to draw upon. In fact, it is likely that they will have misconceptions about the subject that, when applied to a problem based activity, may result in further confusion.


Future posts will examine effective methods of guided instruction, but for now I introduce you to a paper by Kirscher and colleagues explains in greater depth why minimally guided instruction is not an effective instructional design for those with limited knowledge. I have attempted to summarise this visually below:


So to end my post. Many of our learners are novices and need guided instruction. When they are experts, we can reduce the guidance we give.

*Also, I’d like to add that I’m not completely averse to this type of instruction on occasion, when I feel that learners have sufficient knowledge.

Applied & Simplified Pt 2 – Top 20 Principles

My last post, explored principles 1-8 of the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education’s  Top 20 Principles from Psychology for Teaching and Learning. Here I move onto the next 7 principles, once again, trying to provide simple application of each.

  • Principles 9-12 focus on what motivates students.
  • Principles 13-15 focus on why social context, interpersonal relationships, and emotional well being are important to student learning.



Diary of a Teacher Trainer #2

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to deliver a training session for 24 PGCE post-14 students last week. The topic… Well it was mobile learning. After my recent post about learning technology I was determined that I was going to be sharing ideas that I believe genuinely support learning and that it would not just be a ‘free for all’ of ideas.


My session started with the obligatory ‘whizz bang’ welcome video which introduced the concept of embracing mobile learning, followed by a brief overview of the session:

  1. What is m-learning?
  2. Why should we embrace it?
  3. How can we do this effectively?


Following this, I asked the students to produce a visual representation of ‘m-learning’ in groups of 3/4 (5 mins). In doing so, they were asked to think about what they believe m-learning is and what it means to them. Of course, I provided them with some images to cut out, coloured pens, and A3 paper to use as they wished. Wait… This isn’t very ‘edtech’; using paper and pens I hear you ask? Hold fire as there was method to my madness…

Derby Uni PGCE students mid-flow with the visual representations

After the 5 minutes, I stopped the task and explained that typically at this point in lessons, the learners would share their visual representations by standing up and speaking to the whole class. After which, another group would do the same and so on. This often results in learners feeling anxious whilst waiting for their turn and as a result, they’re not really listening to others – I’ve been that person!


Why not record themselves presenting it then? You don’t have to film faces, but could film the visual representation and students could point to areas that are being explained. So that’s what they did. Using the simple record function on a smart phone (only 1 needed in the group of 4), they were able to present and then share the video via email with me. It can also be added to a host like Padlet or the Virtual Learning Environment very simply and it is then available to revisit until removed. Simples…


I then provided a bit of information about what m-learning is using definitions from Crompton (2013) and JISC, making broad links to the social constructivist theory of learning. This in essence was what the students had done, co-constructed their own meaning of m-learning in their work to answer my first question – what is m-learning?


Following this we moved onto my second question – why should we embrace it? To open this, I provided access to a Go formative quiz in which they were required to answer questions relating to m-learning. This included:

  • Approximately how many FE  learners (16-19 year olds) own a smart device? Answer – 9/10
  • What generation of learner joined FE for the first time this year? Answer – Generation Z
  • What does this mean for FE providers? Answer – Who knows?


The group then took part in a brief discussion about each of the questions. It was interesting to hear that many had not considered the impact of increased technology use. It’s hard to ignore.


Finally, I introduced the students to how they might begin to integrate a little technology into their practice. I cautiously advised them that any technology must be simple to use, serve a purpose and be at least as equally as effective (preferably more) than conventional methods of teaching (that is in terms of input, time, access, inclusion, output). I introduced three apps that I have found useful in the past.


1. Padlet: I asked the students to identify the various technology that they have used by adding to a Padlet wall. I was surprised at how little they had used, and were even aware of. Together we explored a few uses of the technology. Around half of the group thought that it would be something they’d find useful in their context.

2. Thinglink: After a quick demo, I asked the group to peer assess one another’s visual representation (from the earlier activity) using this app. They went over to another group’s visual representation and took a picture. They then went back and added feedback in the form of comments and/or videos, before emailing it to me. We discussed other ways in which they may use this in practice and again, around half of the group thought they’d use this in their practice.

3. Aurasma: After a couple of demonstrations and allowing the students to explore its use, I realised that this element of the session was perhaps a little too complex and went against my whole ethos in using technology. I had planned to get the group to provide peer feedback on another’s work, but they were struggling to navigate the app and this created a bit of a lull in the session with me being in high demand to support them. I am really excited about augmented reality and have used it to good effect previously, but only a few of the group were as enthused by this as myself and wanting to explore it further.


I ended the session with a summary which asked the group to reflect on the various edtech tools that they had used in the session and consider how they might use any of them going forward. There was a catch. I wanted them to use the ‘talk to text’ feature on their devices to email the summary to themselves and copy me in.


At the end of the session, I was pleasantly surprised by how many of the students found it to be a positive experience with the vast majority clear with what they intended to try in their contexts and why. Upon returning home, I replied to each and every reflection summary that I was copied into to ensure that the reflective activity using talk to text served a real purpose for the students. I think in summary that is the key to using technology – keep it simple and ensure that it serves a purpose.

Group work 

Group work. Love it or loathe it, the concept is ingrained within thousands of teacher’s tool-kits, within every school and college across the globe. Why is it that many get it so terribly wrong – myself included?


The things that go wrong tend to include:

  1. A selection of learners not participating fully (social loafing).
  2. The more able learner doing the work alone and not taking input from the others.
  3. The task being given too much time.
  4. The tasks lack challenge.

I truly believe that group work can be useful and with evidence from Walberg (1984) giving co-operative learning an effect-size 0.76 (pretty high), there has got to be something about group work that makes it an effective learning tool. Let’s look at some of the things that might make group work a useful thing:

  • Learners collaborate with one another: In working in a group, learners get to work in a team. Being able to work well in a team is a skill that many jobs will require, so in learning together, they are forming the foundations for this.
  • 2 heads are better than 1: Pooling together knowledge and understanding has got to be positive right? Learning with and from one another.
  • Learners develop their oracy skills: Knowing when and how to speak and listen to one another is an essential life skill. Working in a group provides opportunities for learners to hear different views, articulate their own and discuss these.

The aforementioned are just a few of the benefits, yet thoughtlessly throwing a group activity in every lesson is not going to mean these will occur. Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain (2003) inform us that group learning activities work well if learners are working as a group, not just in a group – i.e. they share a common goal and if there is individual accountability so that the best learning efforts of every member of the group are visible and quantifiable. This increases learner motivation to contribute and support one another. With this in mind, I suggest that if you plan to use group work as a learning activity, then you consider how you can ensure a common goal and individual accountability.

Mesch (1991) suggests that the ‘jigsaw approach’ to group work ensures that all learners have accountability. An example of this is where learners are placed in teams of 4 and numbered 1-4. All of the number 1’s work together to learn something, 2’s together to do the same and so on. Upon completion of the tasks, learners then come back to their original groups to teach their peers. The danger with this type of activity is that you’re relying on learners teaching information correctly. Though an abundance of research suggests an average effect-size for peer tutoring, two recent EEF projects actually found that peer teaching had little to no impact on learner attainment. The inconsistency here demonstrates that the approach needs to be managed effectively in order to work well.

Slavin’s (1995) review of cooperative learning studies found that in those studies that used group rewards based on the aggregated learning of individual members had a significant positive effect on learning. For example, learners are more inclined to support one another to make improvements if their group learning is rewarded by giving the group a score based on the lowest individual test score within a group. Learners become more accountable for one another’s learning, whilst also sharing the same goal.

In summary, if you use group work in your lessons, it is essential that you design the group work task to incorporate the above, manage it carefully within the session and expect that sometimes it may not work. It is a case of examining the opportunity-cost when considering group work to improve learning.