Are you really teaching? Or are you just asking endless frustrating questions?

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, partly because Ben Newmark has been writing some excellent stuff on didactic teaching which has got me thinking about what concise-explanation-is-king teaching looks like in the primary classroom and partly because it was mentioned on twitter that most instruction in the primary classroom is, apparently, didactic.

I disagree.

I think that many teachers might be confusing all teacher talk with didactic teaching, instead inadvertently employing a version of discovery learning that requires the children to construct their own knowledge/understanding/skills in their heads and then share it with (and ‘teach’) the rest of the class. Just because they’re not at their tables working in groups, or using lots of manipulatives,  sugar paper, drama or iPads doesn’t mean that discovery learning is not taking place. Conversely, just because the children are sat on the carpet in front of you, doesn’t mean that explicit teaching is happening. What I have seen and still see a lot of is various permutations of this:

I’m thinking of the thing, can you think of what it is yet?

q

Even I sometimes slip into this habit and it’s as if the rhetoric of child-centred education can so easily filter into the teacher’s head, slightly shifting and warping the words and phrases that the teacher uses (employing a dose of guilt too), ultimately allowing the child’s voice to take precedence over the teacher’s voice. This manifests in endless questions prompting the children to make the next connection themselves and then offer up these connections to the rest of the class. Underlying all this questioning is the prioritisation of engagement and interest, and underlying this is an internalisation of the following message by the teacher:

I am not worth listening to (actually it is wrong for me to ‘force’ children to learn what I want them to learn), I am not important and it is better if the children arrive at their own conclusions themselves or with each other than if I simply tell them.

They also might be thinking this:

I must AfL it to the max. All the time.

How does this pan out? In order to really understand this, we also need to put ourselves in the shoes of the various different children in our class. This is what tends to happen when, instead of just giving the children some interesting information about the key concepts of Islam (for example), the teacher asks, ‘Muslims read a special book; does anyone know what this book is called and what language it is written in?’

  1. There will, probably, be a [middle class] child called Derek who already knows this information and he immediately throws a hand in the air. A few other gung-ho kids with the wrong information throw their hands in the air too.
  2. The teacher may a) pick Derek and he then ‘teaches’ the rest of the class, but is a bit woolly with his explanation, saying the words a bit wrong, or, b) picks a gung-ho child who ‘teaches’ the rest of the class something that is completely wrong and they all have a good laugh together, maybe going off on a tangent into Judaism.
  3. Jerry, who has SEN and seriously struggles to understand what the hell is going on, immediately feels down when the teacher asks the class if anyone already knows what she is intending to teach them or whether they have worked out, by themselves, the next step because he can’t put his hand up. Then he either thinks a) Derek is so lucky that he naturally knows everything or b) That Judaism and Islam are pretty much the same thing.

Despite everyone in the class looking engaged, this is mostly a waste of time. All the children who struggle to concentrate would’ve switched off, all the children with SEN would’ve either learned nothing or, even worse, the wrong thing and all the advantaged children would’ve been given a leg-up to the next step and made to feel like they’re better than all the other children. Well I, for one, am not down with that.

Don’t get me wrong, questioning is good, particularly if you make children fully explain their reasoning. However, there’s a difference between using questions to check whether children understand what has already been taught versus questions that are intended to prompt children to make connections and construct their own knowledge in their heads. The latter is inefficient, risky and leaves disadvantaged children behind. A truly traditional teacher would do the following:

  1. Show children a picture of a Q’uran, tell them using clear and concise language that this is a special book that Muslims read and that it is written in a language called Arabic.
  2. She would show children the words ‘Q’uran’ and ‘Arabic’ on the board and then ask the class to repeat the words and then use the words in a sentence 3 times. ‘While we’re at it, let’s write this down in our best handwriting.’
  3. She would then ask the whole class if anyone can say, in their own words, what she has just taught the class.
  4. Both Derek and Jerry put their hands up when asked a question about the special book that a Muslim reads.

Some of you might be thinking that I’ve picked something that is too straightforward and that of course you would take the second approach. But do you really? A slightly more complex situation would be in the teaching of column subtraction. The properly didactic route would be to get the children silent, all hands resting on the desks (not fiddling with a pencil) and 100% of eyeballs looking at the teacher. The teacher would firstly show children a ‘problem’ that needs solving and the calculation that needs to be done, then stating why column subtraction needs to be used as opposed to mental arithmetic. Then, she would clearly explain exactly how to lay out column subtraction including why it is laid out that way (but remembering to keep on task with the explanation and not leading the children astray with their thinking). She would then go through each and every step modelling his/her thinking and number bond knowledge along the way and when arriving at the answer, stating (using the correct mathematical language and including the units of measurement) how the original problem has been solved, showing children the now balanced equation.

How many primary teachers would have the confidence to go through this process, which should only take 5 minutes, without resorting to stopping every half a bloody minute to ask the following questions:

  • Who has read this problem and can tell me what they think the calculation needs to be?
  • Who thinks they know why I have laid it out this way?
  • Who can tell me what they think the next step is?
  • Who thinks they know what to do when we are faced with a subtrahend here is bigger than the minuend here?
  • Who can guess what this number in this column represents?
  • Who can think of a quick way of subtracting 9 if a number bond doesn’t immediately flash up in my head?
  • Who thinks they already know what the answer is?

When teachers resort to discovery-through-questioning-teaching I find that it causes children to start guessing and calling out (because all little children are eager to please and have approval; something that secondary maths teachers don’t experience as much so we primary teachers should remember to be grateful!). I do find that many classes’ overall psychology is to assume that they will be constantly called upon or allowed to constantly interject with their opinions in this way and you find that hands shoot up all over the place and pretty much constantly where they even try to anticipate the question, never mind the answer! In fact, some cohorts don’t seem to understand the whole concept of a teacher actually teaching or that they are there to learn rather than have conversations and do activities. This is seriously distracting.

There are a couple of other reasons why a teacher, particularly a young and new teacher, might resort to this kind of ‘teaching’, especially in maths lessons. I think one of the reasons is that a typical SCITT course ‘Maths day’ doesn’t actually consist of ‘How to teach maths’, rather an immersion in the consultant’s version of ‘It’s great when you get all the equipment out, here are some exciting activities and let the children enjoy, discover and improve their self-esteem’ way of life. The other reason is probably lack of confidence/maths prowess among new primary teachers themselves which would lead them to inadvertently deferring the ‘teaching’ as it were to the more confident children in their class. I often wonder whether primary teachers are really checking number bond or times tables knowledge among the children when demonstrating a formal method of calculation, or whether they didn’t have that particular maths fact to hand at the time. Honestly, the number of times I’ve heard teachers either admit to being a bit frightened of year 6 maths, or even saying that they need to brush up on it really does alarm me! The risk is of course is that a child says the wrong answer, and then the teacher will quite often say, ‘Well, you’re nearly there and almost correct! Well done for having a go!’ instead of ‘This is the wrong answer.’ It’s better just to model your knowledge of the maths fact and then get 100% of the children to chant it back, then maybe ask an individual child than risk mass confusion. Perhaps SCITT maths days really need to include the course tutors actually modelling how to teach converting fractions, for example, then the SCITT student would a) feel the love for fractions and understand why various aspects of the previous years’ curricula need to be learned off by heart and b) assimilate a bank of words, phrases and lesson structures that would help them teach maths.

Now you might still be thinking that there clearly isn’t enough questioning. However, after the teacher has properly explained what is is going on, including actually ‘answering’ those questions listed above (‘-10+1 = -9, let me just write this maths fact at the side here, so we can just quickly subtract 10 and add 1 rather than inefficiently count back 9 ones, which I’m now going to prove to you’), including pre-empting the misconceptions (‘no, we don’t simply decide to subtract the minuend from the subtrahend’) then the questions can be allowed, but with the teacher leading the way, not the children.

  • Who would like me to go through this again?
  • If there was a bit of this that you found confusing, please put up your hand and tell me exactly which part didn’t make sense. Remember, your friends are probably thinking the same thing!
  • Does anyone have any questions about what I have done or the words and phrases I have used?
  • Right, now we are going to do one of these together, but bit-by-bit. If you are feeling confident, please don’t call out; instead, you can play a little game inside your head where you guess what I am going to say and do next.
  • [Checks Jerry is smiling] Jerry, I am going to read this problem for us both. Can you tell me what the calculation is and why you know this?

Of course, many reading this are thinking that a teacher just teaching is all rather boring. I would disagree. What I find is that when the children are settled, in ‘receive’ mode and I give myself permission to just teach, taking care with the explanations, modelling of thinking and doing, using the new phrases and vocabulary, maybe even converting the instruction into a nice story, then I am more likely to hear the muffled ‘Ah! I get it now!’ Far from boring, this is incredibly liberating because when the teacher actually teaches, and this is what I, as a parent, thought all teachers were all doing before I entered the profession and experienced a rather rude awakening, then all children can learn. When all the children have learned, then the questions subtly change:

  • Who has read this problem and can tell me what they know the calculation needs to be?
  • Who knows why I have laid it out this way?
  • Who can tell me what they know the next step is?
  • Who knows exactly what this number in this column represents?
  • Who knows what to do when this number is bigger than this number here?
  • Who knows a quick way of subtracting 9 if a number bond doesn’t immediately flash up in my head?
  • Who knows what the answer is?

Knowledge is power, so let’s actually teach the children everything they need to know (and then of course get them to practise lots!)

Who’s with me?

 

 

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26 thoughts on “Are you really teaching? Or are you just asking endless frustrating questions?

  1. “Knowledge is power, so let’s actually teach the children everything they need to know (and then of course get them to practise lots!)”

    I would go further and say that knowledge is power, but being able to use knowledge in both familiar and unfamiliar situations is extraordinarily powerful.

    I would sincerely like to know just what you get them to practise, once they have remembered the few words you have “told” them.

    I believe all teachers teach this way with very few exceptions when it comes to learning facts.

    I have to say however that you have performed the favourite trad magic trick, you have again created the false dichotomy.

    Are you really teaching?

    “Yes I am”

    Or are you just asking endless frustrating questions?

    “No I am asking the minimum number of valuable questions, a technique that has been researched from Plato to this day and found to be very effective”.

    Maybe it’s a primary / secondary thing.

    “Show children a picture of a Q’uran, tell them using clear and concise language that this is a special book that Muslims read and that it is written in a language called Arabic.

    She would show children the words ‘Q’uran’ and ‘Arabic’ on the board and then ask the class to repeat the words and then use the words in a sentence 3 times. ‘While we’re at it, let’s write this down in our best handwriting.’”

    Surely the only things the children will able to write without telling lies is that the Q’uran is a book written in Arabic that Muslims read as this is all you told them. Asking them to use both words in a sentence 3 times seems to me a little daft, or was it both words in each of 3 sentences. Not so clear and concise perhaps.

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  2. As a secondary school teacher I have to fight my own tendency of continually asking questions – questions for which the answers are too obvious or too difficult for my students.

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  3. Interesting thoughts about how, by asking questions, teachers can (suggest that they) value and reward some children’s upbringing/background more than others’.

    However, I think the problems with your maths example are different from what you have suggested. The ‘subtle change’ you talk about suggests that you are teaching all of this as new information in this one lesson. But children shouldn’t be *guessing* what the digit in a column represents. They shouldn’t be *guessing* how to subtract 9 from a two-digit number. They should know this before tackling column subtraction. The issue seems to be, not that you are overloading children with questions, but that you are overloading them with new information.

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    • Yes, you’re right about children already knowing the pre-requisites and I agree; ‘Derek’ already knows the pre-requisites, BUT, he is not able to succinctly talk about them to other pupils; this is why the teacher needs to do it. Further, some children forget along the way, and by properly teaching along the , we help to replenish that knowledge in a succinct fashion.

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  4. I’d be interested to know where you’ve seen all the unhelpful practices you write about? Are they all in the same school, or have you worked in lots of schools and seen them in each?

    About your Q’uran lesson? What you describe will take no more than 10 minutes, probably nearer 5. What will the children do for the rest of the lesson? Or do you do a series of ten minute transmissions of various facts throughout the day?

    If you ever work in a school where the majority of children are Muslim and go to Mosque school after their tea, 5 days a week, starting aged 6, you will find that many children will know more about the Q’uran than you do, unless you too are a Muslim who has studied your faith and artefacts. If you decide to show the children some Eid Mubarak cards, as part of teaching them about the end of Ramadan, you might be surprised that they will read the Arabic inscriptions, tell you what they say, and translate them for you. I have seen children in year one who know more about their religions and some other languages and scripts than me. I have also found that they tend to be very interested, engaged, by study of the books, places of worship and artefacts of other religions, because they relate them to their experiences of practising their own religions – very progressive, you might say.

    With the column method subtraction in maths, yes, teach them what you want them to do, take ten minutes over it, and then let the children work through as many examples, ‘sums’, as will fill up the rest of the session – maths methods lend themselves to this way of working. Easy peasy. Send them out to play. Go and get a cup of tea. Sooner or later, come test time, they will need to be able to visualise problems given in written form in order to decide what maths to use; whether to use the column method or some other you have taught. That will be the tricky bit, as I’m sure you well know. Not sure you’d be able to teach a method and then trust them to work out the calculations from a series of word problems, to take you up till playtime, without them getting in a right old mess.

    I once sat as reader with a year 6 boy during maths SATs. He was trained very well in column method subtraction. He spent ages trying to subtract 7 from 12, as an element of a multipart worded problem, using the column method. 7 from 2 won’t go. Carry the 1(0). Now, take 7 from 12. Erm…. He couldn’t believe the method he’d had drummed into him without enough proggie understanding didn’t work and he wouldn’t give up, it seemed so easy. I had to tell him to move on.
    Sometimes we need to tell children what to do, as well as how to do it. This might be seen as trad.
    Eventually children need to be able to decide for themselves what to do, and know how to do it, for themselves. This is prog in the opinion of many.
    How to find out which tack to take in any given situation? Ask the right questions.

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  5. This! My SCITT experience was exactly as described. Only during this last half of my NQT year have I realised I wasn’t in fact teaching anything but getting them to play guessing games – asking questions they had no chance of being able to answer because know one had ever taught them the answer before! Then to begin with I felt like I was somehow cheating by explicitly teaching, as if someone would walk into my class when I was doing so and tell me off! You’re spot on. I feel reassured. Thank you

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  6. Love this post! An excellent general principle of teaching is that one should never ask the class a question unless one is sure that everyone (who has been paying attention) knows the answer. Guessing should have no place whatsoever in an effective classroom.

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  7. I have never been more ‘with you’! In my most successful lessons to date, I have employed enthusiastic, engaging explanation, rather than a teasing out of trails of fractured facts. As a caveat though, I am speaking subjectively about my own pedagogy – I never make generalisations. Voice is important (my MA Education centred on this), but I worry that listening skills are being down graded. Please keep writing, Quirky, as it keeps me thinking (and nodding)!

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  8. ‘Quirky Teacher’ has a lot of patience! This is a well written piece, perfectly pitched for the audience it is aimed at. However, some of the replies make me grimace! Let’s be a bit trad and make it clear.
    These are EXAMPLES used to explain.
    The rest of the lesson is your own business.
    Reading things twice often deepens your understanding of a text.
    Now go back to your tables and think about what you did! 🙄

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  9. I have a few reservations below, but like the central premise here because it feels like the kind of place to start if you’re going to get somewhere.

    Not sure how far to push the nature of just one child, but introverted Sprogette is a hands-down kind of girl and the exceptions tend to be when she has some more unique and fairly authoritative contribution to make, and that inevitably draws on life beyond school. These are little, but for her quite significant, triumphs against that hands-down nature. You’d have to play lollipop-sticks or similar to get her to answer questions based on what has just been taught.

    I think you’re too charitable re. upstream secondary. For instance this Y9 child has a definite grudge against school-side English lessons specifically because of things like having to guess why dead-author wrote that or decided to use some literary device. I do like her quite sharp, intelligent English teacher who has a reputation for being a bit hard/blunt with children i.e. doesn’t infantilise them, and we’ve informally agreed this is a probably a metaphorically left-brained thing. Although they might happily give their own opinion of some text, offering opinions on what was in an author’s head is a step too far for children more inclined towards certainty.

    I agree about succinct and maths. In that context I’m not fond of the quite common idea that being able to explain something succinctly implies you understand it properly. Sprogette is a maths whizzy-child and amongst the last who you should ask to explain something to the class. Some of what she does now is semi or sub-conscious and ability to explain that in complete sentences for consumption by an entire class might make her a better teacher, but it tells you little about her understanding.

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  10. Normally I wouldn’t come in so late on a thread, as I’m likely to be writing for no one but myself. However, this is a key problem–one which amply illustrates one of my favourite quotes from Thomas Sowell:

    “Virtually no idea is too ridiculous to be accepted, even by very intelligent and educated people, if it provides a way for them to feel special and important.”

    The difficulty with open questions is that we are merely encouraging children to think that their immature opinions are of value, when they seldom do much more than repeat what they’ve heard before. Their knowledge bases are seldom sufficient for them to make new connections of any but the most trivial nature. In effect, we are giving children a vastly inflated opinion of their judgments–a problem that anyone who’s ever lived with a teenager will know all about.

    Having been trained as a military instructor well before I had anything to do with education, I knew how to use closed questions to keep my students 100% on message so that no element of the lesson was wasted. I seriously doubt that any of the detractors on this thread have any concept of how satisfying it is to be leading a class where every pupil is intently on message. Used correctly–ie, pausing for just long enough for every pupil to retrieve the answer before nominating someone to reply–not only ensures that the answer has been learnt, but the retrieval aids retention.

    As an example of how debate is impoverished by lack of knowledge, I was once a judge at a Debating Matters competition between teams from two of our leading 6th forms, and the topic was whether Fairtrade was a good thing. No one mentioned Schumpeter and his 1942 theory of ‘creative destruction’. One can certainly forgive the students for not knowing about this, but I thought that surely their teachers would have given them some reading that would have mentioned it; after all, it is one of the first things that a beginning student of economic theory would encounter. At least all of the other judges agreed that this was a serious omission!

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  11. This thread is very pertinent indeed to a common form of phonics provision:

    The teacher introduces a new sound and one of its spelling alternatives, for examle – the sound /air/ and the -are spelling alternative. She or he might write down the spelling alternative -are on the board.

    She or he then asks if the children know any words with the focus sound in.

    A few hands shoot up.

    These will invariably include one or two children who not only know words with the focus sound, but is aware of a word or two with the focus spelling. The teacher knows this child is generally reliable to give a helpful word and asks the reliable child who knows a lot anyway. The child says ‘dare’. “Well done, that’s right” says the teacher.

    The teacher has to extend the opportunity for other children to answer – but from then on, the lesson gets a bit murky and confusing – and takes a very long time to extract answers – more often than not words that the teacher is not seeking.

    For example, some children will be able to think of the focus sound correctly but provide words such as, ‘hair’, ‘tear’ (tear the paper), ‘swear’ (goodness gracious me – the class laughs), ‘stares’ (yes, but what is the meaning – stairs or stares – the teacher has to expand on this) – and so on.

    Along the way, many teachers take each word to write it down on the board (in rather random order/places all over the board) and the lesson drags on and on. Bear in mind that most teachers may provide only 20 minute phonics lessons at most, so the lesson time is being seriously squandered.

    The above practice, I suggest, is very common. I have certainly observed such practice in a number of schools and video footage. I also used to do something like this when I first discovered phonics teaching decades ago.

    Now, the time to extract words with the focus sound /air/ and the focus spelling ‘-are’ is AFTER all the teaching has taken place to TEACH well, the sound /air/ and all the spelling alternatives we find in common words such as ‘air’, ‘-are’, ‘-ear’ and ‘-ere’. Along the way, make sure the children KNOW that they have to build up their knowledge of the ‘spelling word banks’ of which words are spelt with the same letter/s-sound correspondences.

    AFTER the sequence of such lessons, summarise with a lesson of sifting and sorting out the various spellings/word banks in an activity or two. Incorporate emphasis on meaning, homophones, activities to glue the words together in the same spelling word banks such as using spelling stories, language comprehension activities, drawing, acting out – and so on.

    All of this takes a body of work, clear teaching and learning objectives, efficient teaching and allowing plenty of practice to ensure every child can achieve by the end of the series of lessons.

    And this is only one tiny little piece of a very complex code.

    In other words, don’t try to extract information out of the (few) children who might know a little bit, don’t waste time, get on with direct teaching and provide plenty of content-rich fit-for-purpose practice. There is SO much for children to learn.

    Quirky – in other words, I’m with you on this and get what you mean – and see parallel examples to yours ALL THE TIME.

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