Stick men asking each other questions

Ofsted 2012: Questioning to promote learning

by FGTO on May 24, 2012

Have you ever noticed that often, when someone is being interviewed, they say “That’s a good question.”?
It’s usually when it’s a question they can’t answer quickly and easily.

Indeed, “good” questions are ones that generally need thinking about.

Inspectors must consider whether:

 “teachers use questioning and discussion to assess the effectiveness of their teaching and promote pupils’ learning”

School inspection handbook from September 2012

Notice, in this instance it does not say “ASSESS” learning, although clearly this is undeniably a major purpose for questioning. Hence, this post is focused on using questions to promote learning and stimulate thinking.

Questions that are easy to answer don’t move learning on; they might indicate that learning has happened, or that at least something has been noticed, thought about or memorised, but they don’t promote learning.

How do questions promote learning?

  • Good questions stimulate thinking, and often generate more questions to clarify understanding.
  • Good questions generate informative responses often revealing not only misconceptions and misunderstanding, but understanding and experience beyond that expected.
  • Good questions encourage learners to make links.
  • Good questions push learners to the limit of their understanding.
  • Good questions from pupils push teachers to the limits of their understanding too, and challenge them to find better ways of explaining.
  • Good questions offer opportunities for learners to hear others’ answers to questions, it helps them to reflect on their own understanding.

Questioning can fail because:

  • questioning techniques are inappropriate for the material.
  • there may be an unconscious gender bias.
  • there may be an unconscious bias towards most able or more demanding students.
  • levels of questions might be targeted to different abilities inappropriately.
  • students don’t have enough thinking time.
  • learners don’t have any idea as to whether they are the only ones to get it wrong/right.
  • learners fear being seen by their peers to be wrong.
  • questions are too difficult.
  • questions are too easy.

Questioning succeeds when:

  • all learners get a chance to answer.
  • learners can see how others are thinking.
  • teachers gain information about thinking and learning.
  • learners have time to consider their answers.
  • learners have time to discuss and follow up on their answers.
  • the answers are not always clear-cut.
  • learners feel safe to answer.
  • questions stimulate more questions.
  • questions stimulate thinking.

What kinds of questions do you routinely ask, and how do you ask them ?

A great deal is talked about open and closed questions, and I’d be surprised to find any teacher who isn’t aware of the difference, but good questioning to promote learning has much more to it than that, and is a vital skill to keep on developing.

There are many questioning and response techniques that are employed throughout schools, many of them very effective:

  • “No hands up”;
  •  Mini whiteboards;
  •  Vote or student response systems;
  •  Online discussions and forums etc..

……….but more important than the technique, is the quality of the questions asked. (Assessment for Learning – Don’t let the tools become the focus! )

In the short video below, Professor Dylan Wiliam talks about the need to get away from the IRE system (Initiation, Response, Evaluation), and to think more carefully about the way in which we ask questions and respond to pupil’s answers.

Teacher:         How many sides does a hexagon have?  (Initiate)
Pupil:              6?  (Response)
Teacher:         Well done.  (Evaluate)

(Yes…I accept that this is an oversimplified example, but I’m sure you can think of others you’ve seen/used)

He gives an example of what one teacher calls “Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce”:
The teacher poses a question, pauses to allow pupils time to think, pounces on any pupil (keeps them on their toes) and then bounces the pupil’s response onto another pupil.


T: How might you describe a hexagon?
P: It’s a shape with 6 sides
T: (to second pupil) How far do you agree with that answer?

Depending on the answer of the second pupil – the line of questioning could continue –

Is the first answer completely right?
How could we improve the question?
How could we make the answer accurate?


In this PowerPoint presentation, Wiliam also puts forward the idea of ‘Hinge” questions.

  • A hinge question is based on the important concept in a lesson that is critical for students to understand before you move on in the lesson.
  • The question should fall about midway during the lesson.
  • Every student must respond to the question within two minutes.
  • You must be able to collect and interpret the responses from all students in 30 seconds

E.g. Choose the best description of a rhombus.

a.    a 2D shape with two pairs of parallel sides
   a quadrilateral with two pairs of parallel sides, each side being of equal length

   a quadrilateral where all four sides have equal length. Opposite sides are parallel and opposite angles are equal.

   a quadrilateral where all four sides have equal length. Opposite sides are parallel and all angles are right angles.

You can collate the responses using ABCD cards, mini whiteboards etc.
These types of questions are particularly useful for using with student response systems (Like the voting system on “Who wants to be a millionaire?”), as they will record the responses too.

Whatever the response, it offers an opportunity for probing and further discussion.

(See PowerPoint presentation for more examples)

Dilemmas and discussion

Asking questions which stimulate discussion are a great way to promote learning.
They lead pupils to express their thinking, reveal their understanding and to reflect and compare their thinking with others.
They also enable learning and progress to be demonstrated explicitly, as shown in this comment from a recent inspection report.

“In the best lessons, teachers engage their classes with imaginative activities. In a Year 10 history class, the teacher provided a collection of interesting resources, some print based and some in electronic format. Students worked in groups to explore these resources and form a judgement as to the quality of leadership provided by Field Marshall Haig in the First World War.”

Clearly the students were working at the higher end (Evaluation) of Bloom’s taxonomy.


Lower order questions


  • What did we say a noun was?
  • What’s the symbol for sodium?
  • What happened when we heated the wax?
  • What’s the formula for working out area?
  • What do we have to remember about starting a new sentence?


  • Which note is higher?
  • Which words tell us that the character is sad?
  • What happened to the salt when we added it to the water?
  • Why does the water level go down faster on a hot day?

Higher order questions – (These are the kind that will promote learning!)


  • Given what you have just learned, how could you devise a better way of doing this experiment?
  • How might you use this technique to solve this (another) problem?
  • Use your understanding of changes of state to explain how the water cycle works.


  • Why did this event in the match prove to be the turning point?
  • Why is this business website more successful than this one?
  • What would we need to know about geology and chemistry to understand the industrial development of Stoke-on-Trent?
  • What features of the writing work to increase the tension in this chapter?
  • What elements in this piece of music create the sense of anger?


  • How accurate were the measurements in the experiment we have just carried out?
  • How well does this piece of music create the sense of anger?
  • Which material is better for this purpose?
  • What are the characteristics of this material that make it worth considering for this purpose?
  • Which method of calculation do you think is more efficient/accurate?


  • Design a pocket guide to fair testing.
  • Create a one minute video/audio to explain why we have night and day.
  • Write a “Ten commandments” of good design.
  • Re-present the information in the text as a diagram.
  • Compose a piece of music of your own to convey one of these emotions…..

How is your questioning?

  • Do you ever consciously audit your questions?
  • How good are the key questions you plan for each lesson?
  • How well do the questions you ask relate to the learning objectives?
  • Do the questions you ask challenge thinking?
  • How often do you ask further questions that really probe understanding?
  • How many questions do you ask to which you don’t know the answer?
  • How often do the learners ask the questions?
  • How often do you ask the learners to generate probing questions?
  • How do the questions you ask promote learning?


Additional links:

A questioning toolkit

Applying Bloom’s taxonomy

Questioning to promote higher order thinking

The critical thinking community

East Riding – Assessment – Socratic Questioning

The other posts in this series -




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