Collaborative Questioning

21st December 2018

By Tim Taylor

Questioning is the lifeblood of teaching. As Morgan and Saxton observed, “Education is a process of inquiry and questions are the chief agents by which meanings are mediated.” [Asking Better Questions, 2006] Being able to ask a perceptive question, followed by one that probes a little deeper, and another that gets to the heart of the matter, while at the same time bringing the students along with no feelings of anxiety or of being interrogated – this is the art of great teaching.

In collaborative teaching, the teacher endeavours to work with the students, developing lines of shared communication and power. It is not her role to cross-examine them, to find out what they know or don’t know. Her role is to develop and support their capacity for inquiry. This process involves a number of key principles:

  • Use language that invites participation and reduces anxiety: “I wonder if…”, “It occurs to me…”, “If you were…”.
  • Try to avoid asking questions you already know the answer to. It might not always be possible, but it’s a more authentic way of working.
  • Consider yourself a fellow traveller and ask the kinds of questions you’d like answered – “I always wanted to know…”, “What do you think would happen if…”. Don’t worry if the questions don’t always have an answer: this is the way with inquiry.
  • Treat the students’ answers with respect and don’t rush to judgement. Too often when students’ answers don’t match our expectations, we feel let down. Battle this inclination and work with them to develop their answers into something stronger. Children some- times struggle to find the words to say exactly what they mean, so give them time and help out if needed – “I think I understand…”, “Could it be…”, “There might be a chance…”.
  • Really listen to their answers. Listening is about more than just moving from one answer to the next. As Linda Laidlaw observed, “Active listeners are genuinely interested in the reply and willing to let it change them in some way.” [‘Some Further Thoughts on Questioning’ 1989]. Acknowledging students’ answers, pausing, looking interested, building on their thoughts, are all important signals to them that you take their ideas seriously: “That’s interesting…”, “I see what you mean…”, “I suppose…”.
  • Avoid praise, unless it is sincere. It might seem counter-intuitive when we’re talking about reducing anxiety and building student confidence, but insincere praise can have a damaging effect. Children learn early to recognise insincere praise, and they quickly come to dislike it. So be careful: if you praise an answer or a useful suggestion, make sure your praise is genuine.


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