Focus on the questions that matter

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I think it would be fascinating to do a school wide study into how many questions students are presented with in every lesson. Admittedly I may be overstating the point but I reckon that a teacher’s typical number of Questions Per Hour (QPH) is pretty high. I wouldn’t be too surprised if in my lessons, I could regularly be in the region of 60QPH, possibly even higher. The thing is, this number is often skewed by questions that don’t actually stretch learning, but that may be necessary questions nonetheless. I am referring to those such as “Can you now put your pen down?”, “Where have you been?”, “Can all jackets be removed”, “Can you turn to face your partner?” etc. The fact is we need to ask a great deal of questions to simply manage the classroom environment. Let us agree therefore that these types of questions shall henceforth be known as managerial questions.

Now imagine the students’ experience. Among the myriad of things they need to do each lesson, one is to discern between the managerial questions and the learning questions that actually propel their understanding. If they’re presented with a vast array of questions, how are they signposted to the ones that they REALLY MUST LISTEN TO? I remain quietly convinced that if I can reduce my QPH each lesson to include just the learning questions (the questions that really matter) then I can retain a greater amount of their focus and attention at the times when I want them to be most engaged. So here is a strategy to ensure only learning questions are asked.

First let’s back up a little. In English we use the term paralinguistics to describe the way we can communicate meaning using strategies beyond mere words and grammar. Paralinguistics can be split into two types. Using pitch, tone, intonation, volume and other voice elements (even sighing and clearing your throat) are known specifically as vocalic communication, whereas using body language, facial expressions and other physical gestures are known as non-vocalic communication.

English lesson over and back to the teaching tip. One strategy I have found that can be really effective in focusing questions in the classroom is to replace all managerial questions with non-vocalic communication. Or in layman’s terms, ask questions that have nothing to do with learning, by using some kind of physical gesture. So, placing your hands to you lips can replace “Can you stop talking?”, and pointing at a watch can mean “why are you late?”. These don’t have to be limited to just questions. Thumbs up to reward a good answer or a hand gesture that indicates you want them to give a longer response all work well in whole group activities. By following this model I end up talking less, but also reduce the amount of unnecessary talk that can dilute the power of the things I say that do have real value.

Sometimes, as they say, less is more.