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A question is “a sentence or phrase used to find out information” (Cambridge Dictionary), or “an utterance which typically functions as a request for information, which is expected to be provided in the form of an answer” (Wikipedia).
When and why do you ask questions? Just today in my own little lockdown bubble I must have asked hundreds. They range in audience: myself, my team, my husband, and even the cat (ok, so they are mostly rhetorical but I’m still counting them).
Questions can be loaded, leading, closed, or open. They can probe, funnel (out and in), test recall, or test process. They can be searching for factual information, an interpretation, an evaluation or a hypothesis. And that’s just the start!
Warren Berger is a questionologist: someone who studies the art and science of questioning. He’s written multiple bestselling books on questions (including one aimed at educators), researches the world’s innovators’ relationships with questioning, and gives speeches and advice on the power of good questions. Two main things stick in my mind about his work: firstly, he states that the most creative and successful members of society tend to be skilled questioners, being people who have mastered inquiry, who ask questions no-one else has thought of and find answers that no-one else has managed to; secondly, his observation that children, eager to ask questions at a young age, enter school and then lose interest in questioning what is presented to them.
He states that, “We’re all hungry today for better answers. But first, we must learn to ask the right questions.”
Asking questions is something every teacher in the world does. They range from off the cuff responses to a learner’s own question or response; to carefully designed, moderated, graded questions, potentially answered in exam conditions; through to open-ended investigative prompts.
Why do we ask questions? Are we probing understanding? Filling in time? Encouraging guided self-discovery? Are we considering a topic in depth? Searching for misunderstandings? Are we convincing ourselves that our students know something? Or convincing the students that they do?
Several years ago, whilst still in the classroom, I attended an event led by Dylan Wiliam about assessment for learning. Prof Wiliam states that there are two reasons why a teacher asks a question: to cause their students to think, or to provide information to the teacher to inform their next steps. He describes dialogic teaching as a way to cause students to think (which is a whole other blog). He also describes one way of getting a picture of who knows what in the class by using multiple choice questions – more specifically carefully designed, thoughtful multiple choice questions – called hinge questions.
Hinge questions help teachers identify whether a key concept, central to further study, has been grasped, and if learners are ready to move on. Hinge questions should provide information not only about whether a concept has been understood, but should also support next steps and help identify any misunderstandings. They are not about asking 10 similar questions to achieve a list of right/wrong marks but a way to probe a fundamental idea.
So a hinge question is a multiple choice question carefully designed to assess understanding of a crucial concept. The answers offered are all feasible, may poke at known misconceptions, misunderstandings and mistakes (from research or simply looking at students’ earlier work), and each answer can be analysed and discussed with reasons as to why someone may pick that specific answer.
After attending the course, I had a go at designing my own hinge questions. Here is an early attempt to help assess students’ grasp of gradients of straight-line graphs.
The design of hinge questions themselves is great professional development, which includes:
None of this is new, and much overlaps with a range of other professional development activities. Indeed, those involved with Japanese lesson study will recognise the bullet points above as the crux of their research in the kyouzai kenkyuu phase (again a whole other blog). But what hinge questions offer is a starting place to pick at your own and your students’ knowledge. It is not about making huge changes to your work routine but choosing a topic and designing a question with its answers.
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