Closed questions are often the most important questions…

In my training, I remember being criticised for asking ‘closed’ questions. The assumption was that open questions require much more analysis and evaluation and would get me higher up Bloom’s Taxonomy and therefore, I would be pushing my students harder and they would learn better. Yet, I’m learning that this isn’t necessarily the case and that closed questions are incredibly important, and maybe particularly for teaching RS.

A wonderful colleague @ACBurgate made me think really hard this week about why learning and really understanding concepts as you go along in RS is crucially important. In History, he said, if a student didn’t quite understand the significance of an event, the most important thing is that they have good notes in their folder to review later. The RS A Level doesn’t work that way. It has a huge number of concepts to learn. By Christmas of Year 12, students have probably come across 150 brand new words. These are words that students do not come across in every day life and have not used in their GCSE studies. They underpin each unit and also link across units (and papers). They are the foundation of all of their learning. They have to understand them and be able to use them clearly. As teachers, we need to know that they understand these ideas.

Since September, I have been encouraging my team to evaluate the extent to which we incorporate Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction into our everyday lessons. In my last blog, I was talking about breaking down complex concepts, and at some point, I’ll add explicit reference to Rosenshine (I don’t know why I didn’t do that in the first place). In this blog, I want to think about asking a large number of questions. And in particular, I want to think about the importance of asking a large number of ‘closed’ questions.

Rosenshine says that ‘Questions help students practice new information and connect new material to their learning… [and] allows a teacher to determine how well the material has been learned and whether there is a need for further instruction’. This resonates and fits well with what I’ve been learning about the importance of Retrieval Practice. In @DrSumeracki and @doctorwhy’s book ‘Understanding how we learn’, they cite Smith, Roediger, & Karpicke (2013) and explain that ‘retrieval practice has a direct effect on learning. When we bring information from mind to memory… we are making the memory more durable and more flexible for future use’. The upshot of this is that I am trying to ask more and more questions.

I am trying to use closed questions as retrieval practice all the time, whenever I can. Particularly, I use retrieval practice before explaining a new concept. This week, I wanted to teach Hume’s Fork as a criticism of Kantian Ethics. Before I even explained Hume, I needed to know that students have a really firm understanding of rationalism, empiricism, apriori, a posteriori, analytic, synthetic, etc. If I’m explaining something new at the board, using these words and students are trying to recall their meanings during my explanation, I will be overloading their working memory and they are less likely to understand, far less remember what I am teaching. So, firstly, I asked students to explain (the already taught) concept of synthetic a priori to their neighbour (using a technique that Rosenshine suggests is a good way to involve all students in answering questions – the good old fashioned ‘pair and share’). As they were doing so, I listened to some of the conversations, honing in on those students that I think would/would not be able to answer well. If all could explain clearly, I would not have to spend long questioning. But, their knowledge didn’t seem that secure. So, I asked a long series of closed questions. ‘What is a priori, Anna?’ ‘What is analytic, Robin?’ ‘What is synthetic, Angela?’ Building from the simple, to the more complex. In the space of 3 minutes, I asked more than 20 questions* using examples to help explain wherever I found insecure knowledge – For example, I put the sentence ‘Bachelors are unmarried men’ on the board. ‘Why is this sentence, analytic, Ben?’ And kept probing until Ben could give me a full answer using the words ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’. Now, for some of my students, this was easy. For others, it was hard. Their knowledge was not as secure but I kept going until everyone in the room could write a sentence explaining the concept. Some might argue that I wasn’t stretching and challenging those whose knowledge was already secure. However, I don’t think that’s the case. The constant effort to retrieve – particularly if you’re not sure if you’re going to be asked the question (because I use the name at the end of the question) helps to ‘make that memory more durable.’ It also allows me to see clearly who understands well. One student I taught this week said that she loves the way that hearing other people answer questions helps her understanding.

I use closed questions to check how much students have understood what I’ve taught. It’s amazing how many times (I think) I’ve given a marvellous exposition of something, only to find out that students have completely misunderstood my explanation or have latched onto a very minor part, missing the main idea. Again, I almost bore myself with the phrase: ‘explain this idea to the person next to you’, but mini whiteboard responses, choral responses (something I used to hate, but am I am embracing more) providing a series of right and wrong answers and asking students to explain whether they are right or wrong are all ways to use closed questions to check this understanding. I often, for A Level, ask the question – How well do you understand this? Show me 5 if you can explain this idea clearly; 4,3,2,1 if you’re less sure. I find that students tend to be honest. I sometimes ask as a response – ‘Why are the you sure?’ And students tend to explain. Or I say – ‘James, you seem secure, explain it back to me’. Creating a culture where it’s ok to be unsure, and expected to say you don’t understand makes this easy. Celebrating misconceptions and misunderstandings helps – as does recognising when I haven’t explained something well. I’ll do all of that, before I even get to the question ‘Who is right (and why) Hume or Kant?’ There is little point trying to evaluate a concept before we understand them!

Next, I want to think about modelling or independent practice. These are areas I’m not as confident with at A Level. This will take some thought.

*I videoed myself and watched it back to check.

5 thoughts on “Closed questions are often the most important questions…

  1. Hi, really enjoyed your post. I believe you need a balance of both. Blooms hierarchy is built on knowledge and understanding so if you don’t have that…

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