Questioning: Generating Useful Data

Destigmatising Data

Data. Something you generate for SLT? Maybe just something for parents via a report? Useless? Waste of time? If the data you generate is not used then it is dead data; therefore, the answer to most of these questions above would be yes. This post aims to change how you perceive what data in teaching actually is and that it is alive and (maybe) kicking in your classroom.


Look familiar? Here you are again, dutifully inputting the current and predicted grades, which look really rather similar to when you did this a couple of months ago…That doesn’t mean the students haven’t moved on. More than likely, quite the opposite. However, this sort of data doesn’t reflect that movement. The most meaningful and useful data is generated and used in your classroom by you: you checking pupils’ work, their thinking and thereby their progress. And the most efficient method of generating this data? In my opinion, questioning.

Effective Tools for Generating In-class Data for ALL

In ‘The School Experiment’ television programme, Dylan Wiliam refers to the importance of mini whiteboards as a highly effective teacher tool – maybe the most effective teacher tool. They allow you to see the product of the thinking from every student, they automatically generate thinking time and are versatile enough to enable responses of varying depth. If you have them in your classroom, use them, lots. If you don’t, get some! If your school doesn’t use them, introduce them – in time you will be hailed as a hero!

Useful data generation methods for ALL pupils are:

  • mini whiteboards
  • using coloured cards (lots of schools have pages in student planners to aid this)
  • thumbs up or down
  • think – pair – share (once pupils are well drilled in this)

There is nothing new here with these strategies but sometimes these staples are overlooked in day to day practice in favour of new technologies. However, there is a reason they are a staple. They work. Embed them and make your students expert at them.

Dispelling a misconception (well, a bit)

When you plan a lesson you might decide to do some differentiation through questioning. Target high achievers only with harder questions. What about everyone else? Do they get a little rest while the big hitters use their brains? Avoid this. It was a fad which should be in the retirement village with dear old WALT and WILF.

Picture the scene. You have just performed a practical on litmus testing. (I feel safe with science – just go with it)

Q to whole class: You put some red litmus paper into a solution and it stays red, what type of solution do you have? Answers on whiteboards in 20 seconds please.

Answers: Half the class write “acid” half write “neutral”.

Q to a student who wrote acid: Why did you write acid?

Answer: Because red litmus stays red in acid.

Q to a student who wrote neutral: So, why did you write neutral?

Answer: Because red litmus stays red in neutral solutions too.

Targeted Q to high ability pupil: So, how could we prove whether it is acid or neutral?

Refining this scenario to include all pupils at each stage could be to perform a think – pair – share instead of the targeted question and then, based on the feedback set a new scenario (question below) for all to engage with. It will have the same deep structure but different surface structure and will still stretch pupils – some more than others!

Q to whole class: You have a solution which causes blue litmus to stay blue. What type of solution could it be and how could you prove which it is? Write a sentence on your whiteboard, you have one minute.

(In a recent blog Zoe Helman discusses destroying differentiation almost entirely, raising some interesting points such as removing must, should, could outcomes and setting perpetual “extension” tasks)

Maybe you do cold call one of the more able with a higher level question but you can then ask the question again, using another example, so all can benefit from this thinking. and the repetition of the process. All pupils can write an answer on their mini whiteboard, you might then need to explore some of the answers – ask someone how they worked out their answer (be it correct or incorrect) to learn about the thinking of the pupils. Then you practice, practice , practice!

Gather ye data whilst ye can!

Questioning is the bread and butter of the excellent practitioner. It is one of the first sessions you will attend as a trainee – it is a key pedagogical building block. Barak Rosenshine, in his seminal paper recommends that you gain responses from all pupils while asking a large number of questions. (This aligns with what your SLT will want from your SIMs data – no missing info). He cites that the most effective teachers spend more time asking questions and checking for understanding. My point is that not only can they generate this data well but they will also know how to ‘deal’ with the answers they get.

  • Do they ask another question?
  • Do they extend the thinking?
  • Do they use elaborative interrogation (go meta!)?

This is responsive teaching.

Tom Sherrington has dissected the Principles of Instruction from the Rosenshine paper brilliantly here.

No opt out culture

In my school we wanted to develop the quality of questioning. How could we ensure that all staff were delivering expert questioning in a proactive and practical way? My answer was to design the questioning loop pictured below (a colleague made it look pretty though.) Its key aims are: to ensure staff allow enough thinking time and that the cold calling technique is used. The process starts in the blue box at the top.

Questioning loop

I was inspired to make this after watching a clip from the teach like a champion website featuring Denarius Fraser. Thanks to Doug Lemov for always provoking thought!

First and foremost: teachers must give students thinking time to form their quality responses. This must be expected in every classroom. The key then is that the teacher gives themselves thinking time after a pupil response – this should lead to the teacher asking better questions, which mirrors the idea that given thinking time, pupils produce better responses. The loop also highlights the opportunities to include the whole class in questioning thereby generating useful data that will facilitate rapid progress for all!

Data that works for you

As a science teacher, I help pupils understand the importance of having accurate data. Scientists achieve this by repeating their experiments until they obtain concordant results – they then may also find the mean after removing anomalous results. They also have to be aware of and control factors which would affect their data and lead to inaccurate conclusions.

Following this analogy and applying it to your data collection in the classroom, you should:

  • ask lots of questions to all pupils
  • repeat the same question (but with different surface content) many times until your pupils are anomaly free
  • then you can move on to apply the learning in different contexts.

To push my analogy further (probably too far but I’m committed now) this is like scientists repeating the same experiment in a different context. After all, robust data is king!

Questioning: Generating useful data

Each time you ask a question, your generated data may vary greatly. You, the expert, have to decide how to respond to it. How will you elicit the data you need to see from every pupil? The art and skill of successful teaching lies within these responses, taking a defibrillator to the data in the classroom and making it live and, more importantly, grow!

Ian Taylor


November 2018


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