When to Just Tell Them

I have observed the scene below, or at least ones like it, on occasions too numerous to mention.

Teacher: Today we are looking at Ghana. Does anyone know the name of the capital city? (hands shoot up). No, no hands I’ll chose someone at random (starts overly complex random name generator). Mia! What is the capital of Ghana?

Mia: I don’t know.

Teacher: Oh… OK, Who can help Mia?

Tom: London?

Teacher: No. London isn’t the capital of Ghana. Its the capital of the UK.

Mia: I thought London was the capital of England?

Teacher: (Starts unplanned and somewhat confused explanation of the structure of the UK with a slight tangent to Scottish independence debate).

Teacher: Anyway – where were we? That’s right. Whats the capital of Ghana?

Lucy: Nairobi?

Teacher: Close!

Lucy: Ummmm…. Bairobi?

Teacher: No. I mean it is closer to Ghana. Nairobi is the capital of Kenya.

Tom: I went to Kenya. I saw an elephant.

Teacher: OK. The capital of Ghana – I’ll give you a clue. It rhymes with…

Scene fades while I sit at the back of the class silently screaming “Just Tell Them!”

Just tell them (or more accurately, as this is a scary modern world, #JustTellThem) has become something of a rallying cry among teachers who favour a more traditional or didactic approach. Having sat through endless guessing games (and having then caught myself doing the same) I can see their point. However the term is somewhat misleading. Classes that rely on a high proportion of teacher explanation actually use more questioning than those that limit the amount of teacher talk. Questioning is a powerful tool that serves many functions – but they need thoughtful planning and a clear intention.

Why do we question?

Questioning in a class serves many different functions and therefore need to be done in different ways. Here are four examples:

  1. To check they are awake. There is nothing like a well timed question to see who has been listening. This is where some kind of random selection can come in to its own. The class know that anyone could be called on to answer a question at any moment and this acts as motivation to ensure that everyone is paying close attention. Of course in the perfect classroom this won’t be necessary.
  2. To check for understanding. Some concepts we explain in class are wonderfully complicated and involve building one principle on to another. At each step it is necessary to check that everyone is still with you – these liminal points. This is where the use of random name generators start to frustrate me. When I arrived at my current school I was puzzled that ever class I went into had a teacher clutching a bunch of numbered lollipop sticks. It turned out that the great Dylan William had visited the previous year and it was this strategy that had stuck. The problem was that pausing a lesson to randomly pick a name breaks the flow of the lesson. Worse, it means that we aren’t choosing a pupil to answer a question based on our knowledge of the class. We need to be thinking about who is most likely to need checking on with different ideas. I haven’t seen a lollipop stick in some time I am happy to say.
  3. To develop a student’s understanding. One constant battle in the classroom is to ensure that pupils are developing their points and linking ideas together. Detailed whole class questioning can assist with this as a pupil suggests a basic answer to a question and then is challenged to add to the point with evidence and examples. This can be bounced around the class so that others can critique what has been said and suggest improvements.
  4. To model written work. In a previous post I talked about my new found love of live modelling. You can read here how I use questioning to help pupils see what an excellent answer might look like.

I am quite comfortable with the idea that as teachers we are the expert in the room and that when it comes to imparting information we should “Just Tell Them”. The time we have with our classes is limited and we need to use it efficiently. A huge amount of time can be wasted playing guessing games when we could just give them the information and then use questioning to help them secure and apply it.

Now then. The capital of Ghana is? Anyone? Anyone?

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