At last term’s NACE member meetup, hosted by The Science Museum, attendees shared tried-and-tested approaches to using questioning effectively to challenge all learners in science. Spanning all phases, and applicable across other subject areas, here are 10 ideas to try in your own classroom…

1. “Tinker time”

Rhian Roberts, Science Lead at Thomson House School, outlined the use of “tinker time” – time for learners to explore the question: “What do you know already?” As well as allowing teachers to assess current understanding and misconceptions to inform future planning, Rhian notes that this also allows pupils to take ownership of their learning, share knowledge with peers, and ask their own questions to move their learning forward.

A similar approach is used at Hydesville Tower School, where learners are prompted to list questions at the start of a new unit. Questions are then shared with peers for up-levelling using Bloom’s Taxonomy, and displayed to be addressed as the unit progresses. The impact, says Science Leader David Burnham, has included “increased ownership of learning, greater engagement, higher thought processes and a raised awareness of the broader scientific field.”

2. Question starters

At Ysgol Gyfun Garth Olwg, sentence stems are used to help learners develop increasingly challenging questions. For example, they might work as group to generate questions based on a photograph, using the following stems:
  • Why do you think…?
  • Can you explain why…?
  • What evidence can you find…?
  • Are there any other ways you could…?
  • How successful was…?
Groups then swap questions and suggest answers to those posed by their peers. Dr Nia Griffiths, Head of Science, says this approach has led to higher engagement and longer-lasting focus on the task, as well as developing independent learning skills.

3. Solo exploration, double-up, present

At Invicta Grammar School, a three-stage process is used to answer a set of questions, shared out across the class. First, learners work independently on the questions they’ve been given, with support and resources available to develop a detailed response and identify potential discrepancies. They then pair up, collaborating to develop responses further. Finally, they present their work to the whole class, speaking as the “expert” on the questions they have investigated.

“Having worked on two sets of questions, students are doing almost twice as much work in the time available,” says Assistant Director of Science Charlotte McGivern. “They also develop skills to support one another, and the ability to articulate their answers fully.” She recommends jotting down prompters on post-it notes to share with learners during the first stage, helping them to fully explore each question.

4. “Phone a friend”

Peer support is also used at Bardfield Academy, where learners are encouraged to “phone a friend” to help them answer a question in more depth. Science Coordinator Heather Weston says this has meant learners feel more confident about asking for support, as well as providing opportunities for more able learners to share and develop their understanding by explaining difficult concepts to their peers.

To implement this effectively, Heather recommends encouraging learners to attempt to answer the question themselves first, using the “phone” option as a secondary measure to add depth and detail. She also suggests discussing the approach with more able learners separately to ensure they are ready and willing to be the “friend” at the end of the line.

5. Pose, pause, pounce, bounce

This four-stage approach to questioning was shared by Louise Mayhook, a member of the science department at The Bromfords School and Sixth Form College. First, pose a question to the class. Next: pause. Ask students to think, think again, write down and refine their response. Once the tension has mounted… pounce! Choose a student to share his/her answer and pause again to allow time for this. Finally, bounce: ask another student to comment on the first response.

Louise explains that this strategy embeds the effective use of thinking time, encourages learners to make notes (freeing up working memory), extends thinking, and challenges learners to listen closely to peers in order to build upon others’ ideas and develop a shared response.

6. Bouncing questions

Returning to Invicta Grammar School, here again questions are “bounced” from learner to learner – starting with a fairly simple question, and moving up through increasing levels of challenge towards synoptic questions that link with other areas of study. Biology teacher Hannah Gorski explains that this approach helps to build confidence and teamwork, while allowing the more able to develop and verbally consolidate their understanding of challenging concepts and links between them.

In a similar approach, Burton Borough School also “bounces” questions around the class. This time, learners prepare their own questions to ask peers. The first student chooses another to respond, who answers and in turn chooses the next. The school’s Jeremy Price notes that this approach has supported the development of strong subject knowledge and enjoyment, with learners motivated to come up with challenging questions for their classmates.

7. What happened first?

At Charterhouse Square School, learners are challenged to identify the correct order of events in science-related timelines. Given a set of milestone scientific achievements, discoveries and inventions, learners discuss their ideas about which happened first, providing arguments to back up their chronology. For an example of this, the school’s Amie Dickinson recommends the electrical inventions timeline game available via The Ogden Trust website.

In a similar vein, Science Coordinator Damian Cook shared an example from Oliver House School in which learners are challenged to analyse the elements of a food chain, answering the following questions:
  • Why do you think this animal has been so successful at being at the top of the chain?
  • What would it take for this animal to lose its position at the top?
For an additional challenge, learners are asked to consider which animal the top predator had evolved from, providing evidence to support their answer. Damian notes that once learners become accustomed to this approach, “they start to think like scientists and stretch their minds, which benefits their other studies – I hope!”

8. Visual prompts

The use of visual prompts alongside challenging questioning was a recurrent theme at the meetup. Shona Butler, Science Lead at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, shared the Explorify website as a useful source of engaging images and videos to prompt questions and discussion. She says this approach has helped learners develop confidence in considering a range of ideas, explaining their ideas and justifying their responses.

The Basildon Academies’ Michael Frempong and Hayley Richards – Heads of Science for the Lower and Upper Academies respectively – also advocated the use of pictures or objects to stimulate thinking and discussion. They noted that this allows all learners to contribute, while providing ample scope for learners to ask their own questions – of the objects, the teacher and each other.

9. “Fact first” questioning

To challenge learners to think in more depth about a subject, Drapers’ Academy’s Luxy Thanabalasingham shared the “fact first” approach – starting by giving learners a fact and challenging them to investigate further by generating “how” and “why” questions. Learners may work independently or in pairs, progressing to share their questions and ideas with the wider group. This is an effective way to move on from simple factual questions, Luxy says, encouraging learners to develop their higher-order thinking skills.

10. Write your own exam question

Finally, Weston Favell Academy’s Charlotte Heffernan shared her use of an activity in which learners are challenged to create their own exam questions and accompanying mark schemes. To get started, she suggests providing an answer and asking learners to suggest the question, or providing a question and asking learners to create the mark scheme.

Learners could also be challenged to create questions appropriate for different ability levels, considering what the examiner would be looking for and how key skills and knowledge could be assessed. This approach allows for self-differentiation, Charlotte notes, and has improved learners’ independence in answering questions.

Additional resources and CPD

Member resources

  • Webinar: Effective questioning in science
  • Webinar: Science capital: putting the research into practice
  • NACE Essentials: Realising the potential of more able learners in GCSE science
  • NACE Essentials: Using SOLO Taxonomy to increase challenge in the classroom
To access these resources, log in to our members’ site.

Our next member meetup will take place on 19 March 2019 at Jesus College, University of Oxford.
View the programme and reserve your place.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019