The Black Box of Questioning, simplified: from the research

I wanted to share a pair of articles that have summarized the role of teachers in the learning process: Inside the Black Box by Black and Willam summarizes findings about the value of formative assessment in helping students learn.  It also shows that implementing effective formative assessment is more difficult to achieve than we think in practice.

What changes in practice will improve students’ learning in meaningful ways?

The second article, Working Inside the Black Box, by Black, Willam, et al., reveals some of the important discoveries. Three main discoveries about effective questioning emerge.  In their own words:

• More effort has to be spent in framing questions that are worth asking, that is, questions that explore issues that are critical to the development of students’ understanding.

• Wait time has to be increased to several seconds in order to give students time to think, and everyone should be expected to have an answer and to contribute to the discussion.  Then all answers, right or wrong, can be used to develop understanding. The aim is thoughtful improvement rather than getting it right the first time.

• Follow-up activities have to be rich  in that they create opportunities to extend students’ understanding.

So how does this emerge in my classroom?

  1. Know your learning goals. Know your learning goals. Know your learning goals.  What mathematics is important in this lesson?  What must they walk out of the room being able to understand / do?  If you don’t have this clearly understood, then you cannot plan good questions effectively.
  2. Prepare your most important questions in advance. Make them challenging. Questions posed on the fly are rarely rich enough to engage all students. I have to select some rich scenarios to make sure that I don’t over-simplify the learning goals. I have to avoid the temptation to over-sanitize examples for the sake of efficiency. this does NOT mean that I  just throw anything at them at any time. The examples must be chosen to bring the most important learning goals to their brains.
  3. If you ask a question, shut up, calm down,  and let all of them answer. I find that the best way to disengage 90% of my class is to stay in front of the class, focus on efficient transfer of knowledge,  and then get into a one-on-one dialogue with a single student answering all of the questions. I see this approach in classrooms all of the time, and I’ve done it. We convince ourselves that if our most vocal / needy / show-off student gets it, then so do the rest. It’s seductive, because we “cover the material more quickly.”  PS – to “cover” is, to hide from view. It’s an important habit to break. Here are some simple ways I avoid this:
    1. Pose a rich question. WAIT.  Give 30-45 seconds to think about it. Then students should share with a neighbor –>  Share with their  table –> Share with the class.   (Think–> Pair –> Share). I am explicit about this protocol – I TELL, don’t ask about how they will share their thinking.
    2. Write First. Walk around to see responses, then select a few students to share (pick in a way that will deepen understanding for all.  Connect kids with differing approaches).
    3. Use InstaPolls / insta quizzes ( has a very simple way to collect multiple responses from many students confidentially). They allow all students to answer a question, confidentially. I avoid tools that make answering questions into a competition, as this tends to reinforce the “faster is better” mythology of good learning.

The key here is that questions should either push students to think better, or provide me with better information about my students’ thinking. That’s it. furthermore, every student must engage with the questions, and every student deserves feedback about their thinking.


2 thoughts on “The Black Box of Questioning, simplified: from the research

  1. Many people are eager to talk vs. listen. “After asking one shuts up” is a perfect technique. It is the so-called pregnant silence.

    It is very uncomfortable and one will surely break that silence – hopefully, it is not you who is eager to give the answer!

    That is how the Psychiatrists do – you talk for 35 minutes and they talk 5 minutes!


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