Feb 222013

One of the 5 key strategies of formative assessment is getting students to work as effective instructional resources for each other. Doing this well is more than just giving them opportunities to work together.  It is about setting up structures that mean they actually move the learning of other students forward.  One of the most powerful of these is teaching students to ask and answer good questions collectively. A great way of doing this is something called Guided Reciprocol Questions by Alison King (view an article by her describing the process). Here is the process:

  1. New Learning. The students learn about something new that they need to understand well enough to be able to use. The teacher needs to know that they understand it well and have no misconceptions.
  2.  Frames. The teacher gives some common question frames. Question starters like these might include (view some other frames in a blog where a teacher describes using them):
    • How would/why would…?
    • What is the best…and why?
    • What is another way to look at…?
    • What is the difference between… and …?
    • Why is… happening?
    • What do we already know about…?
    • What do you think causes…?
  3. Individuals. The students generate questions individually that they do not know the answer to. They use the frames to help generate those questions. As a teacher you should set an approximate number of questions that each student might generate.  One to three can be a good number of questions when you are starting.
  4. Grouping. The teacher puts the students into a small group (of about 3) that has members with diverse strengths and understandings of past topics in the class.  Then, students discuss the questions their individual questions in their groups and attempt to answer them. The goal is to be able to answer as many questions as possible before sharing with the large group.
  5. Share out. The teacher picks a member of each group using some random method (groups don’t know which member will be called so everyone tries to be prepared to answer). The groups either offer up a question they could not answer, or if they were able to answer all their questions, their hardest question and how they answered it.

questionWhy use this process?

  • Research shows students are unlikely to ask questions unless they mostly understand something or are very strong learners. A process where asking questions is the goal is safe way to get all students asking questions like strong learners do.  Being in a small group also makes it safer to answer those questions.
  • Some tasks require higher level thinking including problem solving or critical thinking. Using the frames helps students go directly to higher level thinking and engaging in harder cognitive processing.
  • The process of discussing the questions in a group gives a structure that makes off-task behaviour less likely. In addition, it causes students to ask questions for clarification, like “What does x mean?” or “How did you do that?”
  • Building knowledge on top of misunderstanding means a student learns much more poorly. Good teachers ensure everyone understands as well as possible before practicing or moving on.  Using this method, each student surfaces questions or misunderstandings, then works with others to figure them out.
  • Because students are answering all the easy questions, the teacher time and whole class time is only used for the most complex questions where the teacher’s expertise is most valuable. The questions that come back also tell the teacher what was understood or not understood, which means the questions are formative assessment that tells the teacher what will need to be re-taught.

Every classroom that has students doing some of the higher level thinking is a classroom where students are learning more.  Good structures that help students structure that thinking with others gives extra benefits. When students learn to ask and answer high level questions together, they are becoming the type of life-long learners and empowered citizens that  we want them to be.

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