Schoolzone blog: Question time

Question time


3 Sept 2015

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By Nadia Morad

What’s the difference between a game of tennis and a game of basketball?

Many things! Yet aside from the most obvious of contrasts, a striking difference is the direction in which the ball can travel. In tennis, it only travels in two directions- back and forth in a rally across the court. Meanwhile in basketball, the momentum moves between players- forwards, backwards, sideways, diagonally…
So what does this have to do with teaching?

The two sports provide a helpful analogy to questioning and discussion in the classroom. Communication which travels in only two directions- a question from teacher to pupil and an answer directly back from pupil to teacher- is outdated and doesn’t constitute meaningful learning.
Robert Fisher highlights this in ‘Creative Dialogue: Talk for thinking in the classroom’ (2009), describing it as a ‘kind of verbal tennis match, batting questions and answers back and forth.’

He expresses the importance of meaningful questioning and interaction, which forms a creative dialogue and a ‘community of enquiry.’ This community approach permeates the classroom, spreading knowledge and engaging all, earning its nickname as a basketball discussion.

So, despite being an avid tennis fan, when sports are used as a symbol for discussion, then basketball deserves first place. Similes aside, the purpose of classroom questioning should be the development of learning. It should never be used to simply get pupils to repeat previous knowledge.

How can we ensure that the questions we ask are conducive to high-quality learning? And how can we avoid a verbal tennis match with pupils?

Lead by example

  • Before you start using higher order questioning, ask a pupil to pose a question to you based on the topic.
  • Then, model a ‘lazy response’ to the class. Perhaps, a very short answer or one that doesn’t meet the expectations of the question, demonstrating minimal thought and effort.  
  • Ask the pupil to repeat the same question and model a thoughtful response: a detailed answer displaying understanding of the question and perhaps even thinking beyond the confines of the question.

Thinking time

  • Offer pupils enough thinking time after a question. This simple strategy is often overlooked due to time pressures, but how can we expect a high-quality response if pupils haven’t had time to think?
  • Ask a question to the class and then give individual thinking time. Embrace the attentive silence that should follow. If this sounds too idealistic, or your class suffers from an allergy to silence, use a think/pair/share activity instead. This requires pupils to take a moment for individual thought and then compare ideas in pairs, learning from each other, before sharing responses as a class.

Break it down

With a challenge question, necessitating a high level of thought, break the question down as a class.

Write the question on the board and using any method, (highlighting/ underlining) separate the key components of the question.

Examples might be: what is the subject of the question? Which is the key word in the question and what does it mean? What skill does the question require (eg) analysis, evaluation or inference?


  • Ensure all students are involved when you are questioning, by using lollipop sticks with pupil names written on them. Select sticks at random to encourage full and fair participation.
  • To differentiate, you could set up a colour-coding system for yourself (eg) yellow sticks for EAL pupils, blue sticks for gifted pupils or those inclined towards higher order thinking. This helps you to encourage all pupils to work to their full potential in discussions. 
  • If your class feels intimidated by the use of lollipop sticks, try ‘response buddies’ instead. You question a pupil, who responds and then selects another to comment on their response. The second pupil then chooses another to develop their point and so on, until there is a genuine basketball discussion and a community of enquiry.

Role cards


  • For students who are quiet in discussions or are weaker ability, provide them with an ‘Agree/disagree with a reason why’ card before a discussion. They can raise their card and agree/disagree with another student’s point, providing a reason.
  • To the most able students, offer a card which says ‘Extend’ or ‘Think outside the box’, which can be raised to bring new ideas and dimensions to the discussion.


The freedom of class discussion and the unexpected directions it can travel in can be thoroughly rewarding to both pupils and teachers. While traditional questioning from teacher to pupil can deliver quick feedback, it cannot fully develop as it only travels in two directions- back and forth. However, group discussion, higher order questioning and a community of enquiry can travel in several directions, gaining momentum and igniting a spark of curiosity within all in the classroom.          




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