I today read an excellent blog by Tom Sherrington on differentiation, which defined it as a key aspect of great lessons – see here. I was most interested in the role of inclusive questioning in continuous differentiation.

The first, and most crucial, aspect of differentiation is knowing your students. Of course, I don’t mean knowing your students just by their name, although this is important (I once spent a month in a sulk because one of my teachers kept getting my name wrong!), but having a thorough understanding of their skills and knowledge level, beyond just prior attainment and their target level or grade.

Just as important is the intimate, expert knowledge of the soft skills of our students: their confidence level; their willingness to speak in group activities, or to contribute in front of the whole class; their attitude, or mindset to learning, and your subject in particular. When we know our students, and particularly their soft skills, we can undertake excellent inclusive questioning which will help progress their learning.

This brings me around to the specifics of questioning: our bread and butter – the stuff that connects and binds our pedagogy. Whether we are undertaking Direct Instruction (see link) or Cooperative learning, the learning and progress hinges on effective questioning. Skilful differentiation is also dependent upon skilful inclusive questioning.

So what are the key aspects of inclusive questioning:

1. Ask Good Questions – open AND closed

Now, the vast majority of in-class questions are closed questions which elicit immediate, but limited responses; whereas, an estimated twenty per cent are open questions, where students are encouraged to broaden their horizons. A simple assumption is ‘closed questions bad, open questions good‘. This isn’t the whole truth: closed questions are often essential in taking a litmus test response to knowledge. It can have a beneficial on behaviour: ensuring that a lot of students have to respond and show their knowledge in a sort space of time. Many teachers use hinge questions (a closed multiple choice style) to make a judgement as to whether students are ready to proceed to a new topic or aspect of a topic. Open questions obviously confer the benefit of eliciting higher order understanding. Each question type needs to be directed to students based on our knowledge and understanding of the students, and indeed the situation at hand – this is effective differentiation.

Closed questioning:

Teacher question: What is foreboding?
Student answer: It is when the writer hints at negative events to come.

Closed ‘hinge’ questioning

Teacher question: Which character suffers from the negative effects of racial segregation?
A) Crooks B) Curley C) Candy D) Carlson
Student answer: A) Crooks

Open questions

Teacher question: Which characters suffer the greatest degree of loneliness in ‘Of Mice and Men’ and why?
Student answer: I think that Crooks is the loneliest character because he is physically, mentally and emotional separated from the other men. There is only one other African American family in Soledad, therefore he can never really establish a range of lasting friendships. I also think that Curley’s wife….

Open ‘hinge’ questions:

Teacher question: Which character suffers from the greatest degree of loneliness? Be prepared to justify your assertion and comparing characters A to D: A) Crooks B) Curley’s wife C) Candy D) George
Student answer: I would choose D) George because once he kills Lennie he will forever be living with his guilt and will no longer be able to develop friendships without thinking of Lennie. This loneliness will be worse than Crooks because….

2. Provide Adequate Thinking Time

This may not appear to relate to differentiation, but there is a great deal of evidence outlining how the quality and depth of feedback can depend on quality waiting time. Even waiting seven seconds can have a positive impact on the quality of feedback – which therefore increases the degree of inclusivity. Varying the degree of waiting time before eliciting a response can be a type of differentiation, but ultimately it removes a justification not to respond to the question, as everyone has been given an adequate amount of time to form a response.

3. Provide Peer Support

Whether it is ‘think-pair-share‘, ‘jig-sawing‘ or another cooperative learning activity, giving students the chance to talk with their peers to test their hypothesis, or to challenge others, provides a supportive scaffold that means that students can give answers that they have practised orally. This ensures everyone can be included in the feedback – real inclusivity and differentiation.

Provide peer solutions by offering models like the ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ style approach, like ‘phone a friend’ (not a fan really, but I can see the benefits); provide a 50:50 option etc. for me, if you are using these models, it is important that on other occasions all students are expected to give an answer to questions without support – I think it is important to set this high levels challenge to ensure students can work independently when required.

4. Ask Targeted Questions:

This is a crucial aspect of inclusive questioning and it can lift the quality of feedback and provide a visible model of real progress. A good model would be to start with an open question which can elicit a range of responses e.g.

Teacher question: Which characters have the most/least power in ‘Of Mice and Men’?

Then, based on our knowledge of students, scaffold the feedback by identifying an expected quality of answer. Firstly, select a student who may struggle with the concept and find it hard to response with an original response – by going first, they can pick the more straightforward answer. Secondly, choose a student who is more able, so that they can develop a more in-depth answer, which you can add a degree of challenge to by getting them to respond to the first answer, by way of comparison. Finally, select a gifted and talented student, asking for their response, with an attendant synthesis and comparison with the two previous responses. The depth and quality of these questions and answers should gradually increase by the degree of challenge.

5. Use The ABC Feedback Model:

This simple strategy has probably had the biggest impact upon my practice over the last year or so. It is incredibly easy, but it adds a sophisticated degree of differentiation into the questioning process. By asking students to Agree with; Build upon; or Challenge the answers of other students allows students to build upon the responses of others, thereby giving a helpful scaffold to their ideas. By selecting the right students based on an escalating degree of challenge, we can give them options – the Agree with often being the ‘easiest‘ response, but not always; whereas some students can Build upon and Challenge previous responses. By bouncing these questions around the room you can exemplify differentiated progress of the highest order.

Teacher question: Which character would you most like to sit next to?
Student A answer: I would most like to sit next to Crooks. As he can read well, because he owns books, he could help me with answers and we could discuss our ideas.
Teacher question: Student B, give some ABC feedback based on A’s answer
Student B answer: I would build upon that idea: Crooks would be good to get answers from, but he might make me excluded from my friends just because I was speaking to a black man. Therefore I would probably challenge A’s answer, choosing Slim instead. slim is also intelligent, but he is popular, and you have to think about having friends as well as giving good answers in class.

By bouncing the questions around the class, it increases the level of inclusivity, whilst also potentially increasing engagement and listening skills, as students know they may be asked to response to the answers given by other students. I think this has an attendant benefit for student behaviour too.