February 08, 2012

Stop ping pong questioning. Try basketball instead

A little run of posts inspired by my favourite educationalist of the past decade, Dylan Wiliam. He's the chap that explained formative assessment to me in twelve pages flat, and changed my practice forever.

In this two-minute clip he pleads with us to move away from IRE questioning (Initiate a question to the class, Response comes from one child, Evaluation comes from the teacher ["that's right", "interesting answer" etc etc). He describes this form of questioning as table tennis question and answer, where all questioning, thought, wisdom and learning revolve around the teacher, and occupy just one child at a time. Back and forth, back and forth...

He asks us not to do table tennis Q&A - play basketball instead. Pose a question, pause, ask another kid to evaluate the answer child one gave, and ask a third for an explanation of how and why that's right or wrong.

Finally, don't allow hands to go up to give an answer - your students results will be worse than if they do otherwise. Instead, the teacher can encourage certain students to take part in this three-way questioning activity, and work over time to get them playing question basketball for themselves.


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This is great! I tried it this morning and the discussion in class improved dramatically. It took a little time to get going but worked very well. Looking forward to including it in every class! Thank you

I love posts like this. A short, easily digestible idea that educators can take to make significant changes to their practice immediately. It seems to me that one of the big problems with research in any area is communicating it to practitioners to actually make the difference. Wiliam and yourself have done that masterfully here.

An obvious benefit of this approach is the increased level of engagement seen amongst students - (as low as 3% when just one student in the class is interacting with the teacher versus much more than that when using the basketball approach or similar learning structures.)

However, if tempted to revert to 'table tennis style Q&A' educators must also ask themselves this important question. ‘Which students is it that are putting up their hands to answer questions?’ Is it those who need the most practice or those who need the least?’ ‘Is it those who already know the answer or those we would really like to know the answer?’ Unfortunately, in a traditional ‘hands up’ classroom the confident, self assured higher achievers have greater opportunity to interact with the teacher and receive more affirmation of their success when the teacher responds. What happens as a result? The higher achievers make more and more gains and the lower achievers lag behind. Who is it that needs the practice?

Dr. Spencer Kagan reminds us that as educators we have a choice and asks us the following question. ‘Why call on one when we can call on everyone? The ‘basketball approach’ requires EVERYONE to participate.

Building on the ideas of Debbie I would raise the Simultaneous Interaction principle and ask 'What is the number of students naming answers at any one moment in time?' If we use the Basketball technique, it is high in Individual Accountability but low in Simultaneous Interaction, even in this structure most students can assume they will not have to respond, in a class of 30 the interaction rate at any one moment will still be as low as 3.3%. If we use a very simple structure like RallyRobin (some of the time as an alternative to Ping-Pong or Basketball), all of the students know they will be called on, the Simultaneous Interaction rate is now 50% at anyone moment. Dylan correctly states 'the students naming the answers get the intellectual benefit', so in RallyRobin as a class teacher I want all my students to get the benefit of answering every question not just when they are fortunate to win the 'lottery' and get picked at random.

I started doing this with my kindergartners. I think they were in a little shock because they had not been asked to evaluate a response before. I am anxious to see how this goes. It should improve listening as they might be asked to evaluate someone's response and why or why not it is correct. And, yes, kindergarten can do this too.

Joyce - wonderful to see this in the younger years. I have seen it work in early years very well, too.

Gavin - I also have concerns about the interaction rates. For me, I'd use it as part of a carousel of activities involving a much smaller group of kids while others get on with other activities.

Key, though, is teaching this technique to kids themselves so that they can use it in the course of their own collaborative learning, without the need for prompting from a teacher.

Thank you so much for this, I have implemented this in my English class in China. Students here are so accustomed to putting up their hands and waiting to be called on but in their international classes they love having the opportunity to discuss, debate and question each other so this really works well for us. When explaining it to them I just said, "do you put your hand up when you have a conversation with your friends and once you give an answer stop talking?" It seemed to work and we have been having a great first week back with lots of discussion after the Chinese New Year! Thanks.

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