Learning Questions & Demystifying Writing

Last year I embarked on a fairly-ish risky, solo adventure. I abandoned all Learning Objectives in favour of allowing a Question to take the driving seat. My colleagues eyed me with something akin to horror and pity: that maybe the new HoD really was the wrong side of eccentric.

I didn’t ask any of the team to do as I did, but did spend some time explaining what I was doing and why. I intuitively felt (and observed in lessons) that Learning Objectives unnecessarily confused the relationship between activity and learning, and seemed focused on what students would do, rather than what students would learn. Objectives are action-led, end-goals and often don’t happily lend themselves to verbs such as ‘understand’ ‘explore’ ‘learn’. These terms are difficult to qualify and almost impossible show in a single lesson.

Not only have Learning Questions clarified my planning (cutting any extraneous material from the lesson), they also seem to have clarified and demystified writing for my students, especially for those with the lowest confidence. As I am now a year into using them, I make them as simple as possible. They usually look like this:

  1. What does Macbeth and Banquo’s reaction reveal in this scene?
  2. How does Stevenson create a Gothic atmosphere in the extract?
  3. How does Shakespeare present love in this scene?
  4. What does Lanyon’s reaction reveal about science in the Victorian era?
  5. What techniques does Wiglaf use to persuade the men to fight the dragon?
  6. What impression does Priestley create of Sheila during her interview?

If the focus is sharper, more specific, or leading in any way (arguably, as 4 & 5 are), I found that students had difficulty transferring their knowledge of an extract from one question to another, even though they had understood and applied their content knowledge to a similar question only a few days before. Students had responded confidently to the question ‘How does Shakespeare demonstrate Macbeth’s turmoil in this soliloquy?’ in class, but when given the same extract and a more general question ‘How does Shakespeare convey Macbeth’s state of mind in this soliloquy?” students didn’t confidently make the leap between the two.  Experience taught me that  ‘tight but loose’ (Allison and Tharby, 2015) LQs seemed to make content knowledge more accessible.

The use of a LQ in place of an objective creates an underlying culture of developing responses, using the tools of the lesson (the key words, the content, the scaffold) to answer and give an opinion. After all, questions seek solutions. Even those students with the lowest confidence can write a response to the question. Asking a student to answer the LQ verbally and then transfer their ideas to the page could be the difference between a U and a grade 2 for some students. To build confidence for all, students hear me frequently return to the question, asking and answering, with lots of modelled teacher talk, and as a class, we piece together our response.

For structure over extended writing, students echo the words from the Learning Question to start each paragraph. In an extract-based exam task, students logically work through the text from top to bottom looking for answers to the LQ in each section of an extract (top/middle/bottom as a very crude guide).

Not every lesson needs a LQ where the end product is writing.  Some LQs take 2-3 lessons to be answered fully; some merit a full essay response; some a modelled exemplar copied from the board and some bullet point notes agreed as a class.

I’m sure there is plenty of refining to be done and scope for research into the transfer of information from one LQ to another, as well as whether content knowledge is more securely acquired from LQs. Having surveyed students across Y10 and Y11, the overwhelming response was positively in favour of LQs over LOs. Students reported that they have a much clearer understanding of the lesson focus and the learning that has taken place.

From my perspective, I like that students are thinking in terms of questions and answers, that there is an ongoing sense of learning as purposeful. I also like that over the course of 2 years, students will have come across hundreds of questions and considered how they frame a response, over and over again. When it comes to end exams, answering questions should be in their DNA. Finally, I now have students ask me in lesson, in all earnestness, ‘Did we finish the answer that question yet, Miss?’ . I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a student ask me ‘Did we complete that Learning Objective, Miss?’ . Ever.



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