Questioning (explanation and modelling) | CLF Conference


It is probably true… that questioning is an incredibly powerful way to drive learning and accelerate progress – particularly those questions or explanations that unlock light bulb moments of personal discovery. When questioning is used in concert with quality explanation and modelling children get a new view of the world, increased access to knowledge, greater opportunity to understand and develop skills. It is perhaps these aspects of pedagogy that have the greatest ability to intervene, inject and steer greater gains in learning.


It is also probably true… that questioning is often the period in a learning episode where the true talent, ability and awareness of the teacher is shown. It reveals much about:

  • the on-going depth of planning to secure and intervene along the learning journey…an expert element of pedagogy – deliberately delivered, precise and targeted within a lesson and across a series of lessons.
  • the level of formative assessment based on effective feedback so that teaching is based on an the awareness of where children are, what they can do and precisely what is required to secure the next steps, the key concept or breakdown a misconception.
  • the depth of subject/age-related knowledge and passion they bring to the discussion.
  • the ability to intervene or change direction with impact to secure key concepts or tackle misconceptions.
  • the ability to build knowledge and understanding in a logical, spiralled and progressive way that support all children to make progress (or a different 80% each time)
  • the ability to differentiate through language, conscription and questioning, including the ability to judge and time, a question, an explanation or use modelling to close gaps.
  • the ability to stand back enough and facilitate to draw the knowledge and understanding that already exists in the room…provoking good discussion, debate and argument.

When it is at its best it is an awesome thing to witness and be a part of – a crafts-person tweaking, tinkering, picking, choosing, being precise and super-aware of student progress … using questioning, explanation and modelling expertly to enable children to feel the exhilaration of learning and the motivating feeling of progress.


This begs the question… what are the key aspects to developing great questioning and discussion as well as explanation and modelling to allow children to thrive, engage and make connections in learning and trigger sustained progress? How is this blended into an effective pedagogical approach?

The following reflects some of the best practices across the Federation and identifies the key aspects for securing questioning (explanation and modelling) in all classrooms…

What if… questioning, explanation and modelling can only have impact on learners and learning when it is based on a strong foundation of knowledge? Knowledge that encompasses…

  • subject/age-related understanding of standards and expectations – that enables appropriate pitch as well as igniting an interest and passion around specific and well-ordered content?
  • a deep understanding of the key concepts and importantly the key mis-conceptions that are built into the progression of a subject or area of learning?
  • Knowledge of exam and age-related expectations to provide precise questioning, explanation and modelling – with the end in mind?
  • Knowledge of pedagogy – how to blend questioning, explanation and modelling within and across lessons.

What if… we see passages of questioning/discussion and explanation as key aspects to stick around on as opposed to a part of the lesson to move through – it drives the learning as opposed to marking points in lessons or being purely a transition. These…

  • drive passion and intrigue for the subject or area of learning. Passion that can be contagious and demands interest to accelerate learning.
  • unlock mis-conceptions, particularly where children can hear others wrestle with cognitive conflict. Consolidates learning and enables key concepts to be grasped.
  • Seek to create and resolve (over time) cognitive conflict.
  • build learning deliberately and precisely and move to application and synthesis.
  • model discussion and the elements of enquiry.


What if… these are the key areas of questioning…

  • Wait time: so that we allow children the time to think and consider answers
  • Not to allow children an opt-out of thinking – carefully conscripting and demanding wide response – no-opt out policy.
  • What if we go to pairs sometimes to support more interaction and thinking about questions.
  • Build on answers – basketball questioning or asking children to build on or from what has just been offered. agree and build | disagree and explain | offer new idea. or pose | poise | ponce | bounce.
  • Encourage debate – step-back to allow genuine argument and debate. Using provocative questioning where appropriate.
  • Take time to dwell to depth on topics and ideas.
  • Be flight of foot – shifting discussion to address misconceptions.


What if… we too often stifle, control and close down genuine debate and discussion? Just at the moment when children get inspired, passionate and even angry in debate we choose to close discussion down – concerned that there is a lack of control.

What if… we need to be more explicit about what children are aiming for; using modelling to de-mystify the purpose or aim of the learning? Too often children are spending too long discovering knowledge and not enough on application.

What if… we sat children in mixed gender pairs? So that girls who typically describe and explain are closer to risk taking and boys who typically describe and take risks are closer to greater explanation. Perhaps this would encourage more balanced discussion and learner-driven explanations (to class or pair).

What if… this is tightly woven into an Ethic of Excellence? the purpose, precision, rigour and timing of questioning immediately reveals the teachers desire to seek excellence, maintains a high bar and expects much from answers and discussion – expertly steering and intervening to maintain standards and encourage depth of pupil involvement? …the deliberate inclusion of explanation and modelling supports children in their quest for and understanding of excellence.

What if… questioning, explaining, modelling and planning was informed by Blooms and SOLO taxonomy? That these frameworks supported questioning that systematically supported children to understand more …and that this provides the framework for explanation, modelling and questioning etc.


What if… we sought more often to ask questions that moved from closed to open, but that also moved children (more often) to apply, analyse, synthesis and evaluate their developing understanding.

What if… questioning and explanation (and modelling) needs to be in the proximal zone? and that the real challenge is to pitch discussion and explanation so that as many children are kept in their proximal zone for as long as possible (discussing, explaining and applying knowledge just beyond what the child is capable of, supported by a peer) … or in a state of FLOW (that area between boredom and anxiety)?

What if… good lessons used questioning and explanation that is pitched and challenging for 80% of students, but that in great lessons this is a different 80% each lesson? Great teachers use effective formative feedback to build on prior learning and pitch questions and explanations in the proximal zone, whilst modelling the desired end point (or next near win)... an ability that should not be under-estimated.



What if… great questioning replicates the connections in the brain? understanding that learning is a physical process – that the development of myelin in the brain (layers in picture below) enables neurons to fire and for things to be remembered or skills to be hard-wired … such that questioning, explanation and modelling engages children in deliberate practise and repetition to physically create connections in the brain that allow them to remember and master…developed, consolidated and practised (hardwired) through questioning (explanation and  modelling).


What if…questioning and explanation reflected the curve of forgetting? so that it returned and repeated episodes to consolidate understanding within an interleaved, layered, escalating spiral curriculum where children repeat and return to build on learning.


What if… we understood that practise has to be deliberate to be effective and that this is accelerated where children are in the presence of an expert coach who exploits, questions, explanation and modelling; so that the teacher…

  • maximises reachfulness in the presence of an expert.
  • supports children to embrace the struggle – “You will become clever through your mistakes.”
  • and encourages theft – using questioning and discussion to support peer assisted performance.

What if… this is tightly woven into Effective Feedback and the need to Stretch and Challenge each child?

What if… questioning, explanation and modeling was “… intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (a student’s) current skill level, (aimed at excellence), combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

What if… explanation is best delivered in different ways to support all children to access the new knowledge, understanding and skills. Using VAK, but more importantly a variety of angles and approaches…as well as using other children in the class to explain new gains in learning – not only consolidating learning for the explainer, but offering a different explanation in peer-friendly language to the receiving child.

Maybe then… questioning (explanation and modelling) will trigger greater depth of learning, allow new ways of seeing and drive progress. The precision and deliberate delivery of these aspects of pedagogy will be based on strong formative assessment and feedback that enables appropriate pitch, stretch and challenge of children. An ethic of excellence will expect much of children their thinking, response, discussion and quality of answer … that happens in their proximal zone.

Maybe then… this aspect of pedagogy will provide the engine room of learning – where teachers tweak, tinker, pick, choose, are precise and super-aware of student progress … using questioning, explanation and modelling expertly to intervene and provoke response that enables children to feel the exhilaration of learning and the motivating feeling of progress.

Dan Nicholls

October 2015

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