Asking questions

5 12 2015

Before you read this I want to ask have you ever thought why we ask questions to our audiences in shows?

Please take 30 seconds to think of two or three reasons and jot them down on a piece of paper or on your phone. No one else will see them and there are no right or wrong answers. We will come back to those answers later. Done it? Good. Thank you.


Often questions are asked seemingly with little thought. It’s like presenters are asking questions because that’s what they think they should do but every question in our shows should be carefully thought out. Here is a made up but typical example of how questions are often used in science presentations:

Boys and girls, what did you know about plants and food? (Pause) Yes, you? (Child one responds) Well, yes we do eat plants for food but that’s not what what we are talking about today. How about the boy in the white shirt? (Child two answers) That’s another good thing to remember but it wasn’t what I was looking for. Can anyone remember the name of the way plants get food? (Pause) Yes? (Child one answers again.) Right! Photosynthesis! How do plants do that? What do plants need to photosynthesise? (Pause) Yes you in the front row? (Child three responds.) Well, that’s one way but there is another one I’m thinking of. And so it continues.

Compare this exchange to this one.

For students in year 3 this should be revision. Plants need food just like we do but they don’t find and eat food like we do they make their own. On the board here I have a word equation for what we call photosynthesis, the way plants make food. In 30 seconds time I am going to pick people at random to tell me which four words go into the equation. Something plus something produces something else and something else. You can talk about the answers with the person sitting next to you. Time starts now

What is the difference between these two examples? The differences are huge.

In the first example the presenter is playing a game called “who can guess what is in my head”. Instead of telling the children what they should know they are asking the children to guess.

If you stand back and watch questioning like this it quickly becomes clear that only a small portion of the audience are trying to answer the questions. Some of the other children are just watching quietly but some will have switched off entirely. If this sort of questioning “goes well” (ie the presenter gets the answers they were thinking of quickly) then we quickly move on but if this questioning “goes badly” (ie the presenter gets wrong answers or people refuse to answer) it can take forever and become painful.

At the end of the process what has been achieved? One or two keen (or loud or dominant or English speaking) children have perhaps given the answers the presenter was looking for but the vast majority weren’t involved, a percentage have switched off entirely and it is doubtful anyone who didn’t already know the answers to the questions, or if they held an incorrect understanding, has learned anything new.

Compare this to the second example. The children are challenged at the start (this should be revision). Essential information is given clearly and in an age appropriate manner (plants need food etc). It is made clear the what the students should have eventually as an answer and they are given a bit of a clue (the word equation on the board). The children are challenged again but have sufficient time to think (you have 30 seconds). They are told no one can opt out (I will pick people at random). They have to do it with a friend so there is communication for both and help for those that need it (with the person sitting next to you).

Over the course of the next few posts I’ll investigate different ways we can set more effective questions in our presentations. We will look at formative vs summative questions, techniques for maximising engagement, the value of cooperative learning, how to ask questions without losing control of your audiences and how to make answering questions comfortable for all. We will also look at asking questions to assess impact and see that sometimes you need to make your audience uncomfortable to really change what they think. 

I hope this first article has given you items to add to your list. Keep it and we will fill it out more over the coming weeks. 




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