Strategies for questioning when you are having difficulty learning names

Part of my ongoing philosophy as an educator is that my teaching is the natural intersection of my technical skills as a computer scientist and the social and pedagogical skills that I have nurtured throughout my own education and employment. Indeed, many of my own teachers and lecturers positively remarked at my communicative ability and that I would repeatedly take on the role of a facilitator in group conversations and activities without prompt.

Now that the tables have turned and I am the one providing students with positive remarks, why do I now have difficulties with producing effective questions, and why am I having difficulty learning the names of my students now, when learning names was something I did so seamlessly before?

Identifying the problem

In my first formal observation, whilst the feedback was overall very positive, one of my suggestions for improvement was in the use of effective questioning for Assessment of Learning, and to improve questioning technique – the observing staff explained that not being able to call on students directly by name was a clear hindrance, as broadly questioning the class and hoping for volunteers is something to be avoided, whereas conversely pointing at students or otherwise picking on them in an impersonal way can break the rapport that you are desperately attempting to establish. I made efforts to learn names (with some success), especially with my younger groups and this has been acknowledged in later informal observations, but there was still a clear area of weakness – an area that needed deeper investigation and reference to literature to mitigate in order to improve my pedagogical approach.

Motivations for improvement

The first things to consider before launching an investigation, is why should I bother? Based on written and programmed work that I had students complete for me and talking to them in class, the vast majority of students appeared to be learning well; keeping up with their counterpart students who continued to be taught by a qualified teacher. It is well documented that teachers have a ridiculously high workload, something which parents are beginning to understand as they have been forced to home-school their own children in light of the 2020 novel coronavirus pandemic (Trafford, 2020), so is it prudent to make potentially significant changes?

Of course, this is where teachers can look to professional standards for guidance. For a post-compulsory educator such as myself, those undersigned by the Education & Training Foundation (2014) are clear, and meet the criteria for PS1, 2, 8, 9, and 10 as reflective practice is being used in conjunction with educational research to further develop my own teaching, with strong regard being taken to the impact it has on my students’ learning.

Investigation and mitigation

As I had the opportunity to meet with the programme director for my course to have a chat about how I was getting on as a trainee teacher, I brought up that I was having difficulties with questioning and memorising names so that I could be pointed in the right direction. She pointed me in the direction of Ross McGill, author of the popular Teacher Toolkit and is even regarded as one of the most influential ‘gurus’ in contemporary teaching. (Lightfoot, 2019)

One of the most discussed style of questioning discussed on the website is ‘fermi questioning’, a strategy developed by physicist Enrico Fermi to help develop creative thinking and problem solving abilities in his students – leaving out details and absolutes to encourage approximation and ‘guestimation’, as well as to foster interest and curiosity in the subject at hand. (McGill, 2018)

Suggested further reading lead me to the Questioning Technique Pocketbook by Gorden Pope. Therein Pope (2013) suggests that this questioning methodology additionally allows for easier identification of a pupil’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978) and whether they are able to carry out tasks and carry out concepts independently.

Having assimilated this technique into my teaching repertoire, I still needed to come up with a solution to learning names and hopefully factoring this into my questioning usage. Thankfully, I came across another topic that appears to be surrounded in a remarkable amount of controversy: the use of lollipop sticks.

According to Dabell (2018), many educational researchers and teachers do not like the idea of using lollipop sticks to select pupils for questioning as it flies in the face of effective questioning, and shared a remark that if a teacher needs to use pseudo-randomisation in order to avoid unconscious prejudice or biases from forming in their selection process, they ‘need a sabbatical and a career adviser’.

Controversy aside, many teachers appear to use this strategy. I would argue that such a technique could be nevertheless a useful addition to my own toolkit when working with a class I am unfamiliar with, albeit one used with caution and should not be depended upon as a real substitute for learning names. I believe that using such a system to ensure student participation is inherently not a bad thing, but if a teacher is only using them to appease senior management observations then it becomes no more than a vapid fad that does not have impact on students’ learning at heart.

Implementation and final reflections

In my future teaching I will look to plan fermi-style questions into my lesson plans in advance in order to better assess my students’ learning; ensuring that I give them plenty of time to digest and even discuss their thoughts with those around them, and placing more focus on the thinking process rather than the answers themselves. Hopefully with time I will be able to more spontaneously produce such open-ended, thought-provoking questions in all aspects of my teaching.

In regards to lollipop sticks, I will use them in any classes I start out with as a means to learn names and to gamify the introduction process. After much consideration however, I think that teachers have a responsibility to familiarise themselves with their students, including their names and likenesses, on an individual basis to help support their learning journey as much as possible. Sometimes things take time and practice, and that includes getting to know your students.