Teaching Opinion

Play the Broken Record When Questioning Students

By Starr Sackstein — May 28, 2019 3 min read
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Guest post by Connie Hamilton

Every time I go to Target for something specific, say a toy for my niece’s birthday, I leave with a bagful of things I didn’t plan to buy. Sometimes, those bags are missing something I actually intended to purchase like a ribbon to decorate the gift. When there are so many distractors, it’s easy to lose focus of the purpose for the shopping trip.

Why then, are we surprised when the focus for a lesson is blurred?

Teachable moments are everywhere. It is tempting to chase a rabbit trail down a hole and lose sight of the original learning intention. According to John Hattie, maintaining teacher clarity produces an effect size of 0.75. This equates to nearly double the rate of learning; just by being clear on what students will learn and how we will know they have learned it.

When questions within a lesson are left unplanned, the potential for divergence is great. Quickly, clarity can drift away. Because teachers ask approximately 100 questions in any given lesson, it is necessary to intentionally maintain a path toward the lesson’s purpose.

There are many types of questions within a lesson. One cluster of question categories include:

  • Engagement Questions: Intended to keep students’ cognitive interacting with the content.

  • Scaffolding Questions: Used to support student understanding when they struggle.

  • Inquiry Questions: Offered to encourage student curiosity and wonder.

  • Check for Understanding Questions: Posed to formatively assess how students are moving in the learning progression.

  • Broken-Record Questions: Asked to maintain focus and develop a pattern of questioning that students can use themselves.

Lessons are likely to include questions from multiple categories. But it is the broken-record questions that often get abandoned.

To get started using Broken-Record Questions, try these ideas:

  1. Turn your learning target into a question. Then use the question to keep your focus and communicate it to students.

  1. Test your consistency

There is no need to keep your questions a secret or a surprise. In the case of Broken-Record questioning, being predictable is desirable. If students can identify questions that align with the learning target, it means they have a focus on it, too. To check on your clarity, instead of initiating a conversation with the Broken-Record question, ask students to predict what question you might ask them to determine how they are learning.

  1. Attend to the precise language of the learning target

Sometimes a question that is in the ballpark of the learning target satisfies both the teacher and the student. However, a foul ball is still in the ballpark, but it does not keep the game in motion. The same is true for divergent questions.

If the day’s learning target is to select an efficient strategy for solving a system of equations, the verb “select” is key. Consider the following questions:

  • How did you solve this system of equations using the substitution method?

  • What criteria did you use to choose the substitution method?

  • How could you solve this another way?

Only the second question reveals information about the selection process. The other two questions are about the end result, not the process. This learning target is focused on strategy so a Broken-Record question must expose how students strategized to select a method for solving the problem.

If you plan your Broken-Record questions, you are more likely to maintain your clarity on the learning purpose. This does not mean that you only ask one question over and over. Of course, other questions will help pave a cognitive path for student thinking and learning. However, those questions often need to be developed in the moment and based on what’s happening with students’ thinking.

The Broken-Record questions are rooted in the learning purpose, which is not a moving target.

How could you use Broken-Record questions in your classroom to improve student learning? Please share

*Chart made by Connie Hamilton

Connie Hamilton, Ed.S. has 25 years in education as a teacher, instructional coach, elementary/secondary principal, and K-12 district administrator. She is currently the curriculum director in the Saranac Community school district in Michigan, an international educational consultant and presenter, and the author of two books, including her latest, Hacking Questions. Teachers describe her workshops as meaningful and engaging as she models quality instructional methods that can be used in the classroom tomorrow. She applies her deep understanding of pedagogy in workshops such as Questioning, Gradual Release of Responsibility, Student Engagement, Feedback, and more. Connie spends most of her year facilitating classroom observations in a collaborative setting so teachers can learn from one another as they implement new strategies with students. She brings these experiences to her workshops to help teachers put research into practice in ways that make sense.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.