Leading Questions

Few of us would dispute the importance of questioning in the classroom, but it is less well explored as a leadership tool. I would argue that a well-chosen question is of great value when posed by a senior leader to a head of department, and that improving our questioning for leadership is a very worthwhile aim. The setting I am envisaging for these questions is the relatively informal weekly or fortnightly line management meeting, but questioning could legitimately take place in other contexts too. I was never trained in how to conduct these meetings and relied on my instincts and experience of being on the other end of them, the most important aspect of which was to start with the best question of all: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

So why should senior leaders bother heads of department with more tricky questions than this? I would identify three main reasons:

  • To learn from the answers.

We would not expect a teacher to routinely encounter new information in a student’s answer to a question, but the relationship between senior and middle leader is different. As senior leaders we should expect to learn from those we manage and seek opportunities to do so. This applies especially to the curriculum, where they are the experts. Taking advantage of what they know will increase our understanding and enable us to do a much better job of leading across the school.

  • To elicit thought.

Just as a teacher uses questioning in the classroom to promote desirable patterns of thinking, so a senior leader can ask questions to nudge heads of department towards hitherto unexplored avenues of enquiry. Questions of this type are a way of walking the line between the two undesirable extremes of leadership absence and micro-management, which I have written about before.

  • To hold to account.

Accountability is neither the opposite, nor the enemy, of autonomy. In fact, I would argue that they should go hand in hand. Asking searching questions does not impose our judgement, but the anticipation that they will be asked does provide an incentive for middle leaders to do the job as well as possible.

So questions are important, but what sort of questions should we ask? I have a feeling that over the years we have tended to ask too many poor questions as senior leaders and not enough good ones. In the rest of this post I will take three key issues in turn and identify questions which I think should (and should not) be asked. The three issues are curriculum, assessment and teacher quality.

Questions about curriculum

I would argue that the biggest problem here has not been poor quality questions, but insufficient questions altogether. The curriculum should always provide fertile ground for conversation between senior and subject leaders, and has too often been been neglected. I agree with Richard Kennett (2020) that most curriculum questions boil down to the two most fundamental ones:

  • Why have you included X in your curriculum?
  • Why are you teaching X at this point in your students’ education?

There are many variations on these two questions, of which the list below provides just a small sample. Some CPD might be required first to develop the skills of subject leaders as curriculum designers.

  • What do students learn from your subject which they could not get elsewhere?
  • Which academic disciplines does your subject draw on and how do you build your curriculum around the disciplinary traditions?
  • How do you balance the competing demands of breadth and depth?
  • What is the right balance of declarative and procedural knowledge in your curriculum?
  • What is the right balance of substantive and disciplinary knowledge in your curriculum?
  • How closely have you followed the National Curriculum for your subject? (N.B. I work in an academy.)
  • How does your curriculum build on what students know from Key Stage 2?
  • How does your curriculum build towards what students need to know at Key Stage 4?
  • How have you ensured that you provide a good education in your subject for a student who decides not to study it at Key Stage 4?
  • How do you ensure that knowledge in your curriculum is sequenced in the most effective way?
  • How do you cater for the needs of those students with gaps in their knowledge so they do not fall further behind?
  • How do you ensure that the content of your curriculum is learned in the long-term, rather than encountered and then forgotten?

Readers may notice that these questions look a lot like Ofsted deep dive questions, and anyone who has read other posts in this blog may wonder why I am recommending them when I have previously criticised the practice of holding mock deep dives. I don’t think there is a contradiction, because my objection to mock deep dives is not the content but the context. Putting heads of department under pressure and raising the stakes by attempting to judge their curriculum and rehearse for Ofsted is likely to lead to anxiety and concealment, rather than deep thought and honesty. However, asking one or two of the same questions in a link meeting, with a clearly explained purpose of exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum together in order to improve it, is a very different and much more valuable activity.

Questions about assessment

Most assessment-focussed questions from senior leaders to middle leaders have tended to target the product of assessment in the form of attainment grades, or even attempts to quantify progress. Unfortunately I think that these are the least useful questions in this category, and that any internally generated assessment data need to be treated with a very large pinch of salt. This is partly because we simply cannot award grades internally with any accuracy, partly because we have no trustworthy yardstick against which we can measure progress, and partly because any grades or levels we produce do not give a clear indication of what might help to improve them. Furthermore, high stakes accountability gives teachers an incentive to grade generously, so the more we ask questions about the results of internal assessment, the more likely we are to undermine its integrity. Therefore I would counsel against reliance on questions like those listed below, especially those which invite conclusions about individuals or very small groups of students.

  • Do the recent teacher assessments suggest your department is on track to meet its targets?
  • Are disadvantaged students getting a high enough Grade 4+ percentage?
  • Mrs X hasn’t given many Grade 9s. What’s going wrong?
  • Which students are currently below target in the subject?

So what sort of questions should senior leaders ask about assessment? Instead of questions about the product, I would recommend asking about the process. For example, the suggestions below would provide effective ways to elicit thought about validity, and to hold heads of department to account for the quality of assessment. This is, in my experience, one of the least well understood aspects of a school’s provision. Once again, a little CPD in assessment theory might be required first.

  • What is the purpose of this assessment?
  • How do you assess whether students have understood this topic?
  • How broadly do your tests sample from the domain of your curriculum?
  • How do you design assessment to reward deep understanding of a topic?
  • How do you ensure that your assessment targets long-term memory rather than merely the most recent topic?
  • How do you minimise inconsistency of scoring between teachers in your department?

If we need to ask questions about the outcomes of assessment, I would argue that we are on safer ground with raw data, rather than results converted into levels or grades. We should bring all assessment results back to the curriculum, asking what valid inferences can be drawn about what students know, rather than treating the scores as if they convey meaning in their own right. We might then be able to ask intelligent questions about what teachers can reasonably do in the classroom when assessment reveals that students have gaps in their knowledge. The questions below are examples of how this could be addressed.

  • Were there any significant gaps between results for different papers/topics/questions?
  • Are you and your team able to identify any particular misconceptions/weak skills from the responses?
  • Does a topic need to be revisited in lessons and how can this be done effectively?
  • Can we learn anything from the fact that results for Mr Y’s class are higher than everyone else’s about his teaching/his students/his marking and do we need to do anything as a result?

Questions about teacher quality

Just like assessment, when asking about quality assurance of teaching, I would argue that senior leaders have tended to overemphasise the product of self-evaluation at the expense of the process. I believe that most schools have now moved away from crass attempts to grade teachers, so suffice it to say here that questions about the proportion of outstanding teaching etc will reveal no information on which we can base valid judgements but will certainly have undesirable side-effects. I would go further and urge caution over all attempts to form judgements about the quality of teaching, and would be wary of questions like the following:

  • Was the teaching effective in the lesson you observed?
  • Did you see good practice when you dropped in?
  • Was the lesson having the impact you would like?
  • Are there any teachers in your department whose observations were poor?

My rejection of these questions does not stem from a lack of belief in accountability; instead I think accountability is important enough to be worth doing properly. We need to devote time and attention to thinking about what we can legitimately hold teachers to account for and communicating it clearly to them. The problem with quality of teaching is that it can only be sensibly defined in relation to student learning: good teaching is teaching which results in the students learning what the teacher intends them to learn. Since learning is invisible and takes place over the long-term, rather than in a lesson, it is impossible for anyone to observe a lesson and judge the teaching with any accuracy.

So what can we legitimately ask about the quality of what takes place in the classroom? I think it is reasonable for schools to identify things they expect teachers to do and then to ask whether those expectations are being met. First and foremost in this category would be the expectation that teachers should deliver the agreed curriculum, but we might also look for adherence to routines and procedures which are part of the behaviour policy. Certain pedagogical practices with a strong evidence base, such as Rosenshine’s Principles (2012) could be prescribed, but I would sound a note of caution here, big fan of Rosenshine though I am, because I am not confident enough that they or anything else can encapsulate successful teaching of all content in each subject to every student at all times. Therefore while I am more than happy to recommend them, I would not make them into a list of non-negotiables.

We should also balance our desire to know what is going on with the benefits of teachers feeling trusted. Therefore I think the most valuable questions we can ask arising from observations are not about monitoring teachers at all, but about supporting them to develop their practice. Willingness to try to improve is arguably the most important expectation we can have of teachers, and I believe lesson observation is at its best when it is used for CPD rather than quality assurance. To that end, I think the following are very valuable questions which we could ask of subject leaders:

  • What did Mr A ask for feedback on when you observed him?
  • What advice did you give Miss B after the observation?
  • What support might Mrs D need to improve her questioning?
  • Have you seen any impact from the feedback you gave about teaching vocabulary after the previous observation?
  • Were there any areas for development which emerged across the department?
  • Is there anything you could do in department time to support the team to do a better job of delivering that tricky bit of content?

Conclusion

If I am right to claim that asking questions of heads of department is one of the most important things we can do as senior leaders, we need to consider how to develop the expertise to ask the right things at the right time. We recognise that it takes detailed subject knowledge for teachers to question well in the classroom, so we need to accept that questioning by leaders also depends on the development of domain-specific knowledge. We need to stand on the shoulders of the giants of curriculum, assessment, teacher development and other fields and take advantage of their work. This will enable us to choose questions which do not waste our subject leaders’ time, to understand their answers and to ask further questions which steer them in worthwhile directions.

On a final note, while I hope that this post has shown just how important I think expert questioning is to effective senior leadership, I also think it is crucial for us to be able to spot when the time is not right. We need to notice the look or tone of panic when the middle leader enters the office and limit our questioning to asking if there is anything she needs from us, before offering to postpone the meeting until next week and letting her use the time to get on with work instead.

Like most of life’s good things, even the best questions should be used in moderation.

References

Kennett R (2020) https://onebighistorydepartment.com/2020/02/11/why-this-why-now/ (accessed 280220).

Rosenshine B (2012) ‘Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know’. American Educator 36(1) 12-19.

Image attribution: QUESTION ANSWER by ProSymbols from the Noun Project (available at: https://thenounproject.com/search/?q=question%20answer&i=2019198)

2 thoughts on “Leading Questions

  1. I fully agree with this part of your conclusion, and it seems to happen in academic as well as other situations:
    … it is crucial for us to be able to spot when the time is not right. We need to notice the look or tone of panic when the middle leader enters the office and limit our questioning to asking if there is anything she needs from us, before offering to postpone the meeting until next week and letting her use the time to get on with work instead…
    I, in my days as a middle level manager used to encourage questions, for the sake of improvements. However, this was looked down upon by top management and peer.
    People in the top positions need to create an environment where expert questions are welcome.

    Like

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