Unlocking the power of questions in education

23 November 2017

Questions have a powerful and fundamental role to play in education, a conference has heard.

More than 100 people attended Cambridge Assessment’s flagship autumn event, Questioning Questions, with around 1,000 more taking part online.

The engaged and appreciative audience heard from education experts including Daisy Christodoulou and Professor Bill Lucas in a conference that ranged far and wide in the debate over how to use questions to power education.

Michael O’Sullivan CMG, Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment International Education, opened the event by saying questions are vital in education “because they make us think, they make us state what we know and don’t know”. He said questions enable teachers to see into learners’ minds and understand what they have understood and what areas need more work.

The event then heard the latest research in the field, carried out by Cambridge Assessment’s Martin Johnson, Simon Child and Vicki Crisp. Martin explained that for questions to work, they must be rule-bound, and explored whether summative exam questions could be 'repurposed' for formative use in the classroom. Simon said questions were a powerful resource, but had to be carefully designed in order to fulfil their rich potential. Vicki gave a number of examples of questions that could affect how learners understand or respond, explaining that students build up expectations about how they should answer questions.

Evelina Galaczi, of Cambridge Assessment English, addressed the role of technology in questions, saying that there was a tension between its expansive and reductive abilities. She said technology could do some things teachers were unable to, but teachers brought skills to the class that technology could not, including generating interaction and engaging with higher order thinking skills such as evaluation.

In the afternoon the event heard from Microsoft Research’s Simon Peyton-Jones, who is running a project which aims to crowd source questions from around the globe. Free of charge, the resource aims to enable teachers to save time and effort by sharing effective questions to develop students’ learning. Cambridge Assessment’s Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, Tim Oates CBE, is one of the key figures behind the project.

The afternoon session saw a keynote speech from Daisy Christodoulou, who said that in some classrooms in the UK, teachers have been “doing the equivalent of expecting children to run a marathon in every lesson”, using summative assessment too frequently as a learning tool. She called instead for more frequent, formative, assessment of subsets of the skills and knowledge needed (the 'training' for the marathon), perhaps using multiple choice questions which she said often had an unfair reputation but could in fact be a valuable learning tool.

In his presentation, Professor Bill Lucas explained how he is co-chairing a review into how creative thinking might be assessed in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in 2021. He said that while it was important that students learn the basics of knowledge, questions must help them acquire character and capabilities, and must unleash the power of learners’ curiosity.

After a lively debate, Simon Lebus, Group Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment, summed up the day.

“There aren’t many opportunities to spend a whole day thinking about questions and thinking about exams – it’s a much-neglected subject, it certainly features very little in teacher training and development, and that’s something we are trying to redress with some of our professional training and courses in assessment,” he said. “It’s absolutely key this gets much more attention as part of the whole process of what goes on in schools.”

You can view videos of all the presentations here and you’re warmly invited to contribute to the debate in the comment section below.