How careful questioning in the classroom can help avoid gender inequalities
Previous research has demonstrated that classroom communication is not equal for boys and girls. Teachers tend to spend more time interacting with boys, and boys are more likely to interrupt classroom discourse to make room for their own contributions. Also, teachers are often more likely to accept boys violating classroom rules than girls. There is a lack of gender equality in the classroom, and one wonders if the smaller numbers of girls going on to study STEM subjects is a consequence of this.
Communication in the classroom is central to the widely recognised education theory of social constructivism, which asserts that students need to participate actively through talking, writing and thinking in order to make sense of new knowledge. Fostering this by open-ended questioning is not a new idea, but there may be subtler reasons why this approach should be adopted.
In their new study Nina Eliasson and colleagues emphasise the communication that occurs during questioning in the classroom: who asks the question; who responds to the question and what type of question it is.
The authors of this study define questions as one of four types:
Closed memory: questions for which one- or two-word answers are sufficient, or involve simple factual recall. For example, ‘What kind of atom is composed of a proton and an electron?’
Closed convergent: questions are posed in such a way that a particular answer, involving classification or recognition of similarities, is expected. For example, ‘Which characteristics are typical of a metal?’
Open divergent: many answers possible with no evaluation required. For example, ‘What might life on Earth be like with different proportions of gases in the atmosphere?’
Open evaluative: there are many possible answers, but evaluation, opinion or conclusion is required. For example, ‘What conclusions have you drawn from the results?’
To close or to open, that is the question
This insightful study investigates the subtle interplay between question type and gender, of both student and teacher, on the student response rate of teacher-initiated questions. The study involved video capturing lessons of 14 science teachers across six schools, around 200 students, 14 hours of questioning and nearly 1000 questions.
87% of all questions asked were closed questions, which is very revealing. These questions minimise the opportunity for students to engage in deeper, more reflective, thinking. Compared to girls, boys responded to a greater share of both of the closed question types – closed memory (60%) and closed convergent (57%). This is perhaps not so surprising given that boys’ share of classroom communication is significantly greater than that of girls. Moreover, closed questions possess limited possible correct answers, and can often be answered with very few words – boys like to shout out answers. Combined, it is easy to see why boys have a greater share of closed-questioning interactions.
The authors draw together these observations concluding that a questioning style that is rich in closed questions inadvertently gives boys greater control of classroom communication. This isn’t necessarily an advantage for them as they are presented with fewer opportunities to practice the higher order thinking that comes with open-ended questions.
So, closed questions skew class participation in favour of boys, but what about open-ended questions? Although only 13% of the questions in this study were classified as open-ended, they elicited an equal number of responses from boys and girls. So, open-ended questions eliminate any gender bias and support greater equality in classroom communication.
The study also highlights some minor differences between whether questions were asked from a male teacher or a female teacher, and a fairly large body of literature exists on the significance of this. However, it is not an aspect of the classroom experience you can alter with great ease.
There is really only one simple message from this piece of research: ask more open-ended questions.
While the need to do so is perhaps already a visible idea, I think this research provides a stronger foundation for the motivation. Challenging students with open-ended questions to promote a deeper understanding is very desirable, yet it is difficult to think them up off the cuff.
However, knowing that employing a greater proportion of open-ended questions can positively influence an imbalance in learning, and maybe aspirations, between boys and girls, should provide the incentive for us to put in a little extra effort.
Here are some ideas for using open-ended questions more effectively in your classroom:
- Before the lesson write down just one relevant open-ended question and make sure you use it.
- Provide ample thinking time between asking the question and calling for an answer (teachers, myself included, can be really bad at this). Consistency with this also helps as students might not bother thinking of an answer if they know they don’t have enough time to come up with a response.
- Allow the whole class to think of a response before selecting a respondent.
- Try to be more reflective about your own questioning practices. Maybe record your questioning, then listen back and evaluate.
N Eliasson et al, Int. J. Sci. Educ. 2017, 39, 433 (DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2017.1289420)