Become a Question-Asking Ninja!

q ninjaI have been meaning to write this particular post for a while (a long while).

Reflecting on what improvements I’d made to my teaching in 2013, I kept coming back to one small thing that made a huge Impact on student learning my classes to take forward and build upon in 2014.

Anyone who is a regular reader will know I have a huge penchant for what I view as the very heart of our work: Teaching and Learning, in particular the strategies of formative assessment and how they can be harnessed for greatest effect in PE. I have an appetite for linking evidence-based research to practice.

Usually the only ‘call to action’ I attempt via blog posts is to get you, the reader, involved in connecting with me via comments to enrich the dialogue.  But I’ll be up front about this one, I want it to change why and how you do something(s) in class.

In that order. Starting with ‘why’.

Now given that “one-off PD” generally has no impact on practice, I’m not sure how a “one off blog post” from yours truly in a far away land will hold up in the sustainable change area of teaching habits but, as always, I’m willing to give it a crack.

Are you?

So to the “one small thing,” okay maybe I misled you a tiny little bit, it may not be small but it’s certainly not huge either. It will require a bit of habit changing and perseverance, do you have what it takes?

It’s all about questioning.  Not necessarily the kind of questions we (or students) ask (although this is important and very prominent in edu research right now, see Ron Richart and Co.) perhaps the type of questions we ask may be for another post.

This post will focus more on the whole system and process of asking questions and eliciting answers (or more questions) from students. When this is established we can attempt to become question-posing ninjas.

So first to the ‘why’.

Let me start with a scenario.  I can see it now in just about every classroom/ gym/ playing field in the land. Please join me in imagining the following.

The teacher is up there teaching away (and doing a great job by the way) and the time comes for a stoppage, to establish a change to the activity, to give feedback, to have a class discussion about what we’re learning…you get the drift.

The teacher “leads” the discussion, often with some pre-planned questions (if they are good at predicting the future and knew what was going to happen) better still, the leading question is off the cuff based on what is ACTUALLY happening.  Anyway, I digress, the question is offered to the class and after NO wait time (in actual fact the wait time is negative because star students 1,2 and 3 have had there hand up since they were offered the first “what” “how “where” or “why”. Sometimes the teacher will even lead with “Hands up who knows…”

I’m sure you can visualise it, look at star student number one there in the front, she has got herself into a position of near shoulder dislocation and has started producing some worrying whining and grunting noises, clearly offered in the direction of Mr Teacher (don’t laugh, she knows this is the sure fire way to get picked in most classes!)

Meanwhile (usually up the back) struggle student 1,2 and 3 suddenly find something of really significant interest on the floor while performing an inner fist pump that this “discussion” is about to take its usual course and they can have a quick brain break and perhaps even a short snooze, especially if Mr Teacher gets onto one of his stories or passion points.

Struggle students 1,2 and 3 may well be ‘strugglers’ but they have become ever so proficient (in fact professional) at knowing how to hide in these discussions.  Reason? They have had years of practice in just about every school lesson they’ve ever experienced.

So what does Mr Teacher do?

You guessed it!  Star Student 1,2 or 3 expertly give the (correct) answers maintaining their position as the brightest in class, Mr Teachers Utters something akin to, “Does everyone understand that?” cue collective “Yes!” muchos nodding and we all move on satisfied that this ‘bit’ has been ‘taught’.

Sound familiar? I’m sure at least a variation of the theme you can relate to.

The above demonstrates a few things about WHY this needs to be re-thunk (I know this isn’t a word but I like it);

Mr Teacher is forcing the lesson down a successful route (at least in his eyes).

After all he’s been up planning this work of art all night so if the slightest twinkle of potential lesson ‘success’ presents itself then he’ll take it!

Often this becomes as farcical as Mr teacher beginning to spell words on a whiteboard to illicit a particular answer (or to break a painstaking silence).  C’mon admit it, we’ve all done it! S _ _ _.

What Mr Teacher is playing is a giant game of, “guess what in my head”.  Like a curriculum based version of ‘i-spy!’

The smart kids are getting smarter.

This is not entirely true and should probably be re-worded the smart kids are getting more confident.

As a result of their speed to offer the answer and because of the fact they were able to use some intuition to win the “guess what’s in his head” game, Mr teacher has probably just taught them something they already knew.  So instead of moving on satisfied that that ‘bit’ has been ‘taught’ he should, in fact, apologise for wasting their time.

 The strugglers are falling further behind.

It is somewhat noble, and understandable that Mr Teacher does not want to “out” these students.  Perhaps their self esteem needs to be protected and after all, they don’t like being on the spot anyway. Perhaps they will learn via magical synthesis (but not likely)

All fair enough, but what we’re actually saying is, its ok for these kids to hide and fall further behind.

NOT ok.

Mr Teacher may not believe this but by conducting discussions this way he is actually allowing students to opt out of learning and is widening the gap between the stars and the strugglers.

Imagine the impact of this over a number of years?  Perhaps the beginnings of another generation of inductees for the “I hated PE” club which more accurately may be described as the “I was allowed to hide in PE” Club.

Are we agreed on the ‘why?’


Ok, lets have a go at fixing it.  Some simple tools, dedication to changing some habits, and a commitment to go on a fun ride with your students.

I started this with a class, then a year level then the whole upper school, so baby steps are good. After all, I was learning something new as well.

I’m still considering how it may work with the lower primary levels but I did see some footage of Andy Vasily having some success in the early stages with a year one class (I think it was) so its sure possible!

So to the ‘how’.

The basic system to be introduced is one of random student selection during class discussions.  So in simple terms, no opt outs, everyone on their toes, attentive, learning by talking occasionally and listening a lot.

The randomisation device can be paddle pop sticks, names out of a hat, a big wheel anything really that gives you a genuinely random selection.  I use an iPad app simply called “Hat” (there are loads of apps that do this now and class list can be copied in, in about 5 seconds)

Important to note that this does not apply to one-to-one feedback (obviously) and should not replace hands up for a whole class response to something e.g. “hands up if you’re finished…” or a vote e.g. “who thinks…” common sense has to prevail in these situations and it a matter of the best tool (strategy) for the job. So I’d stick to whole group discussions for this and the kids will also get used to habit changing for these scenarios.

The simple rule is no hands up except to ask a question. Read it again.

This means the rule combined with the randomisation device = EVERY single child has to think about the question. So even if they are not chosen they have still already done the intellectual heavy lifting.

This is only the first part though.  When a question is posed, the teacher should remember to use the following as a strategy. I had it written on my lanyard for a while.


  1. Pose: leading question gets asked (doesn’t have to come from you)
  2. Pause: wait 3 (long) seconds
  3. Pounce: choose student at random
  4. Bounce: use the first response as a catapult for discussion.  This could be asking someone if they agree/ disagree, or “what did you think of that answer?” or “could you summarise what David said please?”

Important thing is it all comes out of our random generator so you can “pounce” and “bounce” with a clean conscience!

I’ve heard some teachers saying, yep, ill do it but ill just randomly pick kids so I don’t need the app or paddle sticks etc. Beware of this approach. Even if you don’t think you are, my guess is that your subconscious will steer you to, and away from, certain students.

So at the risk of over-describing the process (which I may have done already), I wanted to share with you all a video from our school, with one of my classes, featuring some of our wonderful students so you could see the whole thing in action.  I hope it brings it to life and it encourages you to take this idea, play with it and make it your own.

Go on I DARE you! (and send me your comments!)


7 thoughts on “Become a Question-Asking Ninja!

  1. Love this Ross thank you, especially being dared to try it, how can anyone refuse a dare? This is something that can be implemented 1st class on Monday morning, I will post back with some results/feedback from trying it here in Shanghai. I’m often going to ‘star performers’ to validate that I asked a good question coz I know they will get it right. More ‘hands-on’ blog posts like this! Great stuff.

  2. I don’t think anyone can argue with this, I found the suggestion that current practice encourages the strong to get stronger and the weak to hide particularly accurate! We have a big push at the moment on high order questioning and local suppliers can’t keep up with the demand for lollipop sticks!! I notice improved engagement, the randomisation of questioning encourages them all to think rather than leave the usual suspects to answer.

  3. Steve & Toby, thanks for your comments boys. This has made a marked difference to engagement and inclusion in my classes and it’s FUN! The toughest part is changing the habits both for you AND for the students, it takes time. Hands will go up initially, you might forget a couple of times, all natural. The important thing is to work together with the kids to make it a routine and discuss with them WHY this is a good idea. They will thank you for it.

  4. Hi Ross!
    This is a fantastic post! Higher order questioning is something that has been on my mind for a while. This is an area of my teaching that I know I struggle with, and would like to devote some time to improving. My superintendent came in to supervise my Math 10 class two weeks ago and this was something we discussed as an area of improvement. I am so glad you waited to write this post, as it is perfect timing for me! This post has made me think about how I structure my questions for all the subject areas that I teach (PE, Math, Health and Career Guidance). I want to be able to distribute questions to all my students better so I really love the idea of the “Hat” app! I have started looking at Bloom’s Taxonomy to help with my level of questioning as well. I am really excited to implement this into my classroom ASAP! Thank you again for your wonderful post.. it has my brain buzzing with excitement and ideas!

  5. Hi Ross, great post. PPPB is something I cam across a while ago and it’s a strategy that has had a strong positive impact on my classes. It’s amazing when implementing it at first at the amount of students who, when selected randomly, respond ‘but I didn’t have my hand up.’ Statements like these highlight that students can come to accept that they only need to think if they are willing to put their hand up. Usually the ones who are willing to put their hand up are the ones who already know and therefore, key learning moments are lost on other students. I believe you hit the key point in that, answering the question is not the essential part of this PPPB strategy, but the fact that all students go through the thinking process, whether they are chosen or not, and this is key to their cognitive development.

    From a teaching perspective, we can easily fall into the trap of wanting the ‘perfect’ lesson, where everything goes smoothly and to plan, because it ‘looks good’ (I believe we all fall into this trap at one point or another). An approach that encourages the ‘less knowledgeable’ (in relation to the topic) or ‘less willing’ to answer brings uncertainty and can make teachers feel uncomfortable as the lesson may take some unexpected twists, but this is where real learning CAN take place. As teachers we need to do this more often and learn how to alter our lessons in response to the students’ responses.

  6. There is no knowledge without sharing. Thanks for taking the time to share, Ross.
    It has been great to meet you at NIS this week.

    I, too, have found that the name sticks are a great way to involve more students in the discussion. I have used them for a number of years now and wouldn’t go back. It took a while for the kids to accept the change (the student who always had his/her hand up was very angry with the sticks as they “never got picked!” and the students who never had their hands up didn’t like that they could no longer hide and ‘switch off’ during discussions). Change takes time, and then it becomes the norm. We now have every teacher in our primary school using the name sticks. It is the norm.

    This year, in my class, I have included another system that has added engagement and value to discussions . Typically, when we Pose-Pause-Pounce-Bounce the teacher is at the front of the congregation and the students gathered around at his/her feet. The kids therefore are in a physical position to look at and talk directly to the teacher. The teacher and the one student who is speaking have eye contact and a wonderful verbal exchange. But it is not about exchanges with the teacher. To create valuable discussion amongst the students, try having them sit in a circle or semi-circle. This way the teacher can step back and the students can make eye contact with each other and direct their comments and responses to each other. They own the discussion, not the teacher.

    I have blogged about it here:

    Try it. I dare you! 🙂

  7. Thanks for the comment Marina, so valuable and you have given me something to consider for my discussions in PE lessons. I love the concept of the kids talking to each other and not just the teacher.

    It has been great to meet you at NIS this week. Excited to spend some time learning with you on Tuesday!

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