5. Questioning and dialogue in ICT classrooms
Our definition of formative assessment focuses on feedback as the activity that helps learning,
because it provides information to be used by teachers and their students in assessing
themselves, and in modifying the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. For
feedback to be effective it needs to arise from learning experiences that provide rich evidence
from which the teachers and learners can make judgements about what the next step in learning
should he. There are a number of ways in which this can he achieved but the essential
• challenging activities that promote thinking and discussion;
• rich questions;
• strategies to support all learners in revealing their ideas;
• providing opportunities for peer discussion about ideas as well as products;
• encouraging group or whole-class discussions.
If ICT teachers want to find out what children understand in ICT rather than just what they know
and can recite or reproduce, then the learners need to he challenged by activities that make them
think. Many of the activities that students undertake when they are learning ICT are related to the
Systems Life-Cycle (Analysis, Design, Implementation, Testing, Evaluation). By the time they get
to GCSE level, students are expected to be able to apply this whole approach to a range (if
different problems. As the students build towards this, teachers design activities that enable them
to develop the thinking skills, practical skills and knowledge that they will need for each stage in
the process in a range if different contexts. These activities could take many forms but generally
fit the following categories.
What is similar and what is different about…? Examples might he:
(a) comparing two posters aimed at different audiences;
(h) comparing sequential with random file processing;
(e) comparing the use of a digital camera with a mobile phone for taking a picture to include in a
(d) comparing the use of ICT by a 13-year-old student at your school with a 25-year-old nurse at
the local hospital.
These types of activity encourage the learners to observe more carefully and explain the
similarities and differences. By thinking about these similarities and differences, the question
should then arise: Why are there these similarities and differences? So, the students have to
apply their knowledge and understanding to the context and this both challenges their conceptual
understanding and helps it develop. What is essential in these activities is that it is made clear to
the learners that the activity is to explore what they think rather than for them to guess the set of
answers that the teacher has in his or her head. So, if the activity is, for example, to spot the odd
one out in: CD-ROM, RAM, keyboard, hard-drive; then the teacher needs to allow the learners to
discuss the various possibilities before honing in on the one that he/she wants to use to exemplify
What might happen if ...?‘ Two examples here are:
(a) exploring the effects of an egg price increase on the prices that a cake shop needs to charge
for selling its cakes; this could involve evaluating a computer—based model of the income and
expenditure of a cake shop;
(h) hypothesising factors such as temperature, timing of the heating system and outside
temperature that need to he controlled in a greenhouse.
These types of activity encourage learners to apply their knowledge and understanding to think
about how existing computer models work, as well as to think about how computer systems could
he designed. Again, this technique encourages learners to bring their ideas to the fore and so the
teacher is able to gauge what they already know, what they partly know and what they do not
know about the model and its relationship to the real world.
This could involve evaluating a spreadsheet model, (if operating a cake shop (as above) using
the original design specification and the optimum outcomes required (e.g. economic stability of
the shop). Students could challenge the specific design of the model by suggesting ideas for
maximising the profit outcomes. ‘The teacher could ask the students to find out whether the
model includes all of the variables that are needed to account for the cake shop’s operations, to
find out if the model has taken account of
unexpected events — such as a strike at the flour mill — or if the model can display information in
a clear and concise form. Alternatively, evaluating could involve students in evaluating a website
using a checklist of criteria relating to the kinds of information required from the website, the ease
with which one can navigate the pages and the reliability of the information.
These activities enable teachers to assess what students understand, what they partly
understand and what they do not understand about the specific system and what was required.
Identifying needs/defining a problem This could involve students listing the requirements for a
particular design. Two examples here are:
(a) thinking about what information a particular group needs to design a leaflet;
(b) after reading a description of how a business currently operates, deciding what changes the
client would like to make by drawing up a list of what the new- system needs to provide.
These activities enable the teacher to assess learners’ analytical skills and how they approach a
Questions have a range of roles to play in the ICT classroom. To exploit such formative opportunities it is
necessary to move away from a routine of limited factual questions and to refocus attention on the quality
and the different functions of classroom questions.
Collaboration between teachers to exchange ideas and experiences about good questions will be very
Sometimes we need to cheek on a unit or a term or an example. These are not rich questions in that they
usually result in one-word answers and are asking facts that are known or not known rather than asking the
learner to delve deeply into their conceptual understanding. However, they are needed as they help the
learner to pick up the language of ICT which has a very large and forever changing range of terms and
categories which students do need to know to he conversant in their subject. Examples are:
What does BlT stand for? What is a database?
What symbol do we use for a process in a data-floe diagram?
Can anyone name a web browser?
However, in ICT, in order to further students’ understanding we also need that demand thinking
and discussion. These are often ‘open-ended’ and require learners either to link or apply ideas to
new problems or give reasons why they believe something to be so. Sometimes these types of
question force the learner to ask themselves further questions to qualify what the original
question is actually asking them to explain. Such questions generally require answers from the
students of several sentences. Examples are:
What are the advantages of using email rather than letter post?
Why do companies use codes to store data about goods being sold?
What are the advantages and drawbacks of using robots in manufacturing cars?
Why do n need to protect computers from viruses? How does an automated car park system
A ‘big’ question is a question that cannot he answered immediately but instead requires the
learner to work on a series of smaller questions and activities before they return to answering the
big question. By its nature, it encourages answers from a wide range of students, and classes
should be encouraged to come up with a list of smaller questions that they will need to answer
before an answer to the big question can be formulated. Big questions are useful in a range of
learning situations including encouraging thinking during analysis and design activities.
A big question might be:
Rikesh wants to develop a computer system for his CD collection so that he can find the tracks
that he wants to play. How would you advise him?
The smaller questions that need to be answered are:
What information needs to be stored?
What outputs are needed from the system?
How should the database be structured? What type of software is suitable for implementation?
What hardware system would Rikesh need?
Other big questions might be:
Why do hospitals have to protect their computer systems from hackers?
How can a spreadsheet help with planning a school trip?
Why would you use a desktop publishing package rather than a word-processor to produce
What factors do you need to consider when designing a graphical user interface for a theatre seat
What are the advantages and disadvantages to supermarkets and their customers of using
How could ICT be used to control the number of people at a tube station during rush hour?
Are identity cards feasible using existing technology?
Has the Internet increased access to information for all?
Strategies to support all learners
Through formative questioning, the teacher hopes to collect rich evidence of the students’
understanding. The aim is not simply to find out what they know but also what they do not know,
and possibly, more importantly, what they partly know. Teaching is about helping students to
realise this and then guiding them to upgrade their part-knowledge to a fuller understanding. It is
the counter-side of summative assessment of learning, where we can find out what students
already know. Formative assessment is about moving their knowledge and understanding
forward and providing a means for helping students do this.
Challenging big questions, discussed above, require substantial time for the learner to work out
an answer, especially when it requires identifying smaller questions first. For the straightforward
factual questions, and with some types of earners, successful answers and class discussion can
he achieved by increasing the wait time (the time between a teacher asking a question and taking
an answer). Rowe (1974) found that the wait time rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds in typical
classrooms. In the secondary classrooms that we worked in, we found that teachers could, with
practice, increase their wait time to around 3 to 5 seconds and this had dramatic effects on the
involvement of their students in classroom discussion. Our research showed that:
• longer answers were given than previously;
• more students were electing to answer;
• fewer students refused to answer;
• students commented on or added to the answers of other students;
• more alternative explanations or examples were offered.
In many classrooms, even when the wait time is increased, there is a reluctance from some
learners to offer answers. To try to engage more learners in answering, a number of techniques
were developed. Some teachers forced learners to contribute by asking them to jot down an
answer either on a piece of paper or a mini-whiteboard, so that when asked by the teacher to
answer they would either read out or hold up their answer. Other teachers adopted a ‘no hands
tip’ strategy, taking the view that if sufficient wait time was given, then everyone should be
expected to answer, and so the teachers selected individuals. Other teachers have used red anti
green cards so that learners can indicate with the green card that they know the answer, with the
red card that they do not know the answer or by showing both that they might know the answer.
In this strategy, learners often changed their card as they listened to the answers of their peers
because either their own ideas were challenged or consolidated or, in some cases, a vital part of
a peer’s answer enabled them to complete their own thinking.
For the rich questions, simply encouraging individuals to answer by increasing wait time or using
a ‘no hands up’ strategy was not enough to promote and enable the depth of thinking required.
The students also needed opportunities for developing their thinking in peer discussions and for
working out such answers individually on their own first.
Opportunity for peer discussion
Creating a classroom culture where students feel they can reveal current understanding and he
helped towards firmer understanding is an essential ingredient to making formative assessment
function in the classroom. Peer discussion plays an essential part in creating such a supportive
environment. The opportunity to discuss ideas within a small group helps students articulate and
check ideas before they reveal their group’s answer to the whole class. Answers are better
formed through the group activity and also, if an answer is incorrect or limited, it feels less
threatening to the individual that offered the answer as it becomes their group’s decision and not
the individual student’s alone.
All of the types of activity outlined earlier benefit from peer discussion in small groups. However,
teachers have found that students need to develop their ability to participate in group discussions
through a combination of short activities or whole- class and group discussion so that discussions
become focused and purposeful. For example, one teacher structured the activities and
discussions as follows:
• The teacher showed the students a poster advertising a film.
• Students were given three minutes to write down their ideas individually about who they thought
the poster was likely to be aimed at and what were its strengths and limitations.
• Students then worked in pairs for ten minutes to discuss their ideas and to agree on who the
audience was likely to be and to specify three strengths and three limitations of the poster. The
teacher visited some of the groups and asked questions to stimulate their thinking and to
encourage them to be precise with their comments. The teacher decided which groups to support
partly based on her knowledge of their capabilities and partly from observing how well they were
• Through a whole-class discussion the teacher collected ideas from some of the pairs and
encouraged the students to comment on whether they agreed or disagreed with each other’s
ideas and why. The teacher listed the ideas on an interactive whiteboard and, through discussion,
gradually built the ideas into a list of criteria for evaluating the poster. The interactive whiteboard
was useful because it allowed her to edit the ideas into a list and save them for future use.
• The teacher then showed them a different poster advertising the same film. In their pairs the
students then spent about five minutes evaluating the poster using the criteria. They were then
asked to write one suggestion as to how the poster could be improved and explain how this could
• Again the teacher followed this with a whole-class discussion in which she first went through the
checklist and encouraged the students to comment on whether they agreed or disagreed with
each other’s decisions and why. This time the teacher listed the ideas for improvement on the
interactive whiteboard and encouraged students to explain how the improvement could be made,
e.g. that the image would stand out better from the background if colours with greater contrast
from opposite sides of the colour wheel were used, or that the title would be more imposing if a
clear bold font were used.
Encouraging open discussion
Students are often reluctant to commit to an answer because they do not want to reveal their
inadequacies to the teacher and to their peers. The teacher’s role when formative questions are
asked is to act as a facilitator and encourage students to try to answer and also to listen carefully
to the answers from their peers.
Sometimes questions can he used to encourage learners to reflect on both what they think and
what they have heard from others. This is an essential stage in shaping understanding.
What can we add to Yagnesh ‘s answer?
Which pans of Suzie’s answer would you agree with?
Can someone improve on Jack’s answer?
Where else might we find Amy’s idea working?
Would Leon’s method work in all cases?
What son of evidence would challenge Sally’s idea?
Are Sonia’s and Tariq ‘s ideas the same or different?
This is not an easy role to play for some teachers. Learners will look to the teacher to pass
judgement on answers either by comment, facial expression or body language. While it is
important to sort our wrong ideas, teachers need to he patient and wait for the various ideas and
thoughts to be revealed before they start correcting and steering the direction of the discussion. If
intervention comes too soon, then not only do many of the misplaced ideas fail to be revealed but
there may also he too little opportunity for the learners to reflect on what is being discussed
alongside what they think.