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!)


Stop Stealing Dreams (& Personalities)

stealingI consider myself a ‘spark’ blogger. That is, my ramblings come from something that has struck me that month, week, day, hour.

Whatever it is tends to float around in my head consuming my thoughts until I get it out there. I guess the same is true of any idea until it is written down or realised via action.

Two things have struck me recently that have been floating around my head, and so provided the spark for this latest post.

The man behind Joey Feith recently introduced a new idea (not uncommon for Joey) to his site called “Lil help?”. The first post was from a virtual teacher asking for help and advice on behaviour management. It was a great idea, backed up by amazing responses from the physed community. The PhysEd PLN wrapped their arms around virtual teacher “drill sergeant” and the responses/ advice were free flowing and substantial. See the post and responses here .

At the same time I’ve been reading a manuscript by Seth Godin (who is a bald genius by the way) called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” It got me thinking about what school is for and my place a amongst it all.

Like, what is the purpose (of the whole “process”) of education?

Seth argues that if it is to produce compliant, obedient factory worker style citizens then we are doing a great job.

He actually suggest we are “processing” students like an assembly line which is ironic given his suggestion that the way education is designed prepares them for exactly that type of work. Perhaps no coincidence we are still educating for the industrial age.  A case of “life imitating art” Oscar Wilde may have remarked on our status quo.

Think about your school and your class(es), it may start with “good morning class” to which they reply “good morning Mr/Mrs smith”. Why do we do that? What’s it for?

This is just a small example of how schools and teachers try to foster conformity, remain ‘in charge’ and promote fitting in.

And yet often we give them mixed messages about the importance of being themselves. Well what if “themselves” is talkative, fidgety, argumentative, critical, quiet, lazy?

Are we actually saying, “be yourself, as long as its how we want you to be?!”

At our school (and pretty much every school I’ve been in) we have a learner profile, the new term for the old: values education. The values or qualities that we promote and wish to develop in our students. Things like responsible, respectful, tolerant, courageous etc etc.

Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that we add in lazy or argumentative to our leaner profile, and I do understand  the difference between positive and negative values (I even found a wordle of the good ones below). But please stay with me while I remain fleetingly flippant to pursue my point.

Lazy people can be successful, can’t they? I know some of them personally! They just need to know how to harness their powers of laziness to best effect!

An example, I am currently teaching one of the best problem solver/critical thinking grade 4 students I’ve ever taught. He hates vigorous physical activity. He is fascinating in the way he approaches games and thinks about how to be successful with minimal effort. It’s a constant battle of wills between him and I, and a real challenge for both of us. In his end of year reflection for school, he named PE as his favourite subject! While constantly trying to ensure he gives full effort I also compliment him often on his “efficiency” when it leads to success.

I should also say that I make clear to all students the importance of physical activity in their lives and keeping fit and healthy, what i’m on about here is building on what they bring to the table.

Talkative and argumentative people make good politicians, don’t they?  So lets not supress their ability at an early age! One of the best politicians Australia has ever had is Paul Keating. He could be described as the best “arguer” of all time. Some of his performances in parliament have gone down in history, if you have a spare 5 mins check out his best bits online.  I guess the key here is honing their natural skills of talking and challenging others to be used for good.  Debating, challenging the status quo, changing things, making things better.

Furthermore, fidgety people go on to be the worlds best dancers, don’t believe me? watch this…

I spent the first 6 months of this year trying to get a (new) fidgety student to sit down and listen during class discussions.  My mistake now seems obvious.  I was forgetting that he could listen (or more accurately learn) standing up or walking or skipping or hula hooping for that matter if he really wants to! So now that’s precisely what he does, (along with some others) and they listen to what is going on.  I know they listen (learn) because I ask them stuff.  Im convinced my fidgeter is destined or a movement based profession and here I was holding him back!

My goal for him (and everyone else) was learning, NOT compliance. I was confusing the two as being mutually exclusive.

Commenting on Albert Einstein’s progress, a teacher reported that as a result of poor compliance he “would never amount to much”.


Perhaps then as students go through the conveyor belt ofschool, the system has to be changed from within. Starting with us teachers. We need to be more willing to take a strengths based approach to students and their abilities and personalities rather than “stealing their dreams” or stifling what they bring to the table.

Perhaps the policy making pollies will follow suit and will start considering curriculum that is non-hierarchical for subjects, where choice matters, where students can work on their strengths and interests more and where they don’t have to conform and be tested to within an inch of their lives (with stuff they will neither remember or want to remember).

Big thanks to Dr Ash Casey for bringing the above image to my twitter feed.

So maybe as of 2014 we need not to ask students to jump on our assembly line/ conveyer belt one behind the other but we teachers think about making our conveyor belt wider, deeper, higher, lower, after all we can and should accommodate so many different “parts” for the 21st century.

As always I would love to connect so please let me know your thoughts!