Category Archives: English

Cooperative Learning; Closed Questions, Closed Achievement Gaps

Andy Tharby’s article neatly explains my own motives for promoting closed questions – they provide the exactitude which is the foundation for higher level thinking and they mirror the precision that is a hallmark of Cooperative Learning.

A colleague and I were discussing my ideas for an article on open vs. closed questions in the context of Cooperative Learning, when I innocently mentioned @atharby‘s post Closed-question quizzing – unfashionable yet effective as a source of inspiration. His response: How could I champion Cooperative Learning and endorse Mr Tharby’s reactionary views?

Safely home, I revisited the post to see if I had overlooked something. No, it was as I remembered it; well-written with self-depreciating humour,  references to research, final endorsement of open questions in correct context –  basically classroom practice of Bloom’s taxonomy.

So, is it ‘reactionary’ to view closed questions as “a really quite wonderful thing” and share a personal experience that “lists of closed-questions … are amongst the most dependable and useful of everyday resources”?

Or is it rather, as Tharby himself asks, “stating the bleedin’ obvious”? The following hopefully demonstrates that Cooperative Learning makes that discussion obsolete.


Before proceeding, please note: while all the poorly executed drawings are from my own hand, the cool character design and sleek style is carbon copied from @jasonramasami‘s original illustration featured in Tharby’s article:


[  And, please do familiarise yourself with the key before continuing  ]



Open questions: On the dangers of arming blind people with scatterguns in enclosed spaces

Nowhere does Closed-question quizzing… claim that closed questions should stand on their own – rather “they pave the way for analytical thought.” It’s basic Bloom.

Because, when you ask open questions and expect pupils to acquire your target (the red bullseye) without first delineating relevant vocabulary, concepts and context, this is likely to happen:

The danger of open questions

In case you are wondering, the guy with the arrow in his behind is the teacher.

Because children often lack the vocabulary and reference frameworks that adults take for granted, higher order thinking – let alone “enquiry-based learning” – requires preparation by the teacher. Taking the original article’s reference to Ted Hughes’ poem Bayonet Charge as an example: As a 40+ adult, I intuit just from the title that we are are dealing with a World War One poem – and up pop associated experiences of reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” as a teenager and of flickering black & white images of soldiers going “over the top.”

However, for children in the today’s classroom, “over the top” would likely refer to a detested classmate’s latest hair-do and the very word combination Bayonet and Charge might have no time-space associations at all; It seems the GCSE Bitesize commentary on the poem assumes they don’t even know what a bayonet is (“…long knives attached to the end of their rifles,” apparently).

How open questions open achievement gaps

Furthermore, who stands to benefit most from open questions? Child A, whose home is full of books and whose parents converse with him over dinner? Or Child B, who is fortunate to chance upon a red-top newspaper used to wrap cheap fish & chips and whose single mother’s longest sentence on record is “Go pick up some fags, yeah!” Now imagine that sentence is presented in Urdu or Polish because Mum doesn’t speak English.

So while Child A’s reply to the juicy open question “How do you think the soldier in the poem Bayonet Charge feels and why?” might be “I think he feels like a cog in a machine, because it mentions him being ‘a hand’ in a ‘cold clockwork,'” you are lucky to get “Dunno” from Child B.

Tharby neatly sums up the above in relation to reading comprehension: “Any densely-packed piece of writing (…) presents a problem. Many children will scan the words but fail to digest the finer nuances of meaning. Closed questions encourage close reading and also allow us to guide students towards the key information.”

The problem with open questions is further exacerbated by discussing them in a full-class plenary where you engage in a five-minute exciting dialogue with Prodigy Child A, while Child B (and everyone else) quietly drifts off. However, refraining from giving Child A the opportunity to explain and explore his thoughts by sticking with closed questions just to engage Child Bs is equally unfair. Ah, the conundrum of differentiation!

Fortunately, replacing that five minute plenary with a CLIP like Catch1Partner in a class of 30 secures a total of two-plus hours worth of differentiated learning opportunities for every single child, regardless of background.

But first things first.

Closed questions, closed gaps

The reason I initially caught onto Tharby’s article was that he so neatly explained my own motives for promoting closed questions – they provide the exactitude which is the foundation for higher level thinking and debating and they nicely mirror the precision that is a hallmark of Cooperative Learning.

Yet, with Cooperative Learning even a closed question may open an opportunity for differentiated higher level thinking and language acquisition through mixed-ability peer learning, as demonstrated below.

Remember that Cooperative Learning should not increase your workload or require special materials, so I am going to use an original quiz sheet Tharby has used with Bayonet Charge. Here are the first three questions:

1. What was the soldier doing just before the poem started?
2. Which ‘r’ is repeated in the 1st and 2nd lines?
3. What is coming from ‘a green hedge’?

We will look at variations in tasks and materials ([questions]) at the end of this article, but here are instructions for one sample Cooperative Learning activity (Fig. I):

“The objective is to compare your answers and investigate differences. When I say “Go!” you are going to grab your [questions], poems and a pen, stand up, find a partner and ask your question (Fig. II). Let him explain his answer. If he can’t answer, or you disagree, support him and guide him by identifying where you think he has gone wrong (Fig. III)

C1P cartoon 1-3

Note in Fig. III how the sneaky teacher is carefully listening in. 

Sample discussion Child A and B

A: “My question is: “What was the soldier doing just before the poem started?”

B: Wait, I am reading…. It doesn’t say, innit!? (Fig. II)

A: “Read the first line to  me…”

B: “Sudd… Sudden …. Suddenly he awoke and was … was run … running…”

A: “What does ‘awoke’ mean?”

B: “Oi, he must have been sleeping!”

A: Got it! Well, done, you!” (Fig. IV)

Now, the pair of them swap roles (Fig. IV-VI) before bidding farewell and finding new partners (Remember this is happening in 15 pairs across the class). If you choose to have single [questions] on individual cards, have them swap those cards to distribute learning. 

All the while, you notice the sneaky teacher is pulling out and preparing his open questions (Fig. V-VI) based on his unobtrusive monitoring. It is instant Feedback giving 8 months of additional progress per pupil per year, straight out of the Teaching & Learning Toolkit.

C1P cartoon 4-6

Sample discussion B and A

B: “Ok, my turn: My question is …uhm …: “Which ‘r’ is repeated in the 1st and 2nd lines?”

A: “Well, obviously ‘raw’ is repeated: ‘Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw… In raw-seamed hot khaki…'”

B; “Yeah, you are right. Why two times, though? Why be’s poems so hard, innit?!”

A: “Well, repetition makes you notice that word and it connect ideas. The first ‘raw’ is himself, the second raw describes … hot khaki. Weird. Khaki’s a colour.”

B: “No, it’s be’s a uniform. I plays “Ghost Recon” on my bruv’s PS4. We always wear khaki, like.”

A: Ah, because khaki is the colour of the uniform! … ok. Thanks for helping me with that one. 

B: No sweat….’raw’… ok.

Once the basics are covered with closed questions, the more high-level objectives can then be engaged with open questions, again in pairs. As before, the teacher models the relevant language, behaviours for learning, specific vocabulary. etc. (Fig. VII).

C1P cartoon 7-8

And, as before, students support each other (Fig. VIII).

Now bear in mind that you can vary this endlessly to suit your specific needs:

  • Each pupil could read the whole text and answer all closed questions individually before comparing with partners;
  • each pupil (or team) could focus on one closed question to better support partners in the following cooperative activity;
  • Pupils could read the text and come up with the closed questions themselves (A feat of higher level thinking in itself);
  • a sub-task could be to follow up any closed question with their own question starting “why” or “how”;
  • you could even write the questions and your answers on flashcards (if your class is really struggling);
  • you can track responses by letting pupils note and sign answers in logbooks.

You don’t even have to get them out of their chairs. The same principles apply in a Think-Pair-Share: Read the poem, Think, and answer the questions; Pair up and discuss; take it to the next, open, level in Share.

The point is that with Cooperative Learning, you can close achievement gaps and get more teaching and learning out of your current list of closed questions – in preperation for open questions, of course.



NB: The sample conversations are between higher and lower ability pupils. When two lower ability pupils meet, it is a different story, yet collaborating on a closed question brings poem analysis within range of even your most struggling child. And if you run with a basic Catch1Partner with materials, where they swap question cards, every pupil will have the option to discuss an answer twice – first when he is questioned and takes that card, then again when he elicits an answer from the next partner. 

Some related articles:

Mr Tharnby’s work has been quoted before in:

Deconstructing the Progressive-Traditional Dichotomy; a note to Mr Peal

More on vocabulary:

The Chemistry of Communication; Oracy Skills in Science (and everywhere else)

On unobtrusive monitoring:

Monitoring and real-time feedback in the Cooperative Learning classroom

On closing achievment gaps:

EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit; a Cooperative Learning gloss

And Jason’s site is well worth a visit.

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Filed under Cooperative Learning, English, language teaching, Vocabulary