Monday, 12 August 2013

Hinge Questions - the difficulty in English

Questioning is one of the most important aspects of a teacher's armoury. One of the reasons for this is because it enables the teacher to assess the student/class' understanding about a given topic if done correctly.

It's a huge topic which will get covered in various other blog posts, but this post will focus on the idea of 'hinge questions' - something that is specifically set up to do the above in order to gauge understanding on a whole class level.

What they are

Darren Mead introduced me to hinge questions and he has written about them here

"They are simply a tool to help the teacher and learner what the learner needs to do next, by helping them identify what alternative conceptions they hold on a particular ideas/concept/ item of learning."

They are designed to check that the class understands a concept or idea that the next part of the lesson depends or hinges on. If the teacher moves on without checking this, then they run the risk of the class not understanding the next part of the lesson. Alternatively, if you reteach the concept after falsely thinking that the class didn't understand, then the teacher runs the risk of engagement slipping. Pretty vital then.

Harry Fletcher-Wood has also blogged about this idea, referencing Dylan Wiliam, and suggesting two musts of hinge questions:

1) You have to be able to get the information from them there and then and be able to understand and act on it very quickly – Dylan Wiliam suggests that ideally students should respond within one minute and teachers be able to view and interpret responses within fifteen seconds...

2) You have to know why students have given the answer they have given, from their answer (without going into questioning students – which takes up too much time) - so it must be impossible to reach correct answers using an incorrect thought process.

There is a particular emphasis on the importance of finding out any misconceptions from the students so the design of the hinge question is vital. And this is where I have been having problems in using them in English.


English is often described as having 'no right or wrong' answers. For example, whilst studying Of Mice and Men, if I asked the class "who is most at fault for the death of Lennie?", then I could receive various answers (George, Curley's wife, Curley, the mob, society) all of which could be argued to be correct. Is it possible to transfer the use of hinge questions to English then?

Consider the example below; the question is determining whether the students have understood a vital bit of information about the context of the novella. However, if one of my students just wrote that the novella was written in the time period without any further information about the context then they would barely get any marks. Could I therefore alter the question so that it focuses on the influence of the context on the novella? Well, not really as they need the knowledge of when the novella is set in order to discuss and understand its influence. Does that therefore make the information about when the novella is set 'hingeworthy'?

I can understand the use of them in the parts of the subject where there is a definitive answer such as grammar or the rules of a particular writing style as David Didau writes about here. But I find it difficult to understand how they can be used effectively when studying texts where there is often a requirement to question further and for answers to be open-ended.

Indeed, there is an emphasis on not questioning the students further; the whole point being that as the teacher, you should be able to collect the data quickly. 

It might be me not fully understanding hinge questions or not understanding how to formulate them properly, but I have found that it is difficult to use them in English Literature. 

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