On hinge questions

As part of my professional development cycle for this year, I opted to explore the use of hinge questions in English lessons. My initial interest in the technique arose from reading Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment. On page 100 of his book, he explains how:

‘The hinge is a point at which the teacher checks whether the class is ready to move on through the use of a diagnostic question. How the lesson proceeds depends on the level of understanding shown by the students, so the direction of the lesson hinges at this point.’

For Wiliam, these questions take the form of a multiple choice question, with very carefully worded distractors among the different response choices. An excellent discussion of how hinge questions can be used to correct misconceptions is available on Joey Bagstock’s blog. He makes a sound argument for the utility of multiple choice questions in improving comprehension and understanding.

One of my queries with this, however, was over how effective hinge questions could be in guiding students from sound knowledge of a text to a considered personal appreciation of it. More specifically, I was interested in exploring how an extended response to a hinge question might form a precursor to analytical writing. Certainly, the idea of a ‘hinge’ point in a lesson dependent upon sequential knowledge mastery is a sound one; if you want students to correct a misconception, then a hinge question is an effective way to address this. Multiple-choice questions become useful, therefore, in ironing out comprehension errors, or in identifying when students limit their interpretations of quotes to surface details. But how useful would they be if the aim was not to clarify a misconception, but to force students to defend and justify a position?

This is where my interpretation of a hinge question widens slightly from that put forward by Wiliam and others. For me, hinge questions can serve a dual function: to address potential misconceptions (via a multiple choice question) and to steer a lesson into extended personal interpretations of texts.

An example of how I have used this comes from my current Year 10 English class. At present, we are studying comparative analysis – Montana 1948 and the documentary The Tall Man. In The Tall Man, at the point where the defendant in a trial (a police officer who has been accused of the manslaughter of an aboriginal man held in police custody) is found not guilty, the film overlays the sound of a pedestrian crossing ticking. It is an interesting stylistic choice which hints at the endemic corruption within the Queensland justice system and the inevitability that it will close ranks and protect their own. The hinge question I set was quite simply:

What might the significance be of the pedestrian crossing sound?

I ran a standard think-pair-share-square routine and asked students to flesh out their response notes at each step of the discussion. Below is an example of the notes made by one of my students, Maddie (who has given me permission to publish her work):

Maddie Qu notes

The challenge then became one of how this discussion (and these exploratory notes) would transfer into her writing. Maddie is ranked near the middle of our Year 10 cohort and in previous years has scored close to the national average for NAPLAN reading and writing. During the next lesson, my class had to write an analytical paragraph under timed conditions, which was to be formatively assessed. They were given fifteen minutes to draw up a brief plan (with paired discussion allowed) and then thirty minutes to write their paragraph. Here is her work:

Maddie V1

Given that this was an initial draft, the quality of this was rather promising. Near the end of the paragraph you can see the emergence of the hinge question notes, with a good attempt at close technical analysis. Not perfect, but for an ‘average’ student this is encouraging. The following lesson, I ran a whole-class feedback session with integrated DIRT time. Here is her improved version, written in 20 minutes:

Maddie rewrite pg1

Maddie rewrite pg2

Now she is approaching the depth I am looking for. While there are mechanical accuracy and expression issues (which she is working hard to overcome), the quality of insight is sharper and, crucially, offers a measure of independent thinking. This alternative use of a hinge question in conjunction with scaffolded discussion has begun to pay dividends for her. It is an approach that I will continue to refine over the remainder of this year.

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