My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Hinge Questions. A Clarification.

I have just Google searched the term "hinge questions" and to my horror one of my previous posts is the second on the list and the first to mention "Hinge Questions", and to be honest it's a bit naff. I feel I need to do this important strategy justice.

A Definition

I read a great quote on twitter from David Wees which went something like this.

" Grades are not precise measures of learning. Repeat: Not Precise!. Act accordingly" .

This encapsulates why hinge questions are so important . 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 often multiple choice questions ( or at least these are easier to design) but can be more open ended in nature. But, either way the purpose of the question is to illicit what the learner understanding is in a clear and unambiguous way, and not confusing it with a level or a grade. It is the student understanding that matters, not where that understands on some arbitrary ( yet, important) measure, and this decides whether you can move forward "hinges" upon student thinking.

Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK)

PCK can be simply be defined as the way in which content knowledge is used in teaching situations. For example improvising, making connections, drawing analogies, defining, redefining, and the ability to teach the same thing in different ways. A huge part of this is the ability to identify what is important in a topic and focusing the learner attention and focus upon this. PCK is also laden with the "mistakes" that are going to be made by learners. From this it's importance in hinge questions becomes apparent, just how do you start reconstructing student preconceptions?

The clearest explanation can be found here by its pioneer Lee Shulman.


I believe the first step is placing a value on identifying them for the student. This is a cultural manoeuvre, placing what were once perceived as a mistake or a wrong answer into a new category of "that's where I've been going wrong, what do I need to do about it!". To do this I vindicate the use of a making clear the pedagogical purpose of such questions every time I use them. I appeal for honesty (even down to a request not to guess).

This relies on a lot of trust not only of the teacher but also of themselves and their peers. So a long term consistent strategy is best, for example the use of a no hands up policy at appropriate time ( of course sharing the purpose of doing this) or celebrating mistakes and using them as a teachable moments. (Great blog post here from my esteemed colleague @saidthemac). The beauty of PCK is that you can (almost) plan for these moments.


It seems obvious but hinge questions should allow learners time to refocus on the important aspects. This brings about two main notions. Firstly, focusing on critical learning concepts as opposed to ideas that are not essential for further progression, this can be a difficult decision and relies on a sound PCK. A Key Stage 3 Science example could look something like this. When teaching about Photosynthesis the students prior learning would involve the identification of plant cell organelles. Important as these are, especially the chloroplasts (which are the site of photosynthesis), but at this level students understanding is not enhanced with more information than this. So any subsequent hinge questions would be better served on the process of photosynthesis, for example distinguishing between raw materials and products, or the affects of higher or colder temperature.

Secondly, there should be ample time to respond to the information at hand. This could be at the start of the lesson, with specific tasks to follow different hinges. Or toward the middle of the lesson to modify or clarify an emerging understanding or even at the end of a lesson, but only if you are planning the next lesson around these.

Some deconstructed example hinge questions.
1. Name the following –

Common mistakes are just naming the elements, and describing what they are made from. The first two are straight forward test that the symbols have a meaning, a scientific way of communicating as does water ( which is a compound). NaCl tests if they can follow a convention of placing the metal first and non metal second and changing the –ine ending to –ide CaO confirms this. The CuSO4 is more complex but can be completed by memory, hence the lower emphasis.

2. Choose the best answer
An element is made of
1. all types of atoms
2. one type of atom
3. one type of atom joined together in a pair
A compound is
1. at least 3 types of atom joined by a chemical bond
2. more than one element near another.
3. Two or more elements bonded together

Students often confuse atoms, elements molecules and compounds. This question makes this apparent. 1 is a misnomer 2 is the correct answer and 3 is a molecule which could be an element.

These are a little more complex, and students are instructed to pick the best answer. For example the Lungs responses are The site of respiration a "alternative conception" easily picked up when studying the respiratory system ! For breathing with is another easily acquired alternative conception. Breathing is a physical process and therefore involves the diaphragm and intercostal muscles and the ribcage, which affect the lung volume. The site of gas exchange is the correct and abstract answer.

So, there you go, I hope this is a slightly more comprehensive and therefore useful discussion of hinge questions. It would be great if you could post comments with deconstructed examples from your subject areas.