Teaching | Gateway Questions

What if we could predict what was going to happen in the classroom?

What if we already do, but just don’t fully utilise it?

The more I consider underpinning theoretical principles of assessment within the context of day to day delivery of subject curriculum, the less sure I am of where it fits as part of a valuable tool to ascertain starting points, endpoints, or ‘water stops’ through our curriculum offer. Do we use formative assessment to determine what students don’t know, and do we do this well?

Indeed, Becky Allen suggests that it is problematic for us to look to assessment as a robust tool for the measurement of progress (Allen, 2018) In addition, Allen presents a case for the unreliable nature of assessment that can exist in schools: due to teacher design, teacher delivery of assessment, the construction and execution of the timetable even, that we cannot simply slot in effective assessment that seeks to complement all of these aspects and their own priorities. In this vein, I am not sure that our traditional school assessment models often look to actualise learning of content covered in the way we might hope: we all continue to attempt to temper the discomfort of teaching a subject as it bumps up against the way in which it is externally assessed. Instead on looking at less controllable aspects of assessment- an aptly timed statement, I am sure- we might possibly look to the controllables instead: the way in which formative assessment can benefit from, and consequently aid our delivery of curriculum content.

To narrow the focus, formative assessment in its current design at classroom level does not always fully utilise the accumulative and continually developing expertise of the teacher themselves. Not just their subject knowledge, but their knowledge of what it means to teach that particular aspect of their subject: how it has been repackageded, what precedes or follows it, and the common pitfalls that students always encounter when being taught that particular part of the sequence.

As you teach one thing many times, it becomes more apparent as a common knowledge gap, or misconception, and the we then begin to make informed and timely predictions of what students will not know. At a level of discrete automaticity, expert teachers do this incredible well: they respond in real time to knowledge gaps that arise in the classroom, because they have built a series of mental models of that scenario as a result of teaching the content time and again, and so know how to diagnose and treat accordingly.

We know that the lion’s share of a classroom teacher’s role is identifying misconception or indeed gaps of knowledge, because not only does this aid in-the-moment teaching, but aids the wider set of study that the student will experience. However, this is an incredibly complex task for the teacher to master, because it relies upon the accumulation of mental models through previous teaching experience of that concept, but also, a rich understanding of the subject itself. Additionally, in the initial stages of their career, teachers are trained first to plan and teach sequenced lessons, from micro to macro, as opposed to big picture before funneling down. This approach means that sometimes, formative assessment to novice teachers takes the form of simply checking along the way in real time, or even missing the moment altogether when a student exposes a gap in their knowledge. If we shift to spending some time in advance, thinking really carefully about which areas of the content students may struggle to grasp, and why that might be, we know that this will put us in great stead to preempt such moments. It also enables us to undertake a mental rehearsal of such moments, possibly with other subject specialists, so that the teacher does not have to pull from their experiences in real time- hugely beneficial for the teacher’s cognitive load.

By identifying where students may have gaps in their knowledge ahead of teaching episodes, this puts the teacher at a significant advantage. They can then start to curate content or formative assessment that works with a far more proactive methodology, steeped in the past experiences of the classroom. Beyond this, teachers can start to make such predictions equipped with knowledge of the wider curriculum- where students have encountered these particular ideas before, so that this can be temperature checked, and harnessed for the current point in the sequence of study.

To explore this idea of planning for gaps further, and being more dynamic in our preparation for them, we also want to ensure that this process is as explicit as possible, and valuable at a macro level for the student. Explicit, because the more we share the benefits, the more students will invest in the process, but also valuable, because we don’t just want to eradicate the knowledge gap for that moment, with that misunderstanding or error. We want it to have a lasting impact so that it endures beyond that snippet of their wider curriculum journey.

This is rather a vast promise, so I ensure I visit the limitations of such an approach later on.

The creation of gateway questions seek to use formative assessment as a tool for real time, but with a keen eye on how it might serve to benefit later study of the curriculum as a whole.

First, we want to look at a sequence of learning and using our expertise and experience, identify the moments where students are most likely to present with knowledge gaps or misconceptions. Then, we can look to cluster these gaps into a conceptual sequence, that complements the chronological delivery of the content itself. For example, if we were to look at common knowledge gaps in An Inspector Calls, instead of trying to order these chronologically, we may want to start with clustering them into concepts: power, of which gender exploitation and imbalance might feature, or social class. Picture it as a series of two blueprints: one is the order of teaching, but the other is a conceptual blueprint, plotting out a series of knowledge gaps which may present themselves but that all relate to gender.

Then, we can start to create a series of gateway questions which seek to address these knowledge gaps. These can be used in real time as isolated questions, but also as one of a collection of questions that form a set of questions which focus on the same concept. For example:

Often, students can leap to the conclusion when studying the contextual aspects of the play that women had no rights: this simply isn’t the case. If we consider the authority or power that Sybil, Sheila and even to a degree Edna display, albeit it lesser than their male counterparts, it is unsafe to make such an assumption. To tackle this early on enables students to view characters through a slightly more critical, balanced lens.

If we then follow this thread of knowledge gaps around gender exploitation, we can then explore Sheila’s shift between remorse and justification, but here, students often overlook the idea that women can indeed disempower other women:

This enables students not only to recognise the interplay between the respective characters, but also gain a deepened understanding of the complexities around how we define gender exploitation itself.

Additionally, we may want to draw out Eric’s position as a spectator, subdued in his contributions in the earlier parts of the play that are sparse, but significant to understanding his motives later on:

Eric begins to make such statements as he comes to grasp the notion of responsibility itself, something that due to his social standing, naivety, freedom without learning the discipline of what it means to be a gentleman, that it is incredibly helpful for us to pinpoint this at an early point for students.

This conceptual link from one question to the next aims to build a deeper understanding to the nuance of the play itself that we know is crucial to a critical reading, as students not only develop an understanding of the gender imbalance, but also that it is portrayed in a discrete manner within the play, beyond the simplistic discussions that we may have experienced around sexual assault, gender division, and key values of marriage in our classrooms previously:

And with this accumulative exploration of power through the way Priestley handles gender, students can then build up a series of examples where this is evident, subsequently also reducing the change of the deep-rooted misconceptions that we have experienced in the past.

Once the key knowledge gaps for students have been used as a basis for question design, then teachers can utilise questions in isolation, using in real time within the classroom to ascertain to what extent the have grasped the principles that sit behind understanding such a concept. Alternatively, the teacher can also schedule a collection of questions at regular points throughout the sequence of study, or even beyond, to ensure that student learning is indeed retained, and not simply performative in its nature. This will also enable students to become accustomed with the concepts of the wider curriculum: it positions them to be able to see that gender representation and limitation reveals itself throughout other aspects of study: that portrayal and handling of power across gender roles within literature reoccurs and subsequently, they begin to build up a schema which they can draw from in the future, giving such complexities a more tangible, concrete nature.

It is important that I acknowledge the limitations around such a study, and many are in respect to the subject I teach: both research into misconceptions within literature, but also in the use of MCQ in an English classroom are limited, and I can only assume the reasons behind this. The assimilation of knowledge in English, and the types of knowledge necessary to a deep understanding of a text in its entirety is vast, drawing from both within the discipline but also across philosophical, psychological, social and historical domains, which means sourcing the reasons behind misconception or error is incredibly problematic. A student may understand Socialism, but may struggle to draw form this to apply it to the characters of an English classroom. A student may have never heard of a mining town, or had the time to study and fully grasp the discontentment and disdain that Priestley shares through his employment of characters like Arthur Birling. Put simply, there are many ways both in and out of the maze, and some of the mistakes made along the way are unavoidable, or may never be uncovered.

Additionally, the role of the MCQ in English beyond identification of terminology, or grammatical method has implications. We move very quickly from the what, who, when, to interpretation, which we know is subjective. It means that in some respects, it would be difficult to argue that the questions act to wholly eradicate all but one sole line of enquiry, but instead work to the most plausible response as opposed to the only plausible response. This does open up to questions around the efficacy of MCQ in English, and I would like the time and exposure in a classroom as opposed to teaching in a remote setting to explore this further. To mitigate against the limitations of a quiz, questions can be populated with a narrative which could then serve to address the possible reasons for the response. This narrative can also contextualise the rationale behind the response, which may then in turn improve response success in the future.

Of course, MCQ could be substituted with free recall which can be used to provide an insight of common student response, but this makes less use of the teacher’s knowledge of where students often go awry in regards to both the content, but also the concept. Whilst I acknowledge that literature surrounding the implementation and impact of MCQ in English is limited, by making use of MCQ over free recall, we can then seek to use our knowledge of teaching specific content previously and convert our knowledge of predictions into tangible distractors for the questions themselves. After sharing several drafts of the questions formed, it was interesting to talk through debates and disagreements of particular responses, wholly due to the idiosyncratic nature of the subject itself. These refinements are not exhaustive, and whilst I appreciate that moves away from the principles of MCQ could change the outcome of what is gained by the student, I think that this approach provides a multi-faceted set of insights for both student and teacher- teacher in the process of creation, and student in the various stages of retrieval, correction and reapplication.

I’m interested to see how the mental rehearsal of plotting out where students go wrong might be explored further as a more explicit aspect of our work around curriculum design and delivery. There is some significance in stating that the success of such an undertaking may only be measurable over the course of time, and it would be interesting to consider the impact of this process of rehearsal and conceptual plotting within more cumulative subjects where the concepts are perhaps far-reaching in regards to knowledge. Of course, we must first ensure that such concepts are mapped out across our subject curriculum, and we must also look to continue to engage with other subject specialists as there may be some significant debate around what constitutes a misconception or how it might be most likely encountered by the novice student in the first place. It is a study of layers, I think, where merely the process of trying to seek out what isn’t known at a conceptual level can only work to our advantage when helping us to refine the way in which we use the finite time we have with students. We shift from haphazard moments where students fail to grasp the content and we respond, and instead, start to consider how to predict these moments, construct the mental model for response, and then refine this model in real-time during classroom delivery. Instead of reaffirming what is already known, we can start to seek out what is not, and respond accordingly to aid both current and future study of the subject in it’s conceptual form.


Allen, R. (2018) What if we cannot measure progress, accessed at https://rebeccaallen.co.uk/2018/05/23/what-if-we-cannot-measure-pupil-progress/ on 28th December 2020.

Wiliam, D. (2015). Designing great hinge questions. Educational Leadership, 73(1), 40-44. 

Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger III, H. L. (2007). Expanding retrieval practice promotes short-term retention, but equally spaced retrieval enhances long-term retention. Journal of experimental psychology: learning, memory, and cognition, 33(4), 704.


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