In her article ‘Form and Function of questions across computer and face to face based lessons: A sociocultural analysis’ Joanne Hardman discusses the results of a study conducted at four disadvantaged primary schools in the Western Cape, South Africa. The study examined the use of technology to support the teaching of mathematics and, in particular, the questions used in face-to-face as compared to computer-based lessons. As a theoretical structure, the paper uses the Vygotskian concept of a ‘general genetic law’, which states that higher cognitive functions, such as reasoning and problem-solving, are stimulated through dialogical interactions between, in this case, teacher and student, where language is a “primary tool for mediating students’ access to higher order thinking” (Hardman, 2014:26). Hardman explains that Vygotsky states that in order for the student to acquire knowledge they must be lead from a “place of not knowing to a place of knowing” (Hardman, 2014:26) by someone more competent than they are. This is a sociocultural process where the difference between what the student knows and needs to know defined by Vygotsky as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This approach suggests that a student will learn more through the assistance of and interaction with another person than through working in isolation. Naturally the asking of questions becomes central to this pedagogical process.
Hardman then introduces the Initiation-Response-Evaulation/Feedback (IRE) sequence, which describes a questioning structure. This structure tends to use a directive scaffold approach – where the teacher already knows the answer to the questions being asked and where the questions serve the purpose of the transmission of knowledge – as opposed to a supportive scaffold approach – which allows for a responsive engagement from the teacher and the active construction on knowledge on the part of the student. Directive scaffold questioning can generally be seen as restricting learning while supportive scaffold questioning can be seen to open and work with the student’s ZPD. However, Hardman argues that both types of questioning can be viewed in a Vygotskian framework, dependent on context. She extends this framework, discussing how teachers can pose questions intended to “provoke cognitive conflict” (Hardman, 2014:26), where a disjuncture between what the student knows and needs to know is caused, thus further opening the student’s ZPD. In this situation the questions asked by the student become useful, as both a cognitive tool for the student and an indication for the teacher on how to direct an intervention. As Hardman writes, “questions are very useful pedagogical tools” (2014:27).