As teachers we face numerous challenges as we manage our duties and strive to provide our students with the best opportunities to learn and realise their potential within a safe and supportive environment. We develop philosophies of learning, vision and mission statements; we plan programmes of learning, engage with professional development, communicate with parents and community members and through reflection and assessment refine our processes. We strive to meet the needs of individual learners in every aspect of their development and provide them with the pastoral care they require. All of this means our days are busy but also hopefully rewarding, the danger though is that sometimes in these busy days the little details that can make the biggest impact are lost or taken for granted.
Take questioning as an example of a piece of our teaching that we do every day but that can require a subtlety of detail that can be skipped within a busy lesson. Begin by considering who is asking the questions? Is it predominantly the teacher asking students questions to test their knowledge or recall? Is it students asking questions to clarify information? Is it a mix of student and teacher asking questions to generate inquiry topics or to dig deeper into a topic? Once we are clear on who is asking the questions and what their purpose is we can begin to examine the specific details of the questions.
We all try to ask questions that are open ended. Questions that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ clearly will not move the conversation forward, nor will questions with a straightforward response requiring little other than recall of a piece of information, but we know to avoid these. Thinking about the subtle details of how we pose questions leads to an examination of the language we use within our better questions. Do we model questions in ways that encourage divergent thinking where the students are able to think beyond imagined limitations and restrictions? Ponder the impact of asking ‘How can’ questions versus ‘How might’. This level of subtlety is one of the questioning factors explored by Warren Berger in ‘A More Beautiful Question’. ‘How might’ is one strategy he suggests is useful in encouraging students to think beyond constraints and moves them past counter questions of ‘can we’ or ‘should we’. For anyone with an interest in asking beautiful questions that drive knowledge and innovation, Warren’s book is a must read.
What manner of questions should we encourage our students to ask? If we are to encourage out of the box thinking and innovative ideas we must provide opportunities for students to ask questions that connect their interests and passions. If our students are always asking the questions we have imagined for them, or worse still that the textbook writer imagined, when do they get to imagine their own questions? Dr. Richard Curwin explores this in a blog post titled ‘Questions Before Answers: What drives a great lesson?’ Curwin explains the need for lessons centred on a question so engaging to students that it gets under their skin and compels them to inquire. I will argue that the most compelling questions are the great questions our students bring with them.
Consider a typical lesson as a dialogue and then look at this dialogue from the perspective of the teacher and the student. Often it goes something like this: The teacher begins the class either stating or implying that “At the end of this hour you will know . . . or ‘at the end of this hour you will have discovered x, y & z’. The student hears this and thinks politely to themselves ‘why don’t you just tell me now’ or ‘if I can learn this in an hour how important can it be’ or ponders that favourite of all questions for students to ask ‘why do I have to learn this’.
At the end of the lesson the student does indeed know the new fact or idea, they can parrot back an answer so they must. The teacher is happy and the lesson is deemed a success. At the end of the day the student goes home and answers the question 'what did you do in school today?', they answer ‘not much’ for them the lesson was a failure. Why? For the student there was no learning, they acquired a new fact but that fact had no value because it was never linked to a question that mattered to them. It was not their question, it did not engage their interest and they just had to play the game to get to the end of the lesson where the fact would be revealed. They knew that the teacher knew the answer, many of the students probably already knew the answer, they certainly could have Googled it, and if they cared they probably would have.
Sometimes we do need to be the person asking the questions, sometimes we need to be the person transferring information; however, the quality of our questions, their power to engage and challenge thinking, combined with the opportunities we provide our students to ask the questions that matter to them are likely to be the times when the most powerful learning occurs. The challenge is to maximise these times.
By Nigel Coutts