As teachers, we ask questions constantly. “Why didn’t you participate in class?” “What’s ¼ + ½?” “Who saves Scout and Jem from Bob Ewell?” The questions go on and on, all day, all week, all year.
We know from our teacher-training that is hugely important. The great Bob Marzano has said so, and who are we to question him? (Actually, we have every right to question him, and all the rest of our gurus, but that’s a topic for another day.) We need to give students ample time to process our questions and formulate their responses, and our sense of time is often very different from theirs. Every teacher I know has had training in this concept, but very few teachers seem to get much professional development on any other aspect of questioning, which is really shocking.
Questioning is the heart and soul of what we do. Questioning is teaching, and has been, all the way back to Socrates, who never did anything but ask questions. One could argue that in online schools, questioning is the primary “value add” that the teacher brings to the equation. After all, the core curriculum is already written, and the system “teaches” it to students without much direct involvement from us. Sure, we need to develop supplemental lessons, remediation lessons, and so on. But our most consistent and meaningful contributions to learning are the questions we ask our students, whether we ask those questions in a classroom, over email, by text-message, or on the phone.
The time we reserve for instruction is at a premium—for teachers as well as for students. We want to make sure that time spent is time well spent—for all of us. So the question for us to ponder, as educators, is: are the questions we’re asking students really questions worth asking? Why are we asking them? What are we hoping to get from them?
Looking back on my own classroom practice, I realize that a lot of the questions I asked were simply confirmation questions. I taught them X; I wanted to see if they learned X; so I asked them X; and they told me X. I call that a “confirmation question.” because I wasn’t really using it as formative assessment to learn anything new or interesting about student thinking. In fact, if I was looking for X and I got Z instead, I often said something like, “not quite,” and moved on to another student until I got my X.
Crazy! The most interesting data in the room was that Z….or that Q, or whatever wrong answer I was getting. And I passed right by them, surfing over all the wrong answers until I got the answer I wanted…which was the one piece of information I already knew.
Are we asking questions to get the answer we’re hoping for—confirming what good teachers we are? Or are we asking questions to uncover misconceptions or procedural errors so that we can help students learn? If it’s the latter, then we should be crafting our questions in much more interesting ways, to deliberately uncover goofy or mistaken thinking. Our “aha” moments as teachers shouldn’t come from the boring right answers; they should come from the interesting wrong answers. Even simple, fact-based questions can reveal so much about what students are thinking, if we set them up properly. Elizabeth Green talks about this at length in .
And what about the questions that we don’t know the right answers to, because each student will have a unique and different response? Those are beautiful, wonderful questions—and as a profession, we don’t ask nearly enough of them. I’m thinking of questions like:
- What makes you think that’s true?
- Why do you think that’s important?
- How did you figure it out?
- How else might you have been able to do that?
- What if I changed this one little fact? How would that change your answer?
These are the questions that give us insight into students’ minds, and help us see not only what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it. They are questions that focus on process: thinking process, problem-solving process, argumentation structure. They are questions that help students think about their own thinking, which is such a critical part of growth and maturity.
Yes, they take a long time. When we ask questions like these, we have to think, too, because there is no one, pre-ordained, correct answer that we can check off somewhere. We have to consider each response, sometimes probe for further information, reflect on what it all tells us about the student, and then take action on whatever insights we glean. But ultimately, that analysis, reflection, and action is exactly what requires us to be in the room with students, even if the room is an interactive whiteboard (or an asynchronous discussion thread).
Socrates had nothing but a patch of grass, a tree for shade, and a set of infuriating questions. How much more do we really need?