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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The importance of asking questions.

Some of the reading I have been doing for my education class lately has made me think about the great importance of learning how to ask the right questions.  Of all the qualities that a teacher must have, I think that being able to use question asking as a type of scaffolding or participation in students' ZPDs is one of the most difficult to refine, but most important to eventually achieve. 

I don't even know if calling it scaffolding is quite the right way to describe it.  I certainly don't want to control my students' thoughts through the use of question-asking.  I want to guide them so that they can articulate, either in words or in writing, what it is that they are thinking or feeling.

As the author of the book I am reading (the book is called ...And with a Light T0uch ) describes certain things she does in the classroom and conversations she has with her students, I am just kind of flabbergasted.  She seems to make every word she utters important, every question she asks helps her students develop as readers, writers, talkers, and people.   As my professor pointed out, the author of this book has been teaching for 20+ years and has done a lot of personal classroom research, so of course she's going to be good.  But still, reading this book kind of makes me feel jealous of her.  I want to be that good.

Before reading this book, and being asked to think about the things this book has made me think about, I knew question asking was important.  Of course I know that I am supposed to ask open-ended "higher level thinking" questions.  Reading this book and seeing the ways the teacher uses questions makes me put that rote knowledge into a different frame of mind.  The questions she asks aren't created ahead of time to direct the students' learning.  The questions she asks are based off of what the students have chosen to talk about in class.  She creates the questions on the spot in response to what has been going on in the classroom.  The students lead the topic, not the teacher.  The teacher in this case works to make the students think more deeply than they perhaps would have, had they not been asked these other questions.  But she never leads them in a direction.  She never forces them to think about something they don't want to think about.  The questions she asks are not directive, they are exploratory.

I have noticed that one of my professors asks questions like these.  She seems to intuitively know what to ask me to make me articulate whatever idea I have started to develop in my mind.  After I say something she will ask, "What makes you think that?"  She somehow manages to hone in on whatever aspect of the reading I want to talk about, but haven't developed fully enough in my thoughts to feel comfortable sharing with the class.  When that happens, she asks questions that allow my thoughts to become coherent to myself.  She's not directing me toward her thinking; she is guiding me so that I better understand my own thinking.

I think the ability to ask questions like the author of the book and like my professor is a skill that must be developed.  At first, I was going to say that I thought it was a gift, but that's not true.  I don't think it is something you either have or you don't have.  It is a quality that you can possess after time, effort, and experience.  Some people may become better at asking questions after shorter periods of times, while for others it may take longer.  But if you want to be able to ask the right questions, you will be able to.  At least, I want to believe that with enough effort and self-monitoring of the ways I use talk in my classroom, I too will develop into someone who can ask questions that help my students grow into complex thinkers.


Anonymous the reflective teacher said...

You're absolutely right. It takes time to develop this skill, and my assumption is that this skill will need to be redifined for each group of students you teach.

When I was a college student (not so long ago), I was amazed at the fact that one of my professors could lead me into articulating my thoughts beyond what I'd already said. He was just so adept and understanding in his questioning that he led me to places I hadn't considered.

As a student teacher I tried these same techniques but my questions led nowhere. Over time, during the student teaching, I started to understand which questions were necessary and which were avoidable, and with that set of students, I learned to find which answers were avoidable/redirectable.

When I entered my own classroom, I had to start all over again. As time's moved on I can tell which students will ask questions, I can tell which questions will lead us into a deeper discussion, and I've learned how to shut down unimportant questions or redirect the thought process with my own questions.

This si not to say that I am great at leading my students, but that it does take (LOTS) of time and (LOTS) of practice to become the type of teacher you want to be.

I'm happy with my classes these days, and I just told another teacher that I feel I've hit a stride with my students. This has come at a cost, though, and the realization that the year is nearly over makes me think about all the mistakes I've made, the errors in questioning, the misleading, the allowance for disruptive chatter.

I think my classes will grow because of this type of questioning, and I hate to think about the fact it's come so late in the game. I'll assume I'll use this year's knowledge to direct next year's teaching.

When you get into the classroom, you'll see. You'll see.

5:42 PM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

I'm sure I am not as good as the author of the book you referred to but questioning is important. I remember not being as confident a few years ago. I had to really plan my questions and strategies. I am now able to do more spur of the moment questioning based on their questions to me and by things/behaviors I observe as I'm teaching. This increase in confidence comes from one important area of my "toolbox"----my knowledge of the curriculum. I know what I teach inside and out. I came into it knowing a large amount of material, but I work my rear off learning more facts, more interesting tid-bits everyday. When you know your content the questions, from low end to higher end, just come to you. Good post---I need to get that book! I posted about this very thing in early February I believe ( maybe January). I wrote about a series of questions I asked my 4th graders attempting them to connect Connecticut's Fundamental Orders and the Constitution. I think the post title was something like "Teaching the 13 Colonies".

9:17 PM  
Blogger Not Quite Grown Up... said...

Reflective Teacher - Thanks for the comment (and all the mentions on your page!) As you said, hopefully time and lots of practice (and lots of not too horrible mistakes) will have me developing into a good question-asker. Thank you for the insight from someone who has recently gone through the process of learning how to ask questions. The point you made, about how successful questions to your class when you were student teaching were different than successful questions to your current classes this year, is interesting. I guess it makes sense though. All the students are different, they all learn differently, they will need to be asked different questions to get them to learn and understand in the necessary ways.

Elem. History Teacher - in regards to what you said about knowing the content, I agree for the most part. You can't teach what you don't know. But at the same time, I think it might be possible to question the students in productive ways about things you don't entirely know. I'll have to think about this idea more, and I'm not saying it quite right. But, much of the questioning I am talking about is not really about directly learned things. It's more about...what's going on in the students' heads, and how to help them take what's in their heads and put it into words or on paper. I will never know what in their heads until they do get it out, somehow. So in that case, I don't really know the content ahead of time.

10:57 AM  
Blogger nick said...


6:10 AM  

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