Asking questions is such a basic tool of teaching, yet how many of us have ever been taught to ask good questions?
This is the start of a series about questioning. We’ll connect to the last series on Talking Less, since questions are a perfect tool to increase student talk time.
Who Asks Whom?
As we dig into questioning, who asks the questions in your classroom? And whom is asked? What’s the pie chart look like for these three options:
- Teacher asks a student a question.
- A student asks teacher a question.
- A student asks another student a question.
If you’re very brave, record yourself teaching for ten minutes (just audio’s fine) and listen back (maybe with a glass of wine!).
And Check out these slick animated GIFs illustrating each situation.
Student Vs Student
Certainly, that last option is most intriguing. Students asking other students questions? How strange!
Do students even feel allowed to ask each other questions during a lesson? Do you feel comfortable with this?
It certainly breaks typical classroom expectations. Yet, a class where students ask each other to clarify, expand on, and defend their thinking is clearly a powerful place.
So, how do we get students to ask each other questions?
Your Homework: Ask Questions
I immediately thought of the Junior Great Books program. In this series, students ask each other direct questions to clear up confusion and explore ambiguous ideas about a story they read.
The key is preparation: students’ homework was to write down questions (any kind – big or small, closed or open) while they read their story.
That’s right: questions are homework, not answers!
Plus, reading material has to be ambiguous and open to interpretation. Grade-level texts may not cut it.
Then, in class, students ask each other, not you, their questions. You facilitate (and keep quiet students involved), but you never become the authority.
This is key – you never clear up confusion, answer questions, or contribute opinions. You bounce questions back to your class.
This might require a clear statement up front from you:
Normally, you all ask me questions, and I try to answer them, or I ask you questions that you answer. We’re going to be trying something new. You will ask each other questions about last night’s reading. I’m going to try very hard to stay out of it. Feel free to speak up, but no need to raise your hands! Let’s get started with Jimmy. What is a question you had?
A second key is to give students sentence frames to structure their discussion:
- I agree/disagree with [classmate] because…
- I’d like to add to what [classmate] said…
- [classmate], can you explain what you meant by…
- [classmate] what do you think about…
- I’m confused by [confusing thing], can you explain it [classmate]?
- Ok, [classmate] convinced me. I’ve changed my mind.
Since all students have questions from their homework, you can simply call on someone to get the ball rolling if they’re hesitant.
This Is Fun
Running a discussion like this is a blast. Once students get comfortable (which may take a few sessions), you get an amazing culture going:
- curiosity is encouraged
- uncertainty is accepted
- students become each others’ resources
- and you get to stop talking so much!
A nice juicy story works well, but a complex social studies situation, an interesting science video, or a perplexing math problem could certainly provoke questions rather than answers.
Try it out, and please let me know how it goes!
Photo by Debord