If you want to make a massive change in the culture of your classroom, start paying attention to who asks the questions and whom they ask. There are three possibilities:
- The teacher asks a student a question.
- A student asks the teacher a question.
- A student asks another student a question.
Let’s tackle perhaps the least likely of the three: students asking other students questions.
I immediately thought of the Junior Great Books program we used in my district. In this reading program, students learn to ask each other questions to clear up confusion and explore ambiguous ideas about a story they’ve read.
The key to getting students to ask more questions is preparation. Students’ homework is to:
- Read the story twice.
- Write down at least five questions of any kind – big or small, closed or open.
That’s right: questions are homework, not answers!
Of course, the reading material must be interesting enough to generate actual questions. And, yes, this example is from Language Arts but any puzzling situation would work. More on that below.
You’re The Facilitator
The next day, students ask each other (not you) their questions. You facilitate (keep quiet students involved, resolve disputes, move the discussion along, etc), but you don’t clear up confusion, answer questions, or contribute your opinion. You bounce questions back to your class or, when necessary, ask your own juicy question to get things moving again. (Yes, you need to prepare your own questions as well).
This will require a clear statement from you upfront:
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 there’s no need to raise your hands! Let’s get started with Jimmy. Jimmy, what’s a question that you had about the story?
And then allow another student to answer or build upon Jimmy’s question.
This will be as difficult for you as it is for students. Trust me. Junior Great Books actually offers a two-day workshop on how to run an inquiry-based discussion like this. It’s the most fun PD I ever attended.
Scaffold this with sentence frames to structure a discussion. My district built up a list with ideas like:
- 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.
I taught 6th graders at an elementary school and I greatly benefitted from previous teachers’ work. My kids were often already familiar with using these frames to address each other. It was actually kind of magical to watch.
If you’re starting fresh, you’d teach these sentence frames as a lesson. Practice practice practice. Kids will get the hang of it. Yes, even 1st graders. And, yes, I have a video about this topic for kids!
This Discussion Is Fun!
Running a discussion like this is a blast. Once students get comfortable (which may take a session or two – or seven), you get a really dynamic, scholarly 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 (these are provided by Junior Great Books), but a complex problem from social studies, an interesting science video, or a perplexing math situation would also provoke student questions.
You could certainly use my weekly Puzzlements mailer as a way to practice student-to-student question-asking.