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Learning to Ask the Right Questions

By Michael Griffin
Learning to Ask  the Right Questions

Consistently, the quality of teaching is recognized as the most important factor in elevating student achievement. So what makes an effective teacher? What exactly is it that sets good teachers apart? Answering these questions isn’t easy, as multiple factors are at play; the quality of the teacher/student relationship, for example, along with high expectations from adults, home environment, parental values, and teacher content knowledge, to name just a few. One indicator that stands out as particularly important is the pedagogy of the teacher. It seems clear that the most effective teaching pedagogy is one that offers metacognitive support. In other words, teachers are effective when they compel their students to think ever more deeply, drawing out student thinking with a continuous stream of open-ended questions. As John Hattie says, the best teachers tell their students hardly anything (Hattie 2009). Oh, the paradox! A major consideration in approaching all teaching and learning is determining who is doing the thinking. Who is wrestling with ideas and struggling to articulate them? Too often, it’s the well-intentioned teacher. But the teacher should not be working harder than the student for their learning. In his 1927 essay “The Dangers of Good Teaching,” Aldous Huxley writes: “For the clever schoolmaster makes things too easy for his pupils; he relieves them of the necessity of finding out things for themselves. By dint of brilliant teaching he succeeds in almost eliminating the learning process. He knows how to fill his pupils with ready-made knowledge, which they inevitably forget (since it is not their knowledge and costs them nothing to acquire), as soon as the examination for which it was required is safely passed.” This is not a novel concept. The great Enlightenment thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau said, “Let the student sit with the problem for a while and solve it. Let them know nothing because you have told them, but because they have learnt it for themselves. Let the children discover” (Dobinson 1969). Further back in time, Plato tells us the great teacher Socrates once said, “I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only hope to make them think.” And how did he do that? Questions, and lots of them! The most effective teachers ask questions in 90 percent of their utterances (Lepper and Woolverton 2002). They probe, hint, scaffold, tease… but they do not supply answers unless the situation dictates. These teachers do not let children off the hook with half-baked responses. They insist upon justification, elaboration, and reasoning. This drives thinking, and it is crucial. For if there is no thinking, there is no deep learning. Indeed, memory is the residue of thinking. Great questions drive curiosity and therefore thinking. Rousseau also suggested that the way to make a student insatiably curious is by not telling him or her the answer. When students develop the autonomous competence to work things out themselves, they become self-directed learners. Thinking requires the learner to internalize two or more different perspectives or views on an issue. This complex and demanding task is the hard work of learning, so we shouldn’t expect children to seek it of their own accord. It’s a lot easier to be told what to do and what to think than to think for yourself. I remember well a student who responded to my attempts at prompting self-evaluation by saying to me, “Sir, you’re the teacher, just tell me if it’s right or wrong!” Quality questioning has another significant benefit. It sends a message to students that the teacher believes in them. The message is one of high expectations, and high expectations are among the best predictors of student outcomes. Effective teachers allow longer “wait-time” after a question, allowing a pause for thinking and responding. Following a teacher’s question, the average wait-time in classrooms is less than 1.5 seconds, but more effective teachers allow the silence to linger longer, suggesting “You can figure this out without my help.” Teachers who are quick to solve a problem for students implicitly communicate that they are incapable of solving it for themselves. Answers do nothing for your brain—it’s the questions that pique interest. As soon as an answer is revealed, thinking declines. After a student has responded to a question, rather than confirm whether the response is correct or incorrect effective teachers ask a follow-up question, thereby extending wait-time. The education faculty at Harvard University has a favorite question: “What makes you say that?” This powerful follow-up demands further rumination. To enable higher-quality thinking, teachers prompt with words pertaining to process, such as: observe and describe, explain and interpret, make connections, identify and analyze, compare and contrast, classify, reflect upon, and predict. Teacher questions reflect contingencies and invite open responses. Would this work? Could we be thinking about this another way? When providing feedback, address method. As in: You’ve reasoned clearly. You’ve provided evidence to back it up. You’ve concluded, connected, extrapolated… Whether you are a parent or a teacher, find opportunities to ask higher-quality, open-ended questions to your students. Leaving factual or procedural questions aside, probe for ones that generate deep thinking. Insist upon quality responses that have been well-considered and reasoned, then respond in a manner that drives thinking even further. Observe the great conversations that follow! Harvard’s David Perkins (1992) says any substantial improvement in the learning capacity of society is unlikely to take place until metacognitive methods are more fully embraced. Quality questioning is the first step in engaging students in metacognitive learning, boosting their confidence and self-directed learning capacity. Michael Griffin is the author of Children and Learning – For Parents. As well as authoring seven books, he is an educator, keynote speaker, and provides teacher professional development for schools on growth mindset, metacognition, and motivation. He can be reached at [email protected].

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