Saturday, February 27, 2010

Questioning Questions

The power of questioning is very much under appreciated in traditional school.

Think about it. In a traditional classroom, who does the questioning? What's bad is that we all know that teachers typically ask all the questions, and when they do so the research shows that they wait less than a second before either asking a different question, rephrase it or answer it themselves.

I want to make two points. Firstly, teachers should not ask so many questions, and when they do, they need to provide far more wait-time so students have time to think of a meaningful response.

Here's what I mean:

For the teacher to ask all the questions is simply a waste of a valuable means of assessment. A good teacher never wastes the opportunity to have students do the wondering. Listeningto others questions can be a remarkable assessment tool. Consider these two lines of questioning:

Sally - "Are their different kinds of blood cells?"

Johnny - "What makes white blood cells so good at protecting other cells?"

Can you see how being privy to these students' line of questioning can help us determine their level of understanding?

Now, I'm not judging the kids by saying one question is dumb because I understand that before Johnny came to know of white blood cells, there is a very good chance he had to ask the very same question as Sally. The point is not that one question is better than the other, rather, they both illustrate a kind of curiousity that becomes infectious which leads to a viral kind of learning. Without Sally's question, it would have been unlikely Johnny could have asked his.

Could you use this as a way to judge students? Sure, if your into summative assessment, you can use anything as a weapon to judge students, but I am far more interested in using this information as just that - information that helps me to direct my teaching so that I may help the student to learn more which is more about formative assessment.

My second point is that teachers simply don't wait long enough. I call this the radio effect beacause while teaching, teachers can start to feel like they are on radio, and in radio the cardinal sin is dead air. So, when we ask a question, we can get quite impatient. We tend to want to avoid that dead air, so we fill it.

Problem is the classroom isn't radio. Think about the kinds of questions that can be answered in less that a second. They are typically one-word, right or wrong, mindless responses that contribute very little to learning anyways. They are questions we typically shouldn't be asking in the first place.

I would rather see teachers ask questions that require students develop a thouhtful response that requires an explanation that are difficult to judge as right or wrong.

If teachers use question period as a fishing expedition for right answers, they wasting a first-class opportunity to stretch their students' thinking.


  1. Great stuff to think about. I have 3 responses:

    1. In Failing at Fairness, Myra and David Sadker point out that teachers use a longer (still very short) wait time for boys than for girls.

    2. There's a book I like, about the value of students asking questions in math, The Art of Problem Posing, by Brown and Walter. I wonder if those ideas could easily extend to other subjects? Little kids are full of questions, but after a few years of school, most students want to wait for the teacher to ask the questions.

    3. I love your notion of the radio effect. Even though I've been aware for a long time of the issue of wait time being too short, I find it hard to be silent for long. I'd like to ask other teachers: What's the longest you've waited for an answer?

    5 or 10 seconds seems like an eternity, if you're not sure anyone's 'getting it'. The other evening I asked "what patterns do you see?" I'm sure I didn't leave it silent for more than 10 seconds. I reframed the question and waited again - hard!

  2. It is also said that almost 80% out of all 80 000 questions that teachers ask every year, are related to the lowest thinking process – simply knowing facts…

  3. Excellent post! I like the idea of the radio effect. How often do we find ourselves in that situation? It is hard!
    I will again take time this week to examine my questioning behaviour. And how to get myself out of it.
    With a new unit of inquiry starting, I love to hand over the thinking and wondering anyway. And what works better than removing yourself from the annoying center stage?

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful questions about questions, Joe! I think you would be happy to see (at least some aspects of) the new teacher evaluation system in Washington, DC, called IMPACT. Among other things, teachers are evaluated on how much they probe students' "correct" answers for higher-level thinking, and whether they give students appropriate wait time. Student questioning isn't explicitly prioritized yet, but it could definitely "count" under other themes like higher-level thinking.

    I have a little more detal about IMPACT in the last paragraph of this post:

  5. This was a considerable problem for me when I first started teaching. I like that I have a name for it now. I really was just afraid of dead air! Another problem is students will be anxious about answering if you put off impatient vibes while waiting.

  6. How about asking questions the teacher doesn't evn knlow the answer to? Can we say inquiry-based learning? Pose questions, don't ask them.

  7. My classes always have empty chairs. If no answer or comment is forthcoming then I sit down. It's easier to let dead airtime pass that way.


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