Stimulated by Bob Tiede, it occurs to me that good teaching requires good questions. Too often, we teachers think of questions as the stuff of quizzes and exams, not the essence of teaching. And don’t get me wrong, many teachers are good communicators who can deliver very nice, interesting and informative lectures. But, my observation and experience suggest that teaching involves lots more than mere communications. For the highly motivated students, communications is sufficient for their learning. Which is to say, they can read the textbook and learn what they need.
Experienced teachers will verify what I just wrote. The top students will learn regardless of instructional quality. Likewise, for the very bottom students, the best teacher in the world will not make them learn. The target for good teachers is that large number of students in the middle who have not yet figured out to which of these two groups they belong. And good teachers will tell you that one of the greatest rewards of teaching is seeing “the light come on” for one of these mid-group students.
Jesus the Christ was the greatest teacher who ever lived. Jesus asked lots and lots of questions. In fact Bob has compiled 339 questions that Jesus asked. Take a look. Jesus sought to teach at the deepest level. He was not happy with changed behavior, His goal was a changed heart.
“Who do men say that I am? Asked the Messiah.
“What does the Law say, how does it read to you?” Asked the Rabboni.
“Who, by taking though can add one cubit to his lifespan?” Asked the Teacher of the Sermon on the Mount with a big smile (it’s a joke embodying truth).
So why did the greatest Teacher ask so many questions? Well, what happens in you when someone asks you an engaging question?
That’s right, you go from listening mode (or maybe daydreaming mode) to thinking mode. And mostly good things happen in students when they begin to think. By using engaging questions you can capture students’ attention and get them to begin thinking about the topic on their own.
Your class will pay close attention to how you respond to wrong answers. If a wrong answer results in embarrassment for the respondent, the number of potential respondents will drop sharply.
A common mantra among teachers who use questions is, “Pose, pause, pounce.” That is you pose a useful open-ended instructional question, then you give them time to formulate an answer, then you call on someone.
What should we do? First, after posing the question we look at everyone for any non-verbal ques as to who knows the answer. A frantically waving raised hand would be a clue. I recommend then making it clear that every student answer is “right” even if it is totally off-base. How would you do that? You’d probably say, “What Chloe was saying is, ——, ——, —–. And you provide the right answer. Or, if you know who is likely to actually have the correct answer, you can go from the wrong answer to the person with the right answer, and then make sure everyone understands which part was correct.
With a little practice, you can learn to make every answer “right’. The important thing is to make every respondent feel safe, without any fear of embarrassment. This type of atmosphere starts with the opening moments of the first class, and every succeeding class. One way to do this is to start the first class with a very easy question. “What is your name, where did you grow up, and what do you want to do after you graduate?” Even with large classes, you can ask a few students each class meeting.
Whenever I had less than 45 students, I asked at least one question of every student every 75-minute class meeting. Although most questions will arise from the material, some general questions can also be used in most any class. Here are a few:
“How can this information be utilized in ___________ (future employment)?
“Anyone have any questions from your assignment on _____?
“What would you say are the key points from _____ topic/reading/section?
(Then call on another student to answer questions that arise.)
About 15 years back I had the privilege of having about 9 contact hours with over 50 very attentive professors of the University of Herat in western Afghanistan. The morning after my first talk, I was accosted by a young female University student. “What did you tell my professor yesterday?” she boldly demanded. Understand that this boldness was very unusual in her culture.
“Well I spoke for three hours and covered a lot, can you tell me what happened?”
She responded, “Our professor started class by saying, ‘All you extraverts have to be quiet so we can hear from the introverts.’ I am paying tuition and I want to be able to ask and answer questions in class!”
She was rightfully complaining about her overzealous prof’s misguided efforts to hear from the introverts in this class. I am an extravert, and we tend to want to answer every question even before it is fully stated. In contrast, the introverts in the class, who typically have the best answers, just want to think it over one more time… I can’t tell you how many occasions after class an introvert has come up and made a brilliant observation that would have benefitted the whole class if I had been wise enough to elicit it during the class meeting. But, by calling on every student at least once each class meeting, the introverts as well as the extraverts have the opportunity to answer at least one question.
Helping students learn to respond to questions is valuable but helping them to learn to ask good questions is also of great value. I tell my students that they will encounter many interesting, knowledgeable, valuable people, and they need to learn to ask good questions of them. I tell them that asking good questions is a learned ability that takes practice. And, by the way, asking questions during class time is a good way to learn. Plus when they ask questions it slows me down so I cover less material to study for in exams. Plus, if they are good at asking questions, I will slant the class toward their particular interests. And finally, by asking good questions, it keeps both them and me from drifting off the topic.
So, ask yourself, how can I use good questions in my teaching? How can I use questions to make sure they are paying attention, and learning as much as they can? How can I entice them to really learn?
“Education is not filling a bucket, it is lighting a fire!” William Butler Yeats
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