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Education Opinion

No Questions for You!

By Nancy Flanagan — April 01, 2014 4 min read
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I remember the first time I heard teachers talk about scripted lessons and pacing charts. It was a group of Detroit teachers who were pursuing National Board Certification, and I had a hard time comprehending what they were telling me--every teacher on the same lesson, subdividing a pre-set block of time into prescribed, timed single-skill segments. Actual, physical scripts that they were compelled to read, no paraphrasing. Compliance monitors, who showed up at random times with clipboards. Objectives written on the board, and “progress” charted on the wall.

But--I asked the teachers--what if your students are beyond the assigned daily lesson and don’t need it repeated? What if they’ve already got that, and need something new to stay focused on this skill or strand? Or what if they need another day of practice to nail something down? Shrugs. You had to follow the pacing chart. Better to be in the “right” place than to slow down and make sure they’ve got it, or extend a lesson that captured your students’ imagination.

Which--when you think about--is the worst possible kind of teaching: following a pedagogical structure and rate set by someone who’d never met your students. Remote control. So much for the proverbial “teachable moment,” eh?

The candidates had already developed techniques in how to circumvent their mandated scripts--at least occasionally. Sometimes-- I found this incredibly sad--this involved having a sympathetic partner teacher stand guard while a teacher taught a favorite lesson that wasn’t on the pacing grid.

That was perhaps a decade ago. Since then, veteran teaching practitioners have become accustomed to having their on-site classroom decision-making challenged by a variety of “experts:" instructional coaches, outside evaluators, administrators, newspaper columnists, national mouthpieces, professional developers, and David Coleman. And, yeah, bloggers.

I was amused to see Avoiding the Trap of “Q & A Teaching” (at an Edutopia blog) spotlighted on several aggregators yesterday. I thought perhaps it was a April Fool’s story--who doesn’t actively want lots of questions and answers while teaching, especially with middle school and high school students, where disengaged silence signals the death spiral of learning?

But no--it’s a serious article, full of earnest advice about shutting off those pesky questions early on, scripting and rehearsing what must be said, timing the direct instruction portion of each lesson, and “raising the stakes” by letting students try unsuccessfully to solve the problem before the teacher steps in with the right procedure and answer (no advice on what to do if they actually solve it in their pointless thrashing about). Oh--and if necessary, videotape yourself.

Hey, I get it. Trying to derail an instructional moment by asking silly questions is a wildly popular classroom sport for students. I encountered it--well, pretty much every day for thirty years. Teachers are under no obligation to waste time if they’ve got something to get across, quickly and efficiently. But that falls under the category of Cutting to the Chase and Getting Stuff Done, which is completely different from “avoiding Q & A Teaching.”

It was difficult to tell where instructional strategies ended and classroom management began in the article. The point seemed to be that questions were a luxury. Cue the little flip-top heads riding the conveyer belt of received learning in “Waiting for Superman.”

Learning is interactive. Let me repeat that. Learning is social, discursive, and involves multi-directional communication. You can tell kids something--but unless you make it quick and the information is immediately applicable, they’re unlikely to absorb it in ways that you would call authentic learning. You might feel better if the principal strolls by and sees your class staring raptly at you, but that doesn’t mean they’re learning. And worst case scenario, you end up with something like this: No questions, no answers, just trained seals.

Teachers who host rich conversations in their classrooms (whether in kindergarten or high school civics class) do so by asking juicy questions, and not presuming they have the one right answer. Lots and lots of questions. Provocative and probing questions that make students uneasy or curious. And they practice, practice, practice. Discussion--taking turns, sharing viewpoints, deconstruction of ideas, asking questions--is a learned skill.

And let me speak up here for floundering--not being sure how to interpret that poem, read that graph or distinguish between evaporation and condensation. There’s something to be said for extended wrestling with un-mastered skills and content that isn’t immediately grasped. The purpose of letting students struggle, however, is not to prove that you, the teacher, have the answer--ta da! It’s to give students experience with uncertainty and problem-solving strategies.

Because the all-knowing teacher won’t always be there.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.