Standards Opinion

Good Questions Are Powerful Tools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 29, 2013 4 min read
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The school year has begun for many across the nation. They are several weeks into 2013 - 2014. The rest of us are preparing to begin next week. It is still early enough in the year to set our goals for this year and move forward with a beginner’s enthusiasm and purpose. We tend to set goals based on data and on the past. It constrains our creativeness. Goals most often sound like these: “We will raise the number of students who attain mastery on x assessment.” “We will lower the number of times students cut classes.” “We will improve morale.” etc. The next steps are somewhat informed but perhaps misguided. We want to achieve our goals; often we get distracted or the goals are achieved for one year and we move on without thought of sustainability.

For example, a common concern is over the students who fail to flourish in our classrooms. We spend time asking others and ourselves “Why do students fail to reach mastery?” We create action plans based upon our informed assumptions. What follows as a goal for the year might be that “We will raise the number of students achieving a ‘B’ in X subject.” How we do this in each of our environments will be different. Our needs and talents are different. Our resources are different. And the goal begins to feel like a heavy weight. Rick Hess’ analogy of Sisyphus rolling the bolder up a hill remains true. We begin feeling weighted down.

What might happen if we reversed the questions? What if the questions were “Why do some students achieve mastery in X subject?” “What makes certain students attend classes?” “What is being done in schools where morale is high?” They may seem like subtle differences, but the foundation on which the goal sits becomes quite different. It focuses us on what we are doing well. It invites us to examine our own practice to see if we can transfer our own very best to those who have not yet been its beneficiary. It helps us reinforce our understanding of what contributes to our successes. We begin moving toward our goals with some level of positive framework rather than a focus on what we are failing to do well.

Reframing questions is a challenge and a talent. A few may find this suggestion insincere or frivolous but we believe the right question makes a difference in the result and in the path to it. For some finding a new question comes naturally, but for most of us it is a learned skill. Changing the way we ask questions can make a lasting difference in our classrooms, and in the culture of our building and districts. The curricular challenge happening with the implementation of the Common Core presents an opportunity to focus on questions. Throughout the thirteen years of schooling our students are asked to give the right answers. Of course, we need a way to uncover what they do and do not understand and asking a question that has a right or wrong answer presents us with the information we need. And, of course, when we are given minutes in which to accomplish this we feel pressured and rushed to find out what they do and do not understand. We pass that pressure off to them. For the warriors among us, perhaps that is what we should be fighting for - a different time framework in which to accomplish our work. But while those who take on the role of warrior make our needs understood and fight for the conditions we need in order to be successful, others of us work to implement what is currently required while igniting the creativity of our faculty.

As we develop the courage to reframe the way we check for understanding, we will discover that our questions need to change. In our roles as leaders, in addition to our responsibilities as observers and evaluators of classroom practices, we deal with students, teachers, other staff, parents, and Boards of Education all the time. Problems arise. We most often see ourselves as problem solvers and move quickly to answers. We are, in fact, rewarded for that. Posing good questions creates a space for thought, reflection, and refocusing. When responding to requests for changes, we might ask how this change relates to our vision for our school or district. When trying to understand from where an issue is arising, we might ask why and keep asking “why” until there are no more answers and we better understand the issue. When faced with a situation in which there is discord, we might ask what it would look like if the discord was resolved. Then we would follow up and ask what exists in the distance between the current situation and the vision for the better one. Answers to act upon can be found in that distance.

Our teachers are beset with mandates for changes in curriculum and standards of practice. Thinking is a key in these changes. If we model a shift in practice in the way we interact with questions outside of the classroom, perhaps it may become easier for our teachers to shift the types of questions they are asking of their students. Good questions are not a matter for classrooms only. We have the opportunity to model the shift while nurturing an environment based on open and honest questions and a foundation focused on our existing successes.

Hess, Fredrick M. (2013). Cage-Busting Leadership.Cambridge: Harvard Education Press

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