Teaching Opinion

Questioning Empowers Students, Deepens Their Humanity

By Marilyn Rhames — February 05, 2014 4 min read
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When I was pregnant a few of months ago and preparing for a scheduled cesarean section, I watched as many C-section videos on YouTube as I could find. I also asked my doctor a gazillion questions. In fact, I told my doctor ahead of time that I wanted her to walk me through the entire procedure—while she was doing it. (She conversed with me on and off, but made her priority communicating with the surgical staff.)

Since I was a little tot, I’ve always asked a lot of questions. I remember watching a TV sitcom with my mother and asking her what the actor’s word meant: “orgasm.” Her facial expression let me know that it was a word I should not repeat.

My first career as a reporter was perfect for me. If I annoyed people with the amount or the type of questions I was asking, I would counter back “Just trying to do my job.”

When my boiler started acting up over the weekend, I called a heating and cooling company to come to my house and check it out. The tech who came was a friendly guy, happily answering all my questions. Before he knew it, I was bleeding the radiators in the upstairs bedrooms while he was forcing water through the boiler system in the basement. Though I was paying him to fix my heat, I offered to roll up my sleeves and help. Why? Because it’s my house and I need to understand how valves and meters in the heating unit worked.

In the end, I asked enough questions to discern that I didn’t really need to make the $507 repair he had originally quoted. He eventually confessed that the flat $75 service fee was all that was required to keep my family warm this winter.

Questioning. It’s the key to getting a quality education. Without questioning, one cannot be an informed consumer. One cannot truly figure out what she wants out of life and form a strategy for getting it.

Asking good questions is the hallmark of good teaching. Jesus Christ, for example, built his public ministry largely on asking people questions, and his effectiveness as a teacher is rather obvious.

But it’s not just the teacher asking questions to teach; it’s also the students asking questions to learn. Teachers are not Jesus—we can’t read our students’ minds or perform miracles! It’s vital that students know they must advocate for their own learning by asking their teacher questions, either to clarify or to challenge—or both.

And questioning is not always verbal. I prefer that a student looks up a word in the dictionary rather than to ask me how to spell it. A question that can be answered through proactive research and inquiry is almost always better than one that is presented verbally to a teacher.

Students have to understand that they have the power to teach themselves and each other, and my joy as a teacher is to facilitate that type of learning. I want to use questioning to empower my students, not to build their co-dependence on me.

Here are four of my tips to inspire a culture of quality student questioning in the classroom:

  1. You have to really want to know the answer to the question. Asking questions just to hear yourself talk is annoying.
  2. You have to be a good listener. Asking questions that you would know the answer to if you were paying attention in class is also extremely annoying.
  3. You have to understand that research and inquiry-based learning is often the best way to question. Don’t just trust a teacher’s answer; it’s okay to verify an answer or find it yourself.
  4. You have to expect that one answered question may create more questions and be willing to keep seeking answers until you are satisfied. This is what it means to be a “life-long learner.”

I find that the hardest intellectual decision teachers have to make is what content to directly, explicitly teach and what to leave open for students to learn through a process of questioning, dialogue, and self discovery. Finding the perfect balance of direct instruction and student inquiry is a tension that is pulled even tighter by the constraints of time in the school day.

Yesterday, I’m sitting in the dentist chair getting a root canal—true story. I tell my dentist upfront that he will have to give me a triple dose of local anesthesia. He thanks me for telling him but I can tell he doesn’t believe me (after all, what does she know about dentistry?). After waiting and waiting for the area to fully numb, he resolves to give me a jaw block, which shuts down the nerve on the entire lower side of my mouth.

I ask him to walk me though the root canal and let me see the nerve after he’s extracted it. He thinks I’m a little weird, and calls me “Doc” as a joke. When I ask him why he doesn’t offer nitrous oxide (laughing gas) or full sedation, he tells me that his college roommate had died in a dental chair. He was sedated to have general dentistry and oral surgery all done at at once, and he never woke up.

A dentist whose good friend died in the hands of a dentist ... I knew he would do his very best to take care of me.

If nothing else, asking questions can make us draw closer to our collective humanity. When we crave to know each other’s stories, we realize that all of our trophies and all of our scars help us define what means to be alive.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course 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.