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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Questions Are to a Teacher What the Lasso of Truth Is to Wonder Woman’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 27, 2017 20 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here and Part Three here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can teachers use questions most effectively in the classroom?

Part One‘s commentators were Jeri Asaro, Dan Rothstein, Diana Laufenberg, Rebecca Mieliwocki, Jenny Edwards, Scott Reed, Cara Jackson, and Ben Johnson. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jeri and Dan on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s contributors were Sean Kelly, Sidney D’Mello, Shelly Lynn Counsell, Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman, Rachael Williams, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm.

In Part Three, Tan Huynh, Laura Robb, Judy Reinhartz, Ph.D, and Erik M. Francis shared their suggestions.

Today’s post features responses from Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD, Kara Pranikoff, Starr Sackstein, Jackie A. Walsh, Andrew Miller, and Brian D. Schultz.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD, provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

Questions are to a teacher what the Lasso of Truth is to Wonder Woman, and what his utility belt is to Batman. Questions are the tools that—when used well—are both a source and expression of brilliant teachers’ super powers. Skilled teachers use questions to inspire curiosity, to elicit emotional responses, and to ignite connections. A major key to using questions effectively in the classroom is to keep a clear and unambiguous sense of how they are intended to raise the level of rigor and invite students’ cognitive engagement. Successful design of learning experiences entails the centering of students’ thinking so that they are compelled to execute some mental function (i.e. synthesizing, applying, analyzing, interpreting) in order to extend and appropriate their own continually emerging understandings. Make this design-goal your first priority.

In considering how to most effectively use questions in the classroom, I suggest you follow the lead of your favorite tennis player. By that, I mean to think in terms of “serve-and-return.” The best questions for any given learning experience are those that set up a dynamic and powerful volley of ideas and exchanges in the classroom. Sometimes “serve-and-return” experiences are person-to-person spoken conversations—but they don’t have to be that exclusively. In Socratic Seminars for example, I’ve learned from teachers how to set up real-time message boards for “back-channel’ers” that allow students on the outer-circle to comment on the inner-circle’s discussion. I like to pre-load sentence-starting phrases when using message boards for students’ conversations, so they can merely cut-and-paste language that frames their own thinking. It’s important in serve-and-return experiences to strategically remove any unnecessary encumbrances to your students’ engagement. To support a freer flow of thought, for example, coach your students into being able to manage a discussion without raising their hands so that they can practice their social skills for listening and responding without interrupting.

I’ve found that classrooms where students engage with questions well are also spaces where students have opportunities to develop the confidence and capacities for asking their own questions that promote deeper thinking. To encourage this, I show models of interviews—either from YouTube or with people of interest right in the classroomand ask the students to predict what kinds of answers the interviewees might give. (This is also an excellent platform for defining open-ended and closed-ended questions.) Most importantly, I am seeking to engineer scenarios in which students can frame questions, anticipate how the questions are tools for eliciting specific types of information, and have their questions taken seriously in the classroom community. In this way, the act of designing questions itself can yield rich opportunities to create authentic and affirming experiences where students make salient contributions to the learning in the classroom community.

In supporting students to become more comfortable and skilled in using questions in the classroom, it is also important that we teachers model how to say “I don’t know...” or “I need more information to clarify my position.” Many students perceive “I don’t know” as either an escape route or a dead-end for their participation in a discussion. Rather, students should know how to say, “I don’t have an opinion on that, yet...” as a first step in further identifying gaps in their own understandings. When students don’t know how to answer a question, a superb classroom norm is the expectation that they themselves develop and post in some public space a question which helps to elucidate their misunderstandings.

While there are many time-tested methods and protocols, it’s always the teacher’s understanding of the targets for students’ thinking that allow for the most skillful facilitation of questions in the classroom. Brilliant teachers use questions to draw students into relationship with both content and communities of learners. A successful learning experience designed around rich questions (or meaningful opportunities for students to compose questions themselves) can be a powerful mechanism for closing gaps and improving learning opportunities for all of our students.

Response From Kara Pranikoff

Kara Pranikoff is a literacy coach at a public school in New York City. She has recently published a book, Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation (Heinemann, 2017) that shares many ways to keep the balance of classroom discussion in the hands of the students:

Questions in the classroom are hardly a new instrument. Socrates promoted learning through dialog, citing questions as the primary tool a teacher uses to promote student thinking. Vygotsky and the Constructivists saw the questions teachers ask students, and those that students ask themselves, as the catalyst to construct knowledge. If we fundamentally believe in the reciprocity of talking and thinking, then students must get priority in both areas. Our classroom is the place where students can develop the stamina to grapple with complex problems independently. Questioning in the current classroom must continue to be used for its greatest potential: to support students in thinking themselves toward understanding.

Somehow, our focus has become muddied. A simple search calls up an abundance of tools to help teachers—a hierarchy of questions that push for deeper thought, support in drafting questions before the lessons, queries tailored for specific text or concepts. The density of this information can be dizzying, and lead teachers to believe that the precision of the question determines student engagement.

Instead, let’s aim for clarity. Questions are simply used to support independent thought. With this grounding point, questions must be open-ended and readily applicable to many situations. The goal of the questions a teacher uses need to be easily internalized so that students can develop the stamina to push their own thinking, even without an external questioning prompt. With these grounding points, there is a short repertoire of question I see skilled teachers come back to again and again:

  • What are you thinking?
  • What is giving you that idea?
  • How could we find out?
  • Explain what you do understand?

    • How can that understanding help you clarify what’s confusing?
  • What are you going to try first?

    • What will you try next?
  • What resource might support you?
  • Is this similar to anything you’ve tried before?

These serve as effective questions to stimulate thought with the caveat that teachers also give students the space to tune into their own thinking. Idea building naturally leads to self-generated questions, and the independent questioning and thinking of our students is an invaluable resource that we want to harness. Even in the whole-class setting, we must keep our eyes on the power of student curiosity to propel learning. Our instruction can be grounded in student-driven inquiry.

Here are some easy shifts in instruction that allow the student community to ask and answer their own questions.

  • Use student wonderings about a shared text to open whole-class discussions and allow the explanations to be created through student discussion.
  • Build in regular time for students to articulate their understanding and ask questions of each other during whole-group instruction. Simply inquire, What are you thinking? and ask them to turn and talk with a partner to work it out.
  • Give students the opportunity to determine importance and synthesize across content or days of instruction. Students can record their most salient ideas, share these ideas with the whole class and reflect on the thinking of their peers. Teachers can ask, Where are the commonalities? Where are the gaps? What holes do we need to fill in before we move on?

We want students to linger with their thinking, and their questions to grow ideas. Building understanding takes time and space and is most engaging when self-directed. We want students to leave with the ability to pursue their own interests and curiosities. Our use of questioning in the classroom has the ability to help develop these life-long skills.

Response From Starr Sackstein

Starr Sackstein is a New York City High School English teacher and instructional coach. She is the author of several books, one of which is The Power of Questioning: Opening up the World of Student Inquiry (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015):

Questions are at the forefront of everything we do as educators. They both drive our understanding of content and force us to dig deep beneath the surface as we explore what still needs uncovering.

As teachers, the way we use questions largely determines who will be in control of the learning. This is why it is imperative to both teach students to question deeply and provide them opportunities to follow their own lines of inquiry.

In every classroom teachers have a choice as to who will be in charge of the discussion. Rather than prepare a slew of pre-answered questions in our lesson plans, we must build in space for what students are curious about. This can be done in several ways.

One way to allow students to dig deeply into content through questioning is to give them a reading or project to explore. They can do this independently or in groups. Students should be asked to examine closely whatever they have been provided that will offer content of some kind. Either independently, in pairs, or small groups students should be asked to write a series of questions about what they are reading.

Prior to this lesson, the teacher should go over with students the questioning taxonomy so they understand the different levels of questions and how to ask more complex ranges of questions that beg more open-ended answers. Manipulatives or charts with question starters should be handy as students create their questions for the class.

Once the initial list of questions is created, students can peer review to ensure that their groups provided a variety of kinds of questions based on the content. If revision is needed, allow time for students to improve questions to move away from simple fact-based comprehension level questions.

All the questions should be compiled and then students should select randomly to get the conversations started. To ensure many students participate, have questions from different groups circulate through new small groups first. Give students time to explore the question they pick and then open up the class discussion to wonderings that came out of those questions.

During this time, the teacher can circulate through the groups to overhear the questions, gather data and encourage students to share their ideas when they return to the larger class discussion.

Rather than having students seek answers to their questions as the final product of the activity, students should generate new questions that came from the exploration of earlier questions. These can be used to propel interest moving forsakes with the content and keep students engaged.

Response From Jackie A. Walsh

Jackie A. Walsh, author and consultant located in Montgomery, Ala., focuses her work on quality questioning. With Beth Sattes, she has co-authored five books on questioning, including Quality Questioning, 2nd Edition (Corwin, 2017) and Questioning for Classroom Discussion (ASCD, 2017). Follow Jackie on @Question2Think:

Questions are to teaching and learning as music is to dancing. Quality questions draw students into an interactive process, establish the desired rhythm and beat for a class dialogue, and provide feedback to both partners in the process—in the case of questioning to both the teacher and the students. Further, intentional use of effective questioning strategies encourages all students to get into the action, even as a well-chosen musical set attracts all to the dance floor. None of this happens by chance. Skillful questioners, like successful DJs, prepare their sets in advance, taking their audience into consideration, with the goal of optimizing the thinking and learning of all.

Productive questioning begins with teacher planning—preferably collaboratively—prior to class. Careful crafting of 2-4 focus questions stimulates the thinking requisite to mastery of daily learning targets. Such questions align with curriculum standards, help students make connections between new learning and prior knowledge, purposefully advance students along the learning progression, engage students at the highest level of challenge, and communicate clearly and concisely the knowledge and cognitive demands for a response. Such questions are also planned to generate student responses that will provide teachers feedback they can use in deciding next instructional moves.

A well-framed question, like a good musical score, is but the first step in activating a dynamic process. In classrooms where teachers are using questions effectively, they partner with students to develop a shared understanding regarding the purposes of questions: activating and deepening thinking and dialogue for all students and providing teachers and students information for use in moving learning forward. In these classrooms, students understand that they cannot rely on volunteers (who raise their hands first!) to answer, and teachers select response structures that match the question and engage all in thinking and preparing their responses. Collaborative response structures—from the simplest, Think-Pair-Share, to those using more complex protocols—provide opportunities for all to talk through their understandings, thereby leveling the playing field. Students understand that their teacher poses questions to find out where they are in their learning so that each can receive the necessary scaffolding for mastery. The classroom culture, intentionally co-created with students, is one in which learners feel safe taking risks to respond even when they are not certain of the correctness of their thinking and one in which they are comfortable building on one another’s thinking—and disagreeing respectfully.

Another questioning practice that supports every students’ thinking and responding is the use of think times (a.k.a wait times). If a question is worth asking, students need time to think prior to responding—time to translate the question, retrieve related knowledge from long-term memory, and silently construct their responses. A pause of 3-5 seconds prior to the naming of a student to respond, Think Time 1, allows all students sufficient time to move through this process. Think Time 2, another 3-5 second pause, occurs after the named speaker stops talking. This second pause affords the speaker with opportunity to add to, modify, and/or deepen his thinking; it offers listening students time to self-assess, deciding if they agree or disagree with the speaker’s response—and why. Again, students don’t automatically use silences for these purposes. Students, like dancers, need to learn the moves—in this case, what to do with the silences.

Quality questions are necessary, but not sufficient, to classroom discourse that enhances learning. Teachers who use questions effectively provide their students time, support, and accountability for thinking and responding. In their classrooms, questions serve as music attracting students into a dance of learning characterized by moves that support thinking and interaction. Students don’t fear missteps because they have co-created classroom cultures where they are comfortable learning from both right and wrong answers and from one another.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller started his teaching career at a traditional high school in the areas of English and Social studies. He then transferred to be founding faculty member at a new school focused on Project Based Learning and STEAM education. After successfully implementing numerous projects across grades 6-12 he took the opportunity to become a full-time faculty member of the Buck Institute for Education, where we he traveled internationally to work with teachers to implement PBL across all grade levels. He has been with the Institute since 2010. He is also a consultant with ASCD and writes regularly for Edutopia. Currently, Andrew is back in the day-to-day work of education at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China where he serves as an instructional coach:

Questions are not only powerful engagement and inquiry tools, but they are also good tools for checking for understanding, feedback and to have students do the thinking in the feedback process. A skilled teacher can ask the “just-right” questions to check for understanding. Constructing different levels of questions, from surface to deep, can allow us to see the depth of learning of students.

However, simply crafting a great question is the end in the process or really checking for understanding. Sometimes just stopping at one question may not reveal what a child really knows. Children are often great at given the right answer, but simply answering may not be truly understanding something. When you ask a question, we might be tempted to immediately evaluate with a “Good” and then move on assuming the child knows. This may or may not be true. Instead, teachers should ask probing questions to get even deeper. “Why do you think that?” “Why is that important?” Questions like these allow us to reveal deeper thinking as well as potential misunderstandings or misconceptions.

In addition, as teachers work with students and use these questions to see what they know, they can ask questions to push student thinking in a different direction. A teacher might notice an error and ask a student about that error and their thinking behind it, not to “catch them” with the error, but to have the student discover it themselves. We’ve all had that moment when we ask a question to help students notice an error and the “light bulb” goes off in their head. Here, teachers facilitate feedback and self-assessment instead of simply correcting and do the thinking for students. Questions can both check for learning and promote it.

Response From Brian D. Schultz

Brian D. Schultz is Professor and Chair of the Department of Teacher Education at Miami University. Prior to joining the faculty at Miami, Brian served as Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor and Chair of the Department of Educational Inquiry & Curriculum Studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. His book, Teaching in the Cracks: Openings and Opportunities for Student-Centered, Action-Focused Curriculum, was recently published by Teachers College Press:

Questions as Curriculum

When I am working with aspiring teachers, I like to challenge them to share their definitions of curriculum. Undoubtedly, these future educators discuss ideas inherent to what they have become conditioned to think about in terms of teaching and learning: standards, lesson plans, scope and sequence, and the things that go into making the technical aspects of classrooms happen.

While affirming most of my students’ suggestions as they construct this complementary meaning of curriculum, I offer a variation.

The variation often disrupts their more commonplace descriptions. The variation centers on perennial questions about worth and the power and potential in having young people ask questions about what they see as pressing in their lives and their communities. Leaning heavily on the celebrated work of William Schubert, I propose to my students that a definition of curriculum may be an act of trying to answer the what’s worthwhile questions: what is worth knowing, doing, being, thinking about, wondering, and pondering. I then contend that the future teachers can and should bring this kind of alternative definition of curriculum to their students in their classrooms.

Acknowledging that this could be abstract and philosophical argument, I go beyond telling them about this alternative and suggest ways that they can begin by asking young people to name issues in the community that they want to solve. I provide them with concrete examples of what this can look like from my own classroom teaching experiences and from teachers whose classrooms I have spent time seeing this kind of problem-posing, student-centered, and action-focused curriculum in action. In such classrooms, the young people’s questions focus issues, concerns, problems, and ideas most important to them as a starting point for a curriculum-in-the-making. Allowing children—clearly those who have the most at stake in classrooms—to ask questions as curriculum provides spaces, opportunities, and challenges the young people with the responsibility to discover and explore, to document and critically think, to deliberate and debate, to respond and take action, and to ultimately ask more questions. Utilizing such an approach, teachers have a chance to honor their students, create culturally and contextually relevant and responsive curriculum, and motivate and engage their students because the young people see purpose, value, and intrigue in studying the very questions they find important.

Thanks to Adeyemi, Kara, Starr, Jackie, Andrew and Brian for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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