Teaching Opinion

Teachers and Leaders: Avoid Closed Questions

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 21, 2014 3 min read
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Good lessons are designed to allow for a check of understanding before moving too far along and leaving students behind. Teachers are masters at developing questions, sometimes on the fly, that require students to quickly reveal that they “get it”. One or two students, or in a handheld classroom all students, have the opportunity to answer correctly before the lesson is concluded. The rationale for the question is to obtain a piece of information, confirmation of understanding. It is a sensible practice, but should not be the only practice.

Questions Can Open Thinking
Questions can engage learners in the process of solving a riddle. Whether it is a math, science, history, English, foreign language, art, music, physical education or life lesson, questions are the invitation to thinking and the support for students to become independent learners.

Those charged with observing teachers generally look for alignment between well planned and achieved objectives, the actual instruction, and the quality of both the physical and social/emotional classroom environment. But rarely is questioning technique a focus.

Leaders as Models
A teacher stops a principal in the hallway to report a problem with a student. A secretary comes into a principal’s office to discuss a process that may not be working. A board member raises an issue with the Superintendent. A parent protests a consequence his or her child is required to pay due to a misstep. The list is endless. Always readying ourselves for the next issue demanding our attention, the tendency is to answer the question and solve the problem as quickly as we can. An expedient use of time perhaps, but, beware, this becomes the model for the teachers who are always working against the clock as they push forward to finish the planned objectives in their classrooms.

The clock is always ticking. Time seems to fly by. In a classroom, the time for the lesson slips away. In the hallways and our offices, time seems to be our enemy. Quick answers and quick fixes, on the surface, appear to be expected, allowing us to move on to whatever is next. But it won’t change things and it won’t develop others who can solve the problems on their own. How is it that the questions and problems dealt with today are the same as the ones that have come up before, or always?

Empowering others to be independent and reflective is a route to establishing and maintaining an environment in which there are others who will take responsibility by becoming more solution and idea focused. Who wouldn’t want that... only those who like the heavy yoke of having the answers and being the decision maker.

If leaders step away from the tendency to respond with, “I’ll take care of it” and replace that with asking open-ended questions like “What do you need?” These are not questions to which you know the answers. They are not questions that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” Become comfortable with silence while allowing others time to think before answering.

It is Worth the Time to Learn How
The more people in an organization that discover they hold the best solutions, and that there are actions they can take, the more empowered they become as members of the team. The responsibility for solving problems by becoming part of designing successful solutions is energizing. This does not mean the leader passes off their responsibility to others. It means the leader invites the questioner to become part of the solution plan.

The more teachers experience working in an environment in which open ended questions are the norm, the easier it will be for them to see the value and trust that using them in the classroom will engender a different kind of learning for their students. The truth is teachers yearn for their students to sit up and engage in the learning. No matter the topic, teachers want to look out across the sea of children in front of them and see them involved in thinking and learning.

There may be a need for professional development to help develop skills as good questioners. But systemically, the belief that it is a good thing can come from experiencing it themselves. Modeling good questioning is essential. Both leaders and teachers can agree to create the accepting space to experiment as they discover how to use good questions.

Time will always slip away. But this is a way to invest time between and among the adults that can change how days feel for students and adults alike. The challenge is in extending the invitation and meaning it. In the end, if leaders step away from closed Q&A leading, teachers will more likely follow by stepping away from closed Q&A teaching.

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