Teaching Opinion

Tips for Deftly Using Questions to Improve Student Learning

By Starr Sackstein — April 15, 2019 5 min read
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What teacher doesn’t want to do better with questioning?

Questions are at the root of all learning, and some would argue an essential part of the inquiry process. And yet, most of us don’t use them as effectively as we could and don’t teach kids to use them as well, either.

Connie Hamilton’s long-awaited book, Hacking Questions: 11 Answers That Create a Culture of Inquiry in Your Classroom is the solution to this challenge.

This latest addition to the Hack Learning Series helps teachers navigate the different kinds of questions, how and when to use them, and more importantly, helping kids develop and use questions better.

Cleverly placed throughout the chapters are magnifying glasses that offer teachers opportunities to look more closely at wisdom, tips, and things to avoid.

The book is easy to navigate, taking the reader through Connie Hamilton’s vast experience and learning about different patterns she has helped teachers with in her CIFT (Collaboration and Instructional Feedback Teams) protocol.

Chapter topics are as follows:

  • Introduction: Questioning leads to growth—This part explains what the focus of the book is and how it came to be. Hamilton explains the CIFT process, which can help schools in so many ways by building teacher capacity.
  • Hack 1: Assume All Hands Are Up: Expect that every student will engage—This chapter addresses the issue of hand-raising and how that can be detrimental to learning. The book offers solutions to help get all students engaged.
  • Hack 2: Kick the IDK Bucket: Keep the cognitive baton in students’ hands—It can be frustrating when a student says, “I don’t know” when called on, and too often, teachers allow students to get out of the learning by accepting “IDK” as an answer. This chapter provides solutions and strategies for keeping the students accountable when they try to run. The chapter provides sentence stems and a number of visuals that really help provoke deeper thinking.
  • Hack 3: Punctuate Your Learning Time: Close with reflection questions—Who hasn’t run out of time while teaching a lesson, particularly on the secondary level? This chapter speaks to the importance of closure and how to ensure students get the reflection time they need to really know the what, why, and how of that day’s learning.
  • Hack 4: Be a Pinball Wizard: Guide students to facilitate their own conversations—To be highly effective as an educator, we need to be able to put kids in charge of the learning, and classroom conversation is usually teacher to student, student to teacher, and so on. This chapter helps the teacher develop more student-centered conversations that are propelled by students asking students and students answering students, putting the teacher in a guidance role rather than a lead.
  • Hack 5: Play the Broken Record: Replay questions to maintain focus—Rather than plan all of the questions you want to ask, which would be inauthentic, this chapter suggests ways to focus the questions you do ask and not get derailed as can happen in any lesson. Sometimes the best solutions are simple ones, and these are ones you can definitely use tomorrow.
  • Hack 6: Fill Your Back Pocket: Prepare a handful of metacognitive questions—This follow up to the last chapter speaks to planning metacognitive questions as well as content questions to ensure that students are truly getting it. If the broken-record questions align with the learning target, then these questions get to process thinking that needs to be more intentional in every classroom.
  • Hack 7: Make Yourself Invisible: Establish student-centered protocols—This one doesn’t just have to go in a questions book; student-centered learning should be everywhere. This chapter speaks to taking the teacher out of the student learning, which is always a challenge. Hamilton does a great job of including so many awesome strategies for assisting teachers to do this effectively without utter chaos.
  • Hack 8: Hear the Music: Listen for correct thinking, not just correct answers—What is so awesome about this chapter is the distinction it creates between really making sure kids understand and having them just “get it.” Too often, in our haste as teachers, we are looking for right answers, but not necessarily “right thinking.” So this chapter focuses on helping the teacher get students to show how they arrived at the answers they did and then help better diagnose if they truly do know the learning.
  • Hack 9: Scaffold, Don’t Spoon-Feed: Trigger student thinking without doing it for them—Teachers are always complaining that they have to water learning down to help kids get it, but sometimes we do it to them. We want to help scaffold the process where necessary, but we don’t want to do the heavy lifting for students. This chapter helps teachers see how they can best scaffold and promote student thinking more effectively.
  • Hack 10: Spin the Throttle: Fuel students to ask the questions—This is an important one and may be the reason you buy the book. ... Again, highly effective teaching means that students are doing the learning more, and this chapter makes sure all students are asking the questions instead of just the teacher. She discusses the question-formulation technique from The Right Question Institute, which teaches students how to develop quality questions. This chapter is one that will certainly be bookmarked.
  • Hack 11: Create a Safe Zone: Establish an environment that encourages risk-taking—This chapter addresses building a risk-taking culture with our students. I appreciate that this was at the end and not the beginning. One quote that stands out from this chapter is from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, that says, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” We need to be intentional about the learning spaces we create, and this chapter will help teachers do that.
  • Conclusion: An exercise—Hamilton ends with an apt reflection exercise that is intentional and thoughtful, really driving home the whole point of what she has written, a worthy closure for such a well-constructed book.

This is a comprehensive read that is conversational and teacher-friendly. Even if you’re a questioning pro, you will learn something that will improve student learning in your classroom. I highly recommend this important read that will also provide amazing resources and solutions to problems that you didn’t even know you had. You can check out more at http://HackingQuestions.com

What is your greatest challenge with questioning in your classroom? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress 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.