Questioning: an instructional strategy

If one had to ask teachers whether or not they use questioning as an instructional strategy, the answer is invariably a confident yes. Teachers, regardless of their level of effectiveness feel that questioning is the easiest way to engage students in interactive lessons. This tends to be the case until one provides teachers with a different description of how questioning should be done to elicit maximum intelligent responses that indicate actual learning from students.

Most teachers believe that effective questioning is the ability to sprinkle randomly generated and/or intuitively expressed questions throughout lessons. They think that more questions mean better engagement in learning. Another misconception is that only open-ended questions involve higher order thinking. These may be true. However, one has to look at questioning as a far more comprehensive and technically demanding instructional strategy to attain its inherent benefits.

The ineffectiveness of current use of the questioning strategy is evident in the inability of students to understand test questions. If teachers use and overuse questioning, how come students still don’t know how to go about decoding the same when required?

To engage students in effective questioning, a teacher needs to follow certain tenets. These tenets constitute the underpinning rationale for the effective use of questioning in a classroom setting. The most important of these is, “every student, regardless of his/her past or present academic achievement level, is questioned.”

First tenet

Being humans, teachers tend to question only bright students. They do this for many reasons, none of which are educationally valid. Struggling students are deliberately skipped because teachers don’t like to wait for answers. Some teachers believe that these students cannot answer questions intelligently. Good questioning involves giving every student equal opportunity to take part in the process of learning. Even when a student answers “I don’t know,” a teacher should not give up. Asking a follow-up question or paraphrasing the question allows the student to have another chance.

Simply put, teachers should be sincere in providing everyone a chance to engage in learning through questioning. This includes students who try to avoid eye-contact with teacher by looking away and those who don’t put up their hand.

Second tenet

Another effective questioning tenet worth following is, “require students to justify all responses.” This tenet guarantees the involvement of complex thinking along with lower level mental processes. For example, it’s easy to answer the question, “How are you today?” However, when teachers go further and ask students, “Why do you say so?” a different reaction is seen. Students start thinking hard about reasons for answering the question the way they did. They pull ideas together and creatively express them using effective communication. This can be done by following the Q-R-Q pattern, where teachers ask a question, elicit a response, and ask a follow-up question that requires justification for the answer(s) provided.

Third tenet

“Questioning should not encourage random guess-making.” I have heard teachers saying things like, “Can anyone make a guess?” or “Any wild guesses?” etc. If students are to make wild guesses, then why do we teach them that a hypothesis is an intelligent guess? There is a huge difference between an intelligent and wild guess. While the former is based on prior research and reflection, the latter is based on gut feeling. Going by gut feeling in the process of learning jeopardizes the credibility of knowledge. Hence, effective questioning requires teachers to ask questions that encourage students to reason and respond thoughtfully.

Outcome

Teachers who use effective questioning strategy break the culture of disengagement in the classroom. Passive students become active. Those who heavily rely on teachers for answers become thinkers for themselves.

For more information about Highly Effective Questioning, visit http://www.workshopsinquestioning.com/

Different points of view

Having been in the school system, dealing with parent complaints is a commonplace. At first glance, the complaints may seem to be purely related to operational issues. However, a close examination of different types of complaints reveals that they usually stem from deeper, often hidden, factors.

Philosophy of education

Everyone who has been through schooling holds his/her own opinion about education and how it should be imparted. Likewise, parents and school administrators hold their own unique philosophy of education. Schools are governed by a set of beliefs that dictate and guide their educational decisions and practices. As such, most complaints and/or clashes between parents and school administrators arise from significant differences in the philosophy of education of these two parties.

Philosophy of education drives the vision, mission, and expected school-wide learning goals of a school. Additionally, every school has its own unique philosophy that may differ from other schools. In this context, parent complaints can be traced back to two things; parents’ discomfort with difference(s) between their own and the school’s philosophy of education, and also parent’s tendency to compare one school’s philosophy of education with another.

Example

Administrators in School A decided to increase the number of Language Arts periods and reduce Math and Science periods by one per week. Hence students meet seven times a week to learn the English language and only four periods to learn Math and Science respectively. According to the principal of School A, the school strongly believes in the philosophy of relying on concrete data to make educational decisions.

The principal added that student performance on a standardized test the previous year indicated significant weakness in the area of English language. School administrators also found out that there is a significant correlation between performance in the English language and other subjects like Math and Science.

Hence, School A’s move to increase Language Arts periods and reduce Math and Science periods was based on a philosophical understanding that assessment data directs planning of teaching/learning experiences.

However, parents of School A hold a different philosophy. According to their philosophy, Math and Science are the most important subjects. This belief seems to match their own experiences when they were at school. Furthermore, they realize that other schools do not do what School A does. Hence they conclude that something is really wrong with the school and lodge a complaint.

Implications

Addressing parent complaints is necessary. On the other hand, if School A tries to address the complaint without going into the root of the problem, the administrators will fail to convince parents about the truth of the matter. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that school administrators address the root of the problem rather than pacifying parents by covering up complaints.

Schools and parents should work together to communicate each others’ philosophy of education. Fixing complaints is a temporary solution. Understanding and working from the framework of each others’ educational philosophy is a long-term solution to dealing effectively with parent complaints.

Parents rarely complain about a school whose philosophy of education they understand, fully accept and advocate for. Schools that succeed in this process would receive fewer complaints in the long run. Sessions that encourage parents to think about and own school’s philosophy of education work well to this end. Such sessions (or parent workshops) should actively involve parents to talk about, question, and assimilate school’s philosophy as their own.

At the end of the process, an increased sense ownership is developed, fostering a feeling of belongingness toward school. This sense of belongingness discourages complaints and encourages the celebration of successes instead.

Active learning

The word education originates from the Latin word, educere which means to bring out. For centuries, educators have noted the importance of tapping into existing knowledge and wisdom of a learner and work on deepening them. The question that teachers often ask is, “are there concrete ways to make this possible?”

About five years ago, I watched a DVD that completely changed my attitude toward teaching. It is an award-winning video, A Private Universe, Minds of Our Own produced by Harvard-Smithsonian, Center for Astrophysics. The documentary emphasizes the importance of starting from what students already know before teaching them what they need to know. According to several case studies presented in the documentary, students who do not connect past and present knowledge tend to under-perform. Teaching a concept over and over again is not necessary if existing knowledge is put in the context of new knowledge.

KWL

The KWL teaching strategy (K represents “What students already know?” W represents “What students want to know?” and L represents “What students have learned?”)  effectively addresses the need to bridge the gaps between what students already know, what they want to know, and what they have to learn. This method was popularized by Donna M. Ogle in 1980’s as a strategy to encourage active reading of expository text. The strategy has increased in value and diversified in application over time. Today, the strategy is used by teachers to encourage active learning and extension of new concepts.

The application of KWL strategy allows students to personalize knowledge and become accountable for their own learning. The teacher becomes a facilitator who designs a learning environment where feedback, in the form of factual statements and questions is generated and channeled in the direction of building meaningful new knowledge. It encourages both teachers and students to become critical about existing and new information. More importantly, it provides a sense of purpose to the whole process of teaching and learning.

Example

Let’s take for example a lesson on The Eiffel Tower. The teacher starts off by announcing that students are going to learn a new topic and they are responsible for the same. She indicates that she is going to help guide them through the process. She then divides the whiteboard into three columns. On top of the first column, she writes, K (What you already know?), second column, W (What you want to know?), and third column, L (What did you learn?). Prior to this, the teacher has either prepared a handout containing sufficient information about the topic, or decided on the page in the textbook where information about the topic is found.

The class continues with the teacher asking students what they already know about The Eiffel Tower. She list down each statement shared by students on the whiteboard. At this time, the teacher must emphasize that accuracy of information is not a priority. Misconceptions could be detected and corrected later. After generating sufficient statements from students and filling up the first column, the teacher can then ask students to share questions that they may have to further their knowledge and understanding of the topic. Emphasis must be placed on encouraging students to ask good questions. These questions will be written on the second column. Every student should be involved in the process.

Once the two columns are filled up, students are asked to read the handout. This purposeful reading will allow students to verify information in the first column, answer questions in the second column, and gather additional information about the topic. Motivation for reading is high as it is highly directed and focused. At the end, the teacher and students work on filling up the third column and gauge the overall learning experience.

To view an example of actual lesson using KWL, click KWL lesson