Moving Beyond Q & A in the Classroom

students raising hands2

Do you find yourself teaching in the way you were taught as a kid – lecturing from the front of the classroom, occasionally pausing to ask a question and point to a child whose hand is raised? Would you like to move beyond that? Or have you already moved beyond that traditional teaching practice but are looking for ways to ask questions that promote deeper thinking and offer more authentic assessment.

Sarah Johnson and Ben Johnson (no relation!) have some advice for you, below, and in an episode of Studentcentricity, which you can listen tohere.

From Sarah:

When thinking about questioning strategies in the classroom, I always come back to the reality that the power to evoke critical thinking lies more in the question than the answer. This is because we often stop processing the matter once we have settled on a “right” answer. Because of this, I find that divergent questions, or questions that can have more than one response, are better able to spark critical thinking in students and invite them to start asking their own questions, which is what ultimately trains them to be lifelong learners themselves. True learning takes place when students learn how to not only answer questions but create their own, as that sparks curiosity and a pursuit of knowledge.

From Ben:

Our job as teachers is not just to ask good questions, but to inspire curiosity so students start asking the questions. For example, I have included excerpts of what I wrote in my book, Teaching Students to Dig Deeper, about this topic.

Having an inquisitive nature was one of the characteristics of a college- or career-ready student, according to 400 university professors in Dr. David Conley’s 2003 landmark study. Higher education encourages curiosity, much more than EC–12 public education, except for perhaps Montessori schools. But public school children need curiosity just as much as college students, if not more, because they have more to learn. Luckily, as discussed earlier, children are naturally curious, and it follows that students should be also. I personally have never seen a student who was not curious about something. While I have seen a few students who have suppressed their curiosity when they enter school to such an extent that it was nearly undetectable, the curiosity is still there, which means that given the right circumstances, it can be revived. Human beings are hard-wired to be curious from birth, and being curious is a major activity of childhood and young adulthood (and yet, recently, more and more students would rather be curious-looking, as evidenced by popular clothing styles).

So if we notice students are not as curious in our classes as they should be, then we should first look at what we are doing, or not doing, that might cause this to happen. Of course I have some suggestions of places to inspect first (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Inspiring Curiosity in Students

Ben Johnson graphic

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then getting students to be curious again is a relatively easy fix: just change what we are doing or not doing. If all of the answers above are yesses, then the fix is still possible, but we have to be a bit more patient. One of the foundational instructional methods for inciting curiosity is called inquiry. I need to caution you before we go further. The first caution is that inquiry is ideal for situations that can be discovered and explored. A science teacher would never use inquiry as an instructional method to teach the students safety. The best method for teaching lab safety is direct instruction… The second caution is that, in trying to get our students to participate fully in the inquiry process, we have to remember that most likely they have been conditioned to do the opposite of inquiry—shut up and listen. Depending on the severity of the case, it may take a while to get them “unconditioned” (Johnson, 2013, p 67,68).

For more on this topic, check out:

“Divergent and Skeptical Thinking: Questioning Strategies for Deeper Learning” by Sarah Johnson:

“It’s What You Don’t Say That Counts” by Mary Laverty Bigelow:

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