Asking the right QUESTIONS
Consistently, the quality of teaching is recognised as the most important factor in elevating student achievement. So then – what makes an effective teacher? What exactly is it that sets teachers apart? The answer to this is complex in that there are multiple factors at play – teacher/student relationship, high expectations from adults, the home environment and parent values, teacher content knowledge – to name a few. One factor that stands out is the pedagogy of the teacher. The most effective teaching pedagogy is one that is metacognitive supportive. That is, a teacher who compels their students to think ever more deeply, drawing out student thinking with a continuous stream of open-ended questions. As John Hattie says; the best teachers tell their students hardly anything (Hattie 2009). Oh, the paradox!
Herein lies the problem in much teaching and learning: who is doing the thinking? Who is wrestling with ideas and formulating words to express them? Often, it’s the well-intentioned teacher. But the teacher should not be working harder than the student for their learning. As Aldous Huxley says in “The Dangers of Good Teaching” (1927, quoted in Abbott 2010):
For the clever schoolmaster makes things too easy for his pupils; he relieves them of the necessity of finding out things for themselves. By dint of brilliant teaching he succeeds in almost eliminating the learning process. He knows how to fill his pupils with ready-made knowledge, which they inevitably forget (since it is not their knowledge and cost them nothing to acquire), as soon as the examination for which it was required is safely passed.
This is not new. The great Enlightenment thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau said, “Let the student sit with the problem for a while and solve it. Let them know nothing because you have told them, but because they have learnt it for themselves. Let the children discover” (Dobinson, 1969). Further back in time, the great teacher Socrates – according to Plato, said “I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only hope to make them think”. And how did he do that? Questions, and lots of them!
The most effective teachers ask questions in 90 percent of utterances (Lepper and Woolverton 2002). They probe, hint, scaffold, tease – but do not supply answers unless the situation dictates. These teachers do not let children off the hook with half-baked responses. They insist upon justification, elaboration, reasoning – and this all drives thinking; for if there is no thinking, there is no deep learning. Indeed, memory is the residue of thinking. Great questions drive curiosity and therefore thinking. Rousseau also said; make a student insatiably curious by not telling them the answer. When students develop the autonomous competence to work things out themselves, they become self-directed learners.
Thinking requires the learner to internalise two or more different perspectives or views on an issue. This is complex and demanding – the hard work of learning; so, don’t expect children to seek it of their own accord. It’s a lot easier to be told what to do and what to think than to think for yourself. I remember well a student who responded to my attempts at prompting self-evaluation by saying to me; “sir, you’re the teacher, just tell me if it’s right or wrong” (!)
Quality questioning has another, significant benefit. It sends a message to the student that the teacher believes in them. This is a message of high expectation, and, the high expectation of a teacher is one of the best predictors of student outcomes. Effective teachers allow longer “wait-time” after a question, allowing time for thinking and responding. Following a teacher question, average wait-time in classrooms is less than 1.5 seconds, but more effective teachers wait longer suggesting “you can figure this out without my help”. Teachers who are quick to solve problems for students implicitly communicate to the student that they are incapable of solving it for themselves. Answers do nothing for your brain – it’s the questions that pique interest. When an answer is revealed, thinking declines. After a student has responded to a question, effective teachers – rather than confirm the student response as correct or incorrect – ask a follow-up question, thereby extending wait-time for a second time. The education faculty of Harvard University has a favourite question: “what makes you say that?” This powerful follow-up demands further thinking and rumination.
To enable better quality thinking, teachers prompt with words pertaining to thinking processes. For example, observe and describe, explain and interpret, make connections, identify and analyse, compare/contrast, classify, reflect upon, and predict. Teacher questions reflect contingencies and invite open responses: Would this work? Could we be thinking about this another way? When providing student feedback, we identify students’ thinking as a way of providing specific feedback on learning. You’ve reasoned clearly. You’ve provided evidence to back it up. You’ve concluded, connected, extrapolated, and so on.
In conclusion, whether you are a parent or a teacher – find opportunities to ask more quality open-ended questions to your students. Not so much factual or procedural questions, but ones that generate deep thinking. Insist upon quality responses that have been considered and reasoned, and then respond in a manner that drives thinking further. Observe the great conversations that follow!
Harvard’s David Perkins (1992) says any substantial improvement in the learning capacity of society is unlikely until metacognitive learning is more fully addressed. Quality questioning is the foremost step in engaging students in metacognitive learning, boosting their learning confidence and self-directed learning capacity.
Abbott, J. 2010. Overschooled but Undereducated: How the Crisis in Education is Jeopardizing Our Adolescents. London: Continuum.
Dobinson, C. 1969. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. London: Methuen.
Griffin, M. 2015 Learning Strategies for Musical Success. Adelaide
Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning for Teachers. New York & London: Routledge.
Lepper, M. R. and Woolverton, M. 2002. The Wisdom of Practice: Lessons Learned from the Study of Highly Effective Tutors. In J. Aronson (ed.), Improving Academic Achievement. New York: Academic, pp. 135–158.
Perkins, D. 1992. Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. New York: Free Press.