Asking Worthwhile Questions

We are all familiar with the Socratic method of teaching – asking questions to find the knowledge that lies within.  Teachers are supposed to ask questions, to involve students and to get them to think. Questions are a good thing, right?

In principle, it’s true but in practice, questioning students is a tricky endeavor. Most questions are either boring or confusing, which helps to explain why students don’t respond – unless they’re called by name.

Here are some of the problems associated with asking questions in class:

  1. The questions are boring because the answers are obvious. Simple rote questions don’t excite learners. Why would they bother to answer you? Moreover, other students will think they are trying to score brownie points by answering so there is peer power to content with.
  2. The questions are way too difficult. “Explain Shakespeare’s use of light and darkness in this play” or (and this one happens a lot) “What is the most important concept…” Students can probably identify several concepts but they might not feel confident that they know the most important one.
  3. The questions are directed at the wall: “Can anyone tell me what vector means?” Who’s anyone? Doesn’t the teacher know this already? – we studied it last week!
  4. There’s more than one question in the question. For example, “What is the purpose of the novel and how do the characters convey the main themes?” (We’ll be here all day so nobody say anything!).
  5. The purpose of the question is to guess what the teacher is thinking.  Many different answers are offered but once the teacher hears “the right” answer, the topic is dropped. Everyone else who answered feels like an idiot.

I learned to ask worthwhile questions by accident. I was teaching “bonehead English” and I was asked to cover the enriched program where they were analyzing Christian symbolism in Hemmingway’s  “The Old Man and the Sea”. It was just a review class. “Just”, yeah, right! The students knew more than I did because they had studied this topic for more than a month. Fortunately (for me) there was one aspect of the book that I didn’t understand so I thought, why not ask them? Let them be the experts!

My question was this: the old man dreams of lions before going to sea. The whole time he’s at sea he doesn’t dream of them but when he returns to shore, he again dreams of the lions. Why? What’s this about? There were 23 students in the class and we explored 16 different interpretations. Now, that was a good class!

From this experience I learned that questions are worthwhile when the students feel their contribution is original and their own. Their ideas were equally accepted and discussed by everyone in the class because there was no “right” answer. Questions that allow the students to be the experts are worthwhile because they really do help us to discover the knowledge that lies within.

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Branching Out!

Teaching is a highly personal and interpersonal activity. Like snowflakes, every teacher (and student, for that matter) is different. One of the biggest mistake we can make is expecting uniformity and conformity – from teachers as well as from students!

As a student, I benefitted from a range of teaching styles that ranged from “the sage on the stage” to experiential (touchy-feely encounter-group) learning activities. Each engaged me in different ways and, therefore, produced different learning outcomes.

So the best tip I can offer teachers is this: adopt and adapt. In other words, if you discover an interesting teaching strategy that you would like to take on board, think about it: Does it suit your personality and the needs of your learners? Can you modify the strategy so that it works better in your context? Being able to change the original teaching strategy to your own style shows that you truly understand the underlying principles of instructional effectiveness.

For Accommodators (see Kolb’s Learning Theory), taking an idea, adapting it and using it comes naturally. The rest of us mortals, however, may have trouble identifying the underlying principles involved and even more trouble finding ways to adapt a instructional strategy to our own context. My advice is this: find someone who is using a different approach and ask to watch them in action. (This should be done regularly anyway!). After watching the teacher conduct a class, interview them. Ask questions about their decisions and ask for advice. Even if you decide their approach doesn’t suit you, you’ll still know more about yourself and your students than before the observation. Go for it!

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Building on Weaknesses

We’re all familiar with the advice that we should build on our strengths, but what if you don’t think you have any? That was certainly my dilemma as I was growing up. I had little or no interest in school and I didn’t graduate from high school.

Yes, I was one of those “unmotivated” students. “Marjorie should work harder” was written on every report card I can remember. (This assured me I was more lazy than stupid, which was a comfort). My bad habits persisted at university. Only I loved university and when I was interested in the subject, my grades soared.

A mathematics lecture, apparently about linear...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having so much experience as an unmotivated student has proven to be a godsend! You see, I’ve made my living from it since the early 1980s. For many years my job was to help academics to improve their teaching. I would attend some of their classes, videotape the lesson, survey and interview students, and provide feedback to the teacher.

The academics who had the most difficulty teaching were often highly intelligent, motivated, self-disciplined and achievement oriented. Consequently, they didn’t understand the majority of their students. This is where I came in: I helped teachers to understand their students’ perspective. As an observer, I could make the connections between teachers’ actions and students’ reactions.  Yes, by observing teaching I discovered that it’s wrong to assume that students are unmotivated; the problem is they’re just under-stimulated. If only my school teachers had known this. (Sigh).

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OBSERVING TEACHING: Now and Then

I would like to think that things have changed since I was a student (a millennium ago). Back then, being a student was a pretty dreary experience. In high school, the entire group of students would shuffle from class to class. We were together all day, every day. Yet, I probably only spoke to a handful of classmates and I didn’t get to know any of them as a person. You see, the focus was entirely on the curriculum and preparing us for a set of standardized tests, known as “Maritime Board”.

Nowadays as Australia squanders its resources trying to establish a national curriculum, I can only think: “What a waste!” Why on earth don’t they pay attention to what actually transpires in the classroom! We can tweak course content for the rest of eternity but it will not make a dent in improving the overall quality of education.

Classroom interactions (teacher-student and student-student) determine whether students are motivated to learn. Without students’ willing engagement, we are left with discipline problems, truancy, and high dropout rates.

Recently I informally interviewed a Grade 9 student. I asked her how many ‘great’ teachers she had during her nine years of schooling. She replied, two. So then I asked her how many ‘bad’ teachers she had. (You know, where you don’t want to go to class). She used her fingers to count: there were seven!

Clearly, things haven’t changed. The majority of teachers are poor or mediocre, in the eyes of their students. There are so many issues to explore. We need to know where we are going wrong so that we can begin to set it right.

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