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.


About Observing Teaching

My goal is to transform teacher education and professional development by providing training and resources for observing and critiquing classroom teaching and learning.
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