“The important thing is not to stop questioning” –Albert Einstein
Asking questions is an important part of the art and craft of teaching. A good question can open up learning, be a catalyst for spirited dialogue, and can lead both the person asking the question and the one answering to new insights that wouldn’t have been possible without the question.
But how we ask questions is also very important. If you watch recordings of yourself teaching, one thing to watch for is how you ask questions. There are at least four things to pay attention to:
1. Curiosity. Ask questions with authentic curiosity. By asking questions that we genuinely want to hear the answers to, we communicate respect and show faith in our students because we show them that we value what they have to say.
Curious teachers are truly excited to see what their students have to say, and often they are delighted by their responses. Students, for their part, sense their teacher’s authentic curiosity, and this encourages them to offer sincere, thought-out responses.
2. Asking to Hear the Students Answer. Questions may be asked for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes questions are meant to be catalysts for dialogue, such as “Who is a leader that you respect, and why do you respect her or him?” At other times our questions are meant to confirm understanding, such as “How would you paraphrase this paragraph?”
When our questions are meant to confirm understanding, we must careful to refrain from telling the answer while asking the question. This is where video recording ourselves can be helpful because it allows us to watch ourselves to see if our facial expressions, tone of voice, phrasing, or other subtle communication practice gives away the answers before anybody has a chance to respond. Simply put, if we ask a question, we should genuinely want to hear the answer from somebody else.
3. Attention. Good questioning is as much about how we listen as it is about how we talk; in fact, listening may be the more important of the two. When we listen attentively, we communicate to students that they matter and that their words count. On the other hand, when we lose focus and fail to pay attention (which is easy to do), we communicate a lack of respect and a lack of interest. Also, when we go through the motions and fail to be mindful as listeners, our actions suggest to students that just putting in time and going through the motions is OK. In short, if we want student engagement, we too have to be engaged.
I’ll write about listening techniques here in the future, but an important first step is simply deciding to listen. Much has been writing about eye contact, body language, paraphrasing, empathy, and so forth, but if we really want to hear what somebody has to say, those things will take care of themselves. People can tell if we are listening, and if we just decide to truly hear what our students say and honor their comments, that simple action can go a long way toward raising the quality of conversation in the classroom, and thereby increase the meaningful learning taking place.
4. Silence. Part of effective questioning is to leave room for everyone to say their part. Susan Scott in Fierce Leadership describes this as the “sweet purity of silence.” Others call it wait time. Whatever you call it, pausing for a few seconds after asking a question is a critical part of effective questioning.
This is much easier said than done. Many of us feel the need to fill the gap whenever there is silence. In our daily lives, we are surrounded by sounds — television, music, motors, conversation — and tend to feel a bit edgy when there is a pause during instruction. But if we feel the need to jump in and talk to fill up any silence, we have to be careful that our filling in doesn’t lead to shutting out. Some students need to time to process their response.
Parker Palmer has written beautifully about this:
I now understand what Nelle Morton meant when she said that one of the great tasks in our time is to “hear people to speech.” Behind their fearful silence, our students want to find their voices, speak their voices, have their voices heard. A good teacher is one who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken—so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence …
What does it mean to listen to a voice before it is spoken as Palmer writes? It means making space for the other, being aware of the other, paying attention to the other, honoring the other. It means not rushing to fill our students’ silence with “fearful speech” of our own and not trying to coerce them into saying the things we want to hear. It means entering empathetically into our students’ worlds so that they perceive us as some one who has the promise of being able to hear another person’s truth.
How to Watch
The easiest way to see how well you carry out these teaching practices is to use your Flip, iPhone, or other micro-camera to record yourself asking questions. To do this, you’ll need to set your camera up somewhere in the room from which it will be able to capture you as you teach. If you move around a lot, you may find that you move in and out of the camera’s view, so you may want to ask someone else to record the class for you. However, most of the time a camera placed in one place can yield a lot of valuable information.
Questions to Ask While Watching Yourself
Do I look genuinely curious about all students’ responses?
Am I giving away the answer, or the answer I want?
Am I 100% present during the lesson?
Am I allowing sufficient wait time?
Do my students offer genuine responses to my questions?
Are my questions challenging without being too difficult?
Feel free to add or make up your own questions. The important thing is to watch and learn. Since questions make up such a large part of what teachers do, watching yourself asking questions can be a very valuable learning experience by dramatically increasing your ability to perform this vital teaching practice.