I’m on the home stretch, I think- I’m wrapping up the manuscript of TLAC 3.0 this week which means it’ll be out in late summer. Meanwhile I’m going to start sharing some excerpts here on the blog. A couple of them are going to be major as the kids say, but I actually thought I’d start things off by sharing something “simple but useful” you might say, which is a phrase that describes the things I like best: humble, unspectacular and apparently mundane things that make a big difference. So this excerpt is about questioning and he power of “Phrasing Fundamentals.”
How we ask a question can help ensure that it is worth trying to answer from the perspective of the listener, and the question’s structure can have a significant influence on the degree of thinking and answering it inspires. Understanding a few “phrasing fundamentals” can help make sure your questions engage your students as you’d hope they would.
The Obvious Trap
One reason students don’t answer or think about questions is because they don’t seem worth answering, often because they are either rhetorical—the teacher doesn’t really expect an answer—or, worse, so obvious that they seem rhetorical. You might call this the obvious trap. Questions with obvious answers are killers of intellectual culture because they pretend to ask a question when there’s really no question. Why are you asking me that? students think. If you’re often asked meaningless questions, you become skeptical of the questioner. Students become reluctant to answer under those circumstances. When everyone clearly knows the answer, the person who says it aloud anyway appears a dupe, oblivious or overeager. Sometimes we seek to start a discussion with an “easy” question for example, but because the answer seems so obvious, participants are reluctant to answer, perhaps thinking they’ve missed something or that it was actually a trick question. The effect is the opposite of the intent. In the long-run too. Over time, asking questions with obvious answers undercuts the credibility of your questioning more broadly.
Yes or no questions and questions with just two possible answers are especially vulnerable to the obvious trap. And, obvious or not, they often reduce the quality of the learning environment because one-word answers are the natural response.
Consider a science teacher who asks, during a lab, “Should we add our solution now or wait till it cools?”
I haven’t provided enough context to indicate whether the solution should be added now but I’d wager the answer is pretty likely that we should wait. Would you stop a lesson to ask, “Should we add the solution now or wait till it cools?” if the answer was that you should add the solution now? Unlikely. You’d just say, “Now we add our solution.” Or would you ask “What should we do now?” The answer is obvious and students are likely to perceive the question as rhetorical or think Why are you asking us?
One reason this may happen is because a teacher is trying to ask a question when she really just wants to explain something: “It’s important to remember that we should wait for the solution to cool.” Or even: “It’s important to remember that we should wait for the solution to cool. Why?” It’s OK to tell people things directly. Appearing to ask a question when you want to tell students what to do wastes time and builds a culture where questions don’t feel engaging and authentic. It’s hard to build intellectual engagement from that kind of experience.
The questions, “Should I add the solution now?” and “Should I add the solution now or wait till it cools?” are uninspiring because they are binary. There are two possible answers in each case. “Yes” or “no” in the first question and “now” or “later” in the second. “What should I do now?” would be more interesting. “What should I look for now?”—a perception-based question for which the answer might be “the temperature”—would be better. Or “What’s happening now?” which, assuming you can’t see anything happening at the moment, might have more of a retrospective focus on checking for understanding of content taught previously. These questions are all more interesting because there are more than two possible answers. Simply making the question unbinary helps.
Binary questions are also problematic because they are especially prone to “tipping,” which occurs when the questioner adds voice inflection on a word or phrase to suggest the answer. A bit of emphasis on “now” or perhaps on the “let it cool”—“Should we add the solution now? Or let it cool?”—makes answering doubly redundant. Your questions could be about bocce, something I know exactly nothing about, and given a binary question with a bit of voice inflection to tip the answer, I’m getting ten out of ten correct answers.
Avoid Bait and Switch
Another way questions can go wrong is because you ask a question, give students time to think about it, and then call on them to answer a different question, or a question you rephrase in a way that changes its meaning. “How is Jonas changing in this chapter? Turn and talk with your partner for ninety seconds,” you say. But after the Turn and Talk you say, “Great. Where and how do we see Jonas’s anxiety showing up?” The question is now different and the eager student who put her hand up thinking she’d be asked the original question is caught out. She showed her eagerness and now possibly can’t answer. It’s bait and switch and it makes it less likely that she’ll keep raising her hand as confidently or as often.
Most of the time, bait and switch happens because we haven’t prepared. If you think up your question in the moment, you will have to keep it in your working memory while you listen to student responses, manage the classroom, think about the content, and so on. Under these conditions it’s easy to forget your own question—or to remember only the general idea. It’s one more reason to plan (and write down) your key questions in advance.6 If you do use questions that are thought up in the moment, write them on the board when you can. The visual will help students remain disciplined to answer what you asked, and it will also help you to remember the original question.