By Teachers, For Teachers
We all agree that classrooms should be inquisitive, vibrant places full of questions. We frequently tell our students, “There are no stupid questions,” and we use classroom management to encourage their curiosity. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that there are a few questions that seem – well – just a little frustrating to hear over and over again. These few questions indicate that students might not be focusing on the right thing. While we furrow our brows and scold students for bringing up the same unwelcome questions again and again, we can’t necessarily fault the students for asking them. We should examine what these questions are, why students ask them, and how we can use classroom management to guide students to a better way of thinking about their learning.
When students ask this, it indicates that the test assigns value to certain content. If it’s on the test, then it’s just valuable enough to learn (for the test). If it’s not on the test, then there’s no point in paying attention to it at all. This question makes it seem as though the test is the only thing that matters.
As an English teacher, I was wrought with detailed questions like “How long does this essay have to be?” and “How many sentences do I need to get a good grade?” I irked them by responding with “As many as it takes to make it great!” Students hate that response.
But it’s equally frustrating to teachers when students are obviously doing the minimum to earn whatever grade they’ve settled for achieving. “Is this good enough?” is really asking, “Have I achieved the minimum?” Instead of students pushing themselves to excel regardless of the letter grade, they are playing the game of school.
Teachers are frequently asked this question at the start of class. Then they sigh, turn towards the student, and offer a snarky response: “Picking our noses!” When students walk into a classroom, they are justified in wanting to know how their time is going to be spent, but when this question pops up from student after student, day after day, it is indicative of a larger problem: Students have no clue what’s going on!
This question is more popular in some subjects than others. Math teachers, for example, are plagued with this question even though the answer is a perpetual “Yes!” Asking this question in math is like asking, “Do I have to use verbs in my paragraph?” in English. Of course you do.
In the world outside the classroom, this question doesn’t come up. Isn’t that interesting? The Internet is always an option for gaining information elsewhere. But suddenly we enter the classroom and this obvious resource is called into question.
Like other questions above, this question exposes the students’ belief that the grade is the end-all-be-all of learning. If a task doesn’t earn a grade, then it doesn’t feel like it’s worth it. Have you ever not graded a given task and seen disappointment written on students’ expressions? “But I actually worked hard on this!” they cry. Without being assigned a grade, it can feel like the effort put into it was a waste.
These questions almost all stem from the same common problem theme. The tasks of the classroom are centered far more around grades and scores rather than around authentic learning. Students have every right to be preoccupied with test results and what-gets-graded-vs-what-doesn’t when the entire system of reward and punishment revolves around these elements.
Every bad question has its root. If a question is gnawing at a student’s mind, there’s a reason for it. What systems are impacting your students’ curiosity, for better or worse? What is rewarded in your classroom? What gets attention and priority? How is learning talked about? How is feedback processed?
In the end, we might not eliminate these bad questions entirely, but we definitely need to consider to what extent we fuel the very environment that breeds these questions. When students’ curiosity extends only so far as the requirements for the grades they want, then we ultimately are doing them a disservice.
How do you respond to “Bad” questions when they come up in your class? Share your classroom management thoughts on this article with our teaching community by leaving a comment below!
Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.