By Teachers, For Teachers
Quality discussion is often at the heart of quality learning in the teaching profession. When students can engage in an authentic conversation about a topic, they have an opportunity to think out loud and build understanding out of a room full of peoples’ contributions. Quality discussions often stem from quality questions posed by instructors. Unfortunately, we don’t always present students with enriching questions that lead to higher learning in the teaching profession. When coaching its students on question writing, the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University tells us, “A good question is both a question that your fellow students can answer and a question that requires analysis, synthesis, interpretation, and critical thinking in order to answer it.” Good questions lead to good thinking. So let’s ask good questions in the teaching profession, and train our students to create good questions of their own.
Questions are the logs that feed the fire of conversation. Just like you can’t have a good fire without a good log to burn, you can’t have a quality conversation in your classroom without effective questions to discuss.
Here is quicklist guide to help you understand what kind of questions you would ideally compose. This comes from a variety of expert recommendations, such as from John Barell’s “Developing More Curious Minds” (2003) and Vicki Urquhart and Dana Frazee’s “Teaching Reading in the Content Areas” (2012). A good question:
So when you’re composing questions, this list above should help you assess whether or not your questions are likely to lead to quality discussions or not. The Center for Teaching and Learning offers these categories of questions as Dos or Don’ts: DO ask questions that are analytical, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and clarification. DO NOT ask questions that are yes-no, elliptical, leading, or slanted.
For example, a slanted question might be, “Why are kids so spoiled these days?” This question assumes that children are spoiled and limits answers to discussing children in that one way. You might broaden this to ask a compare-and-contrast question, such as “Based on your reading from this chapter, how are children’s relationships to their community similar or different from children in previous generations?” This question directs students’ attention to their reading, offers opportunity for broad connections and conclusions, and involves them personally as well as intellectually.
Don’t think that good questions for discussion just naturally spring up. They are the result of work, contemplation, and trial-and-error. Consider these following elements as essential components for your question-writing process.
First understand the constraints under which your questions work. For example, questions should connect to specific chapters students have just read or specific work they have just completed. Good questions should often rely on previous chapters or discussions, but should not include assumptions that are not explicitly stated in the question itself or have not already been established.
Decide if there are any essential ideas within those chapters students should not leave class without thinking about. It’s useful to think about what questions you personally have in regards to the content. Usually, good questions stem from a genuine interest on your part. This allows you to be open to a variety of ideas and creates an atmosphere where you are learning with the kids.
Spend time looking to other resources for help. If you have supplemental materials or other publications that comment on what you want to discuss, include this in the question and ask students to form some type of response to it. At the very least, resources will help you develop a good question simply by teaching you new things about the content.
When writing questions, I like to use tried-and-true templates such as, “Some critics have said … while others have suggested …” This shows students there are already multiple perspectives that exist on the subject. These perspectives give students a guide for their own thinking, but also gives them permission to be open with ideas because they see that “Other people” have a wide variety of opinions as well.
Start drafting questions, even if you know what you draft aren’t going to be the questions you end up using. The drafting process allows your mind to wander, and helps you explore ways of presenting and phrasing questions that might lead to meaningful discussions. As you draft, consider what directions students might take their responses. Thinking about what a student would have to do to be able to answer the question should be one of the biggest guides in creating questions that actually work. As you draft, continually consider potential responses and limitations, and use that as a guide for selecting the most-effective questions.
The questions you compose should hopefully be merely the starting point for quality conversations amongst your students. You know you’ve got good questions when students share a variety of ideas and bring in portions of text, personal experience, and broader knowledge. One of the great indicators of a good question is when your students take charge of the conversation and you as a teacher don’t have to participate or prod students into discussing.
As you train your students to engage in quality dialogues, encourage them to compose thought-provoking questions of their own. Don’t keep your question-writing process a secret. Instead, openly share with students your own goals and process for writing good discussion questions. They will better understand why you’re asking the questions you do, and also be better able to imitate that process on their own.
Encourage students to respond to peers during discussions with their own questions. As we said, questions are like logs for a fire – if students learn to throw their own logs into the fire of discussion, then that fire will burn for longer and with more intensity. When students ask questions, it gives them permission to be curious and takes the pressure off of them for always having an answer. Encourage your students to openly ask questions of their own in the course of discussions. As they build their comfort and skills, you may be able to entirely rely on student-driven questions to guide your discussions.
Good questions and good discussions don’t just have to end when your class period expires. Let good questions fuel student curiosity. This invitation to question and discuss will naturally lead students to inquiry-based learning, leveraging students’ own curiosity as motivation for deepening their own exploration of a given topic. Overall, remember that while good questions are likely to fuel discussion, interest, and learning, poor questions may lead to frustration or boredom. Thoughtfully compose your questions and encourage authentic responses!
What are your processes for writing good questions and encouraging interesting discussion with students in the teaching profession? Share your thoughts in 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.