Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Asking Questions

This is a topic that has been on my mind several times this academic year. I am part of a math focus team at my elementary school, and one of our big focuses has been on 'talk moves' and asking quality questions. When good discussion is taking place, the atmosphere in a classroom is energized, filled with student led learning taking place, and allowing the teacher to step back and take in the differing depths of understanding showing in the students. This is the goal! We want to create classroom environments where the students not only participate in discussions in response to the teachers prompting questions, but by sparking their own discussions with questions of their own.

We first have to establish a classroom climate and expectation that we are all the teachers. We are all in charge of our learning and participating in learning activities that further our understanding of the material being covered. This can be done in an orderly way. I think that sometimes, especially in younger grades like 1st grade where the students can get excited and hyper rather quickly, teachers fear having the discussions as a major part of the lesson plan. Maybe they fear not having control of the group, or not being able to cover what they want/need to, or perhaps they never saw classroom questioning and discussions taking place so they just don't know how to implement this in their rooms yet. To this fear I would say, risk it! You never know until you try, and I can say from experience that the quality of learning taking place in my classroom now that the students are comfortable contributing, asking their own questions, adding on to a friends thought, clarifying, etc. is far higher now than it ever was when it was mainly me talking and thinking naively that they were all getting what I was saying.

Learning takes place when you teach. This is especially evident to me with math. I have become much more confident with my own math abilities since I became a teacher and through explaining to others how or why something worked, I noticed patterns and familiarized myself with it to an extent that I 'know' it now. Well, offer the students that same opportunity! Let them teach it! Let them ask questions, let them answer, show other ways of solving problems, use lots of different tools to solve problems, add on to friends ideas, and contribute to the learning taking place. When they are the ones explaining and in control, they are 'owning' it. Plus, it lets you know very clearly who has it, who is struggling, and who has surprised you with yet another unique way of solving a problem!

All of this builds on setting up the atmosphere for a classroom climate that expects full participation from all, and is founded on good questioning and discussion methods. I agree with Dr. Maryellen Weimer, author of "Three Ways to Ask Better Questions in the Classroom." It is important to plan good questions ahead of time, versus just relying on coming up with clear, deep questions to surface at the time of the lesson. Planning ahead allows you to ensure that the questions you ask are not only clear and understandable, but that they ask for deeper levels of response (avoiding the simple, 'yes' and 'no' responses). I also like her suggestion to not answer all questions right away. For, that triggers other students to shut down because a response has been given. Either have some questions that aren't answered until the end, or allow all students to write their own responses so that they contribute before they answer aloud, or practice with the students so that they know that one response won't cut it, and that way they stay tuned in.

I love her last two lines, "Eventually students may start asking better questions themselves, including ones that we can't answer. And those are the best questions of all." That is the goal! We want children who are thinking, actively engaged, answering our well thought out questions, and even asking questions of their own.

boy asking a question

Works Cited:
Weimer, M. (2012, June 27). Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching Strategies from Magna Publications. Three Ways to Ask Better Questions in the Classroom.


  1. Mary,

    This post is very well put together and I can see that your experiences have contributed to this post. Since you are talking about math a lot and I will be teaching math and have done a lot of tutoring/supplemental instruction, I can say that you are 100% correct when you say the students need to own their learning. I've noticed in math that if students aren't engaged they usually aren't getting it. By asking the right questions and involving all, you quickly see who does and doesn't have an understanding of the topic. I am also a big proponent of allowing the students to teach each other, thus providing them with the opportunity to master a skill. Finally, I believe that questions that encourage classroom discussion are the best kind. I believe that even teachers can learn from the answers that the students give. It is a win-win for all.

  2. Thanks, Ramsey! I agree! Teachers learn so much from allowing the student to share his/her thinking. It's definitely a 'win-win for all!'

  3. " 'Eventually students may start asking better questions themselves, including ones that we can't answer. And those are the best questions of all.' "

    What a wonderful quote!