Questions Galore

In my line of work, I get to ask lots of questions of lots of different people. There are days where I feel more like a psychiatrist than I do a teacher - asking students how they are; asking parents what strategies they've tried for their son or daughter that have worked on not worked; asking students why they're upset today and what I can help with so maybe they can still learn something in my class, or at least the next class.

When it comes to questions, sometimes it's best to keep it simple. One word - why - can so often lead to deeper thinking and eventually deeper understanding. An underused strategy of questions, teaching students how to ask questions themselves, is also really important. If a student has enough background knowledge and is thinking deeply enough to ask a probing question on a topic, haven't I already won this particular battle? If my underlying goal is to get students to love to learn new things, then isn't getting students to question the tangible result?

I think it probably is, but for the same reason movies make montages to glorify the large amounts of time and hard work that go into achieving the climactic moment, it is the practice of good questioning that can really grind on a teacher.* When you learn how to teach, you are told that practice and repetition are vital. When you actually teach, you learn that one of the great challenges is finding interesting and motivating ways to get kids to practice what are ultimately kind of dry concepts is the challenge.

*And on a student as well, I assume.

Think about math for a moment. Once you learn in class that a triangle has three sides, how do you reinforce this concept? You could have students research artwork that uses triangles. You could analyze movements on a soccer field that show how three players working together can form a constantly evolving triangle. You could go on a field trip and walk around your building and take pictures of architectural uses of triangles.

Think now about the Kansas City Royals and baseball. You've taught your daughter to throw a baseball - now what? You can hit her ground balls and make her throw back to home plate. You can hit her fly-balls and make her throw out an imaginary runner at second base. You can have her pitch to an imaginary hitter. You could also have her crouch and catch while you pitch to practice her arm motion when she doesn't have use of her torso.

In both of these scenarios, the practice is varied and useful. The student in each case can hopefully see applications of the skill that is being learned and practiced to something later in life.

Now think about history or government. What I teach is less about concept or fact and more about skill and a way of thinking. If the goal is not to teach a fact (such as the characteristics of a triangle) but rather to teach a student to question a preconceived notion (such as that police are always good or bad depending on one's past experiences), then how do I create scenarios where this skill is practiced?

I'm coming to believe more and more that it comes down to asking the right questions. Also I have to intentionally create situations where there is enough time and organization provided to allow students to think and ask questions themselves.

Do we get off topic at times? Yes.

Do we move more slowly through the material I need to cover? Yes.

Do we occasionally lose some kids interest because " goes Mr. Chambers again asking these questions..." on some particular topic? Most definitely.
Students play the role of the Senate and President Truman.
The Senators were responsible for asking questions that the
Presidents then answered.

Do we teach that curiosity is a good thing and that you cannot give me a strong answer without also supporting that answer? Well, that's the hope anyways. I think that questions are probably more difficult but more important for many if not all subject areas, especially history and government. They are the stuff of montages, where kids practice their thinking and practice their arguments and practice their question-asking skills and practice their ability to support a statement or a question - they practice a lot through questions.

Unfortunately, that can be awfully dry. But just as the Karate Kid had to paint that damn fence, we have to ask, answer and ask again until our brains hurt to learn such an abstract skill. As a teacher, I have to have the patience and the planning to create a space where there is time and reason for students to ardently go through this practice, and providing a climactic event (such as We The People) to make the montage all worth it.

I recently took my US Government class the White House Decision Center at the Truman Library. A post all about that trip is coming up soon, but getting to ask and answer questions was a huge part of that experience. If I wasn't convinced before, I am now - being able to ask a good question is just as powerful as being able to answer a question.

Until next time, Go Royals! 

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