Wednesday, February 17, 2016

3 Ways to Honor Questions

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In the middle of a lesson, when I ask “Are there any questions?” my students don’t see it as an honest request of them, but a marker that I am done talking about one thing and ready to move on to another. I suppose I think about it that way myself. The phrase is a transition, not a genuine solicitation.
It’s not that I don’t want to answer the questions they might have.  I can tell when students are puzzled by the look on their faces---the deer in headlights stare, or the unconsciously tilted head and squinched face, or the classic open mouth and lowered brows. I don’t have to ask “Are there any questions?”; I can ask “What is your question?”
     Questions are the doorway to learning. The familiar signs of puzzlement lead me to do my best ‘direct instruction’. Nonverbal cues let me know that I need to find another way to explain what I just explained.  So like a game of “New Choice” improvisation, I try to rephrase what I’ve just said or find a new analogy.
     Not clear about how to organize a speech?  I can tell.  So, think about it this way: sorting information into clearly organized main points is a lot like doing laundry. Sort the colors, darks, and whites into three bins before you proceed. In preparing your information to share with your audience, put like pieces together to figure out the most logical way to present them.
     Wondering how data-claim-warrant arguments work?  If you were, I might explain that the claim is like the canopy, the data is like the handle, and the warrant is the stretcher that connects the data to the claim.
     Puzzled as to why stage right looks like left to the audience? I’d probably make a crack about actors’ egos and explain how the actor’s right and left determine which way is which onstage. If it’s upstage and downstage that have you confused, I might briefly explain how the discovery of perspective led theatrical designers to tilt, or “rake” the stage so that if a Renaissance actor fell down the stage, they literally fell down the stage.
     Getting students to articulate questions is a step up the hierarchy.  The silence that greets me when I poll them for queries isn’t only about communication anxiety; I know no one wants to be the one to ask the only question, or the question that makes the class run longer, but questions that students are genuinely interested in finding the answers to are valuable tools in our classrooms.
     How do we encourage students to ask questions that matter?
First, we have to model the habit of asking questions.  Following up on student comments or responses by asking “Why do you say that?” or “What made you come to that conclusion?” will show them that questions are a part of the learning process.
     Next, we can help them frame good questions as they read and research.  The “5 Ws and an H” that I first learned about in my high school journalism class are still useful. When my students began researching their first Informative speeches this semester, I encouraged them to find the answers to “Who?” “What?” “Why?” “When?” “Where?” and “How” as a way to find their way in to the topic.  When we write persuasive speeches, I use those key words again.  Students write their topic at the top of a sheet of paper and pass it to a classmate.  Each group of 4 or 5 students gets an oversized foam rubber dice (those dollar store dice are useful) with the questions written on each face.  One person in the group rolls the dice repeatedly for about a minute and everyone formulates questions for the topic’s author, scribbling them down until time is up and the sheets and dice rotate for another round.  The exercise gives students some insurance against writer’s block; I tell them if they don’t know what to write, start by answering the questions their classmates have.
     A final way to honor questions is to answer them.  If a question is off topic but genuinely interesting, it may be an educational moment. Google it.  Have a student find the answer on their phone. Promise to ask someone who might know.  Then share the answer with the class.
     Cultivating questions cultivates learning.  Levi-Strauss said that scientists are defined not by right answers, but by right questions. That spirit is one we could be proud to cultivate in our classrooms.


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