Throughout the year, I have been studying and implementing strategies to increase the quantity and the quality of the questions students ask within their classrooms. In the past, I have challenged myself to ask important questions—provocative questions that inspire students to think and engage in more than a one-word answer. However, I have been working hard to shift the work and place the responsibility of asking questions on the shoulders of students.
Research from the National Center for Educational Statistics and shared at The Right Question’s website shows a drastic decline in the number of questions students ask as they develop their reading and writing skills.
Warren Berger in A More Beautiful Question suggests that the decline in students asking questions relates directly to students’ decreasing engagement with school, as shown in a study done by the Gallup Poll.
I know that I fall into the trap of asking questions with preconceived correct responses, and I have to concentrate hard to make sure I really listen to responses that are not exactly what I think I should hear. This tendency limits creativity, deters risk taking, and minimizes the number of students who will respond. When I ask questions that are truly exploratory in nature, engagement and achievement increase in classrooms, regardless of grade level.
What I have also realized in thinking about all of this is that the person who asks the questions is the person who has the power. The person who asks the questions determines the trajectory of the conversations, the substance of the discussions, and the priority of the learning. What if students shared the power of asking the questions?
Over the course of the school year, I have been modeling a technique described during a recent Teachers College workshop. In a fourth-grade classroom, I recently read Jane Yolen’s newest book, The Stranded Whale. I had a group of students ask questions, but only through the lens of character development. Another group was responsible for asking questions that pertained to the setting. Two more groups asked questions about figurative language and repetition, and a final group listened and asked questions that dealt directly with the author’s message and theme.
Here’s what one student had to say about the process.
When we asked students to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down about whether they liked this approach, almost all of the students reported liking it. The answers of the three who didn’t fascinated me, because they had to do with how engaged the students were with the story. “It was a really good book,” one boy said. “I wanted to know what would happen.”
As with most concepts in education and in life, I know that a balance should exist between who asks the questions in classrooms. That being said, I think it’s definitely worth considering how important it is to not only know and learn answers, but also to develop and formulate questions.