As they grow, children are (consciously or subconsciously) taught to conform to rules and boundaries, and not to question for fear of displeasing others or being mocked. Without even realizing it, adults often curb their curiosity and critical thinking, in place teaching them conformity and acceptance of what they believe is right. Even in school, the wide-eyed, curious little toddlers who step into this environment gradually lose that wonderment, inquisitiveness, and courage to question what they do not understand.
In many traditional classrooms, students simply aren’t encouraged to ask questions in class. They may spend the entire class period listening to the teacher’s lecture without ever really engaging–or, if they’re confused, they may not even know where to begin with the questions they have to ask. Much of the question-asking process depends, not on the students themselves, but on their teachers–and knowing how, as a teacher, to facilitate great question-asking can help create a more effective classroom.
The First Tool: The Teacher’s Attitude
In every classroom, the teacher is the one who sets the stage for the entire classroom. A teacher who is excited to be there and eager to interact with her students will be much more likely to create a positive learning response in students than a teacher who is clearly bored and disinterested in both the topic at hand and the students in the classroom.
This is even truer when it comes to encouraging students to ask questions! A teacher who is patient, who accepts questions with genuine interest, and who focuses on being sure that students genuinely understand the material before moving on will encourage questions from students in the future. A teacher who is abrupt, huffy, and simply directs the student to the book for the answer, on the other hand, likely won’t receive many questions in the future.
Make it about them- not you!
Never be afraid of not knowing the answer to a question- a teacher is not supposed to be all-knowing, not even about his own subject! In fact, if they do ask questions which are out of the box and even new to you, that means you have succeeded in giving them the courage to ask.
Someone great once said: “Teaching – It’s 10% asking kids questions. It’s 90% inspiring kids to ask questions that you can’t even answer.”
Teaching is not just about transferring your knowledge to others. It actually gives you a chance to learn more than you teach! Never make it about you or your ego. Do not feel embarrassed at not knowing an answer.
Appreciate your students for asking big questions, and write down the ones you can’t answer to look them up later and then guide them. If your students are making you learn new things, that is a blessing and the true essence of learning- it’s always a two-way street. Invite other students to answer each other’s questions too. You will be surprised at the answers they come up with, answers you may never have thought of!
Determining Student Understanding: Cues Matter
Many teachers assume that if their students aren’t asking questions, they must understand the material. Unfortunately, all too many students have been conditioned not to ask questions by teachers who are indifferent at best about their questions (and who, at worst, only want to deliver instruction, with no regard to whether or not students are actually learning). In the classroom, there are several cues teachers can look for to determine whether or not students truly understand the material.
Are students engaged with the content? If you’re having a classroom discussion, are students participating? Often, students who don’t have a good grasp of the material will disengage from the discussion or appear disinterested. Some of these students will just be too shy and hesitant to ask for fear of social judgement.
How well are students asking questions or engaging in discussions together? Proctoring lesson discussions are essential for teachers who want to check student learning. By paying attention to what your students are discussing and how they’re discussing it, you’ll get a much better idea of how well they’ve absorbed the material.
What does the work look like? You shouldn’t have to give a quiz to check for student understanding. Instead, check over the work students have done on the lesson for the day. While they are working, you shouldn’t just sit on your chair and watch from a distance. Instead, use that opportunity to go up to them individually and engage with them. Do they appear to understand, or are they missing vital concepts?
Have you asked your students? Sometimes, all it takes is a little prompting to determine whether or not students have a good grasp of the material. If someone is too hesitant to ask, a little starter from you will help them to voice their thoughts. A quick check-in will allow students to self-evaluate and determine their grasp of the material.
Establishing a Q&A Culture
Without student questions, many teachers don’t really have any idea whether or not their lesson was absorbed. In order to create this vital shift in classroom structure, it may be necessary to establish a new direction for the classroom–one that will ultimately benefit both teacher and student.
Get comfortable with silence. If it’s silent in the classroom, even in the middle of a classroom discussion, don’t feel as though you need to be the one to fill it. Instead, get comfortable with silence, and wait for students to speak. By giving them time to formulate their thoughts, you put them in a better position to ask those vital questions.
Give them time to brainstorm and work independently too. Do not put them under pressure to speak all the time. First give them a chance to ponder and reflect silently so they can focus, and come up with creative, original ideas that are not influenced by other people’s opinions.
In short, do not make them speak or question just for the sake of it. All you have to do is create a spark and give them the encouragement they need- then see the magic!
Make them feel heard. Listen to student answers–really listen. They may ask questions of their own, or they may go off on a tangent. That’s okay! Listen to everything they have to say before you answer. Give them your full attention when they speak. Even your body language will say a lot about your interest, like how you face them and how kind and genuinely interested your facial expressions are.
Praise them. Appreciation is the best confidence booster you can give a child. Just saying “That’s a great question!” or “Wow, what an interesting question!” will mean the world to your students and will make them open up more often. Similarly, when they answer a question you asked, appreciate them for what they say even if the answer is not correct.
If they are younger students, then you can even give them stickers or candies. A high-five would be great too! Be more than a teacher to them- be a friend.
Never mock a question. Every teacher knows that there are some questions that really do come across as “stupid”–but they weren’t stupid to the student who asked them. Never mock or belittle a child for asking a question. Instead, provide clear, solid answers that will genuinely help students with their questions, even if they’re difficult.
If you snuff out a child’s question saying it is trivial or that they should have paid attention earlier or that it is a repeated question, essentially, you are snuffing out their courage to ever ask a question again. Explain as many times as they ask you. If a student is weak at grasping a concept, treat them as even more special and allow them to come to you separately after class as well.
Give students time and space. Do not expect all students to learn at the same pace. Be prepared to give some of them more time and effort. Some students need more time to work with new material than others. Give them a chance to try out an assignment so that they can learn what they do and don’t know about the material before coming to you.
Create an environment of respect. If you’re working with several students at the same time, make sure they are respectful of each other and offer one another their attention when they’re asking questions.
It is not just your respect that matters, but also the respect a student needs from his classmates. It can sometimes happen that a student’s question (or answer) is met by laughter or ridicule from other students. This kind of negative peer pressure can be extremely discouraging and scarring. You have the biggest role here, because you can turn this around. Appreciate the student who spoke, and always let the others know when their behavior was inappropriate or disrespectful to others.
Make it a rule that no one can laugh or make fun when their classmate is speaking. Inculcate empathy within them. Make them think about how they would feel if they were in the same situation.
Activities to Encourage Question-Asking
Since some students feel hesitant to put their hands up during a class and participate, there are other indirect and more exciting ways to get them to speak up.
Create a “Wonder Wall”
This is a really creative way that some teachers use to help students participate. They put up a soft board in the classroom or dedicate a wall and call it the “Wonder Wall”. Then they ask students to use sticky notes to put up questions throughout the year. The question does not even have to be course related- simply anything that a student might be curious about, from the littlest to the biggest things.
This is one of the best ways to bring out confidence in otherwise hesitant or shy children. Make a way for them to ask anonymously. Sticky notes are the perfect way to do this. Students should be given the option to put up questions on the “Wonder Wall” anonymously.
Another practice can be a question “box” or “bank”. This can be a great thing to do around once or twice a week (the rest of the times you can encourage verbal question answer sessions). After class, give each student a sticky note and ask them to jot down whatever questions came to their mind during the lesson, anonymously. Then go around and collect all of these in a box. Shake the box to jumble them up and then pick out random ones to answer one by one. Also encourage the whole class to give their opinions.
What’s the question to this answer?
Another way to get students to formulate and ask questions is an activity called “What’s the question to this answer?” You just put up a word, phrase, or statement and ask students to come up with different questions that it could be a potential answer for! It might seem unconventional or illogical but even this depicts how much students know and gets their creative juices flowing. It enables them to frame better questions too.
These are very effective because it is a lot easier to talk to one person, in this case the student sitting next to you, than speaking up in front of the entire class. So give students time to ask their partner some questions and have a one-on-one discussion with them before having a whole class discussion.
Put up question starters
This is a great thing to add to the boards around the classroom. Starters such as “What if…” or “I wonder why…” along with examples of meaningful questions would help them learn how to question better. You can also put up issues related to which they can raise profound questions, such as “Multiple Perspectives”, “Ethical questions”, “Empathic questions” and so on.
Creating an atmosphere where questions are encouraged takes time. At The Tenney School, we offer students and teachers the benefits of a question-rich environment that makes it easier for teachers to check for student understanding. Want to learn more? Contact us today.