“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered, than answers that can’t be questioned” ~ Richard P. Feynman
I’ve been so lucky to observe some of my colleagues classrooms. As part of the observation process, an observer focuses on a number of things, they ponder what they see and generate discussion afterwards. Everything you do is focused on moving the teacher forward in order to have better outcomes for the students they teach. Most of the time I am asked in their rooms to focus on specific elements of teaching, which colleagues wish to improve. Feedback, planning, ways to differentiate and developing student writing are just a few. One area in particular, questioning, has made me re-think what I thought I knew.
Although I’d never say I am an expert of good questioning, I would say I have a pretty good grasp of it in my lessons. That being said, a curious thought popped into my head while chatting to a member of our focus group a few years back about what we observe when watching teachers pose questions. I had been wooed under the illusion that a teacher who can skillfully pose questions that dissect or expand on an element of knowledge must be a master craftsman. The well worded question that causes a student’s head to hurt while still providing scope for an answer to be found is a thing to behold. All hail those teachers, who when being observed, both stretch and challenge students through well designed questions. And that there may just be the problem.
A lot of the time, the skill of questioning focuses on developing what or how the teacher poses the question. We work with teachers to craft better questions. We look at how we word a well designed question. We use a variety of techniques to increase student response or even deploy techniques like ‘wait time’ to ensure an answer can be provided. But what about the quality of the answer?
My school has a feedback policy, we focus a lot on the quality of written work that students produce. And why wouldn’t we? It’s easy to look through a book, read an answer and be able to analyse the quality of it and even suggest improvements. So, I must ask, if students can give high quality written answers, will they be able to give high quality verbal ones? When observing others I know I focus on teacher questions but I’m not sure I’ve specifically focused on the quality of student answers and that direct link. Have I missed an important component? I do know that in my own teaching I don’t tackle low quality verbal answers anywhere as near as I do with low quality written ones.
So, what can we do? Be reflective as you teach and identify times when you pose questions. What was the quality of the answer? What exactly did the student say? How was the strength of their communication skills? Where they able to eloquently explain their thoughts? Did they use high vocabulary or specific terminology? These are just some things to be reflective of and clearly not exhaustive. Once you know when these moments happen and you pay more attention to the response, then you can begin to change the habits of both yourself and your students.
From a teachers perspective, it can be a daunting task actually developing students answers. There is the worry that suggestions you pose may be taken as a blow to their self-esteem. The challenge of trying to improve an answer from a student who displays little interest or effort. The worry of how peers may react. The confidence to actually challenge and set high expectations. It can be daunting but we need to remember that we don’t do it to display our power or ridicule. Instead we do it to help students develop their ability to communicate in a high quality way.
Being teachers it’s easy to be drawn to the content element of an answer. Are they talking about the correct definition when we ask them? Is that a strong enough example to support their thinking? Have they pulled out a relevant piece of evidence? As well as doing that, focus on how they say it, exactly as we would in a written version. Do they use an unnecessary amount of redundant words that we can ask them to remove? Maybe we shouldn’t focus so much on the right answer or even a great answer, but rather that the student is thinking critically to construct an answer.
Maybe for some, I am making a big deal out of teacher questions and student answers. However, it may resonate with a lot of people. The idea though that settling for poorly constructed answers does bother me in my own practice. If I want learners to communicate in an academic way, whether in written or verbal format, I need to ensure that I help them achieve that.