Are there any questions?

Are there any questions?

Where do I begin?

While reading Anti-teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance and the first two chapters of Ellen Langer’s Mindful Learning, I kept thinking about a book I recently read called In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms, by Brooks and Brooks. As described in this book, students construct their own understanding of the world and transform new information based on prior experiences.

The book describes 5 principles of constructivist classrooms:

  • Teachers pose problems that are relevant
  • Teachers build lessons around primary concepts
  • Teachers seek and value the views of their students
  • Classroom activities challenge students’ uncertain beliefs
  • Teachers assess students in daily activities

A common element in these five principles is the importance of questions. To pose relevant problems, teachers ask questions about topics and problems that are relevant to the student. To identify and build ideas around primary concepts, teachers ask questions and provide materials that help students identify their own concepts. In seeking the views of their students, teachers ask students to describe their point of view to better understand students’ reasoning, existing beliefs, and perspectives. To incorporate aspects into the curriculum that challenge students’ misconceptions and suppositions, a teacher first needs to understand what those misconceptions are through questions and feedback from students. And to assess students in daily activities, teachers ask questions to better understand the type of help the student needs.

And while questions are not the only aspect of constructivism or constructivist classrooms, they are an important part. Questions are an important part of learning, and questions should be an important part of education. However, the only two questions typically asked in classroom settings by teachers are: what is the answer? and are there any questions?

These two questions do not inspire, do not encourage, and do not invite participation. So how can we inspire? How can we encourage learning, discovery, and exploration? And how can we create a dialogue instead of a monologue that students mindlessly repeat?

14 thoughts on “Are there any questions?

  1. I had a really interesting experience this week, sort of a real life reflection of what are discussing. I wrote my blog post (My teacher makes me want to…) about the whole exchange, but one of the lessons I learned was that many kids today have been beat down by the traditional education system, they can’t imagine a better way to construct the learning process. So, while I agree we need to teach kids how to construct their learning, I wonder if there is a step that comes before that. Do we need to start by teaching how to deconstruct the topic so that we can open the path to truly creative learning? The importance of deconstruction is one of the connections between Langer, Wesch and Robinson that I picked up for the week.

    P.S. Thanks for sharing the book, I will certainly check it out.

    1. I think you bring up a really great point about guiding students in deconstructing a topic before we expect them to construct their own understanding. One of the things that I really like about constructivist learning theory is that the big ideas are presented first and from that big topic, students can break that large topic into smaller parts. This is opposite of what we tend to do in traditional classrooms where we present all of these little parts and ideas and expect students to put them together to form a larger idea.

    1. I think why and how questions can definitely provide a lot more valuable information than just asking for an answer. I think students can often provide an answer that is correct, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand the complexities of the question. For example, I was working with some engineering students on practice problems for a typical mechanical engineering class and they could often tell me the answer. But once I asked them some follow up questions asking for an explanation of what was going on, students struggled to provide those details. These follow up questions and more general questions let me better understand what the student’s thought process was. Thanks for sharing the ideas!

  2. Indeed, those two questions do not ‘inspire’ anything! I think Wesch was on to something whereby he gauges the success of his teaching by the quality of questions he receives from his students. The dreaded “Is it on the test?” question in reality does not count as a question. He means questions specifically on the content conveyed in class. Only you, the teacher, will be able to assess the real ‘quality’ of the question in relation to the material being discussed. There isn’t really a way to quantify that question. You will simply know/feel if its a quality question. Either way, I think Wesch is really on to something here.

    1. I definitely agree with your comment and the point that Wesch made about questions being a good indicator of critical thinking and learning. I also really like the part where Wesch states that good questions force students to challenge their beliefs and assumptions. I have found that when I teach, I often am too quick to answer questions immediately and with one, simple answer. In those moments, I miss opportunities to guide students in that learning process. So I think it is important that we get to the point in classrooms where good questions come from both the instructors and the students.

  3. Thank you for sharing that book title! Reading your blog post made me wonder- why are classrooms/teaching/education structured in such an uninspiring way, anyway? I suppose it is much easier to teach that way, but it is so dull for both teachers and students. If teachers K-12 and beyond tried to make the material and teaching more relevant to students, I wonder how many fewer drop outs we would have, and how much more exciting and enjoyable education would be!

    1. Thanks for your comment! I agree that current teaching methods can be dull for teachers and students alike, and I think your point about traditional methods being easier is definitely true. Michael Wesch, in the Anti-Teaching article, said that using non-traditional pedagogies can mean giving up some control of the classroom and not knowing everything that the students are going to encounter. And I think that can be hard to do. But education would definitely be more enjoyable and exciting and I think valuable as well.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I like Noel’s comment about deconstructing first. I do think questioning is a great exercise but at the same time we do need to really prepare to generate those questions that are thought provoking and that motivate students to participate and engage with the discussions. At the end questioning should be the best way to increase our students curiosity right?

    One great strategy that we have discussed before in the class is to make students develop their test’s questions. That motivates them to think about what they consider is important in the things that they are learning.

    1. This is a really great point! And I think asking students to figure out what is important instead of being told what is most important could help them look at the material in a different and more meaningful way. I would be very curious to have students work in groups to develop test questions and hear the discussions that came from each group. Have you tried this in a classroom before? I am wondering what kinds of questions students came up with. Thanks for the idea!

      1. Yes,

        And we will talk more about it in the following weeks, but I used to do it as one of the midterms. When they came to take the test, the whole test was about them designing an effective test. Some of them were scared and skeptical at the beginning but then the outcome was great. They put a lot of effort thinking really excellent questions, and also thinking about different testing strategies based on how they like to be tested. I even used some of their questions in later semesters because they were really good.

  5. This is something that I’ve struggled with in my class. Having been a student through a number of classes where “what is the answer” and “are there any questions” have been the only questions the teacher has asked has taught me that those are the questions that teachers ask. Consequently, now that I’m teaching for the first time, those are the only questions I can think to ask my students. I want to be that teacher who can ask those dynamic, engaging questions but as a new teacher, teaching what is essentially a new class, I don’t have much of a framework to build from. I’m confident it will come with time.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing. I also struggle to ask dynamic and engaging questions when I teach. I came across this post last semester and really liked the idea. The idea is to put up a relevant picture on the projector or somewhere visible before class starts and just have two questions on the board or screen: “what do you notice?” and “what do you wonder?” Then class begins with a discussion of the picture and can lead into the topic of the day’s lecture. I liked it as a way to engage students from the very beginning of class and ask engaging questions that don’t have a right answer. But I’m curious if anyone has other ideas or experiences relating to asking engaging questions in class.

      1. One thing I always do in freshmen engineering classes is to start the class with a slide that says “tell me something I don’t know” the first time they don’t understand what’s going on so I tell them something they probably don’t know (maybe fun facts or something), then in the following classes they realize that they need to bring something that the rest of us in the classroom don’t know. The tricky part is trying to relate the things being discussed in the class to that “something I don’t know” story, if we are able to do it for sure it will be easier for them to reflect on the topic and the class and to apply the knowledge in other contexts.

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