More Questions than Answers

For some time now, I have been discussing with teachers the fact that, by the time they reach secondary school, most young people have stopped asking information-seeking questions, and have resigned themselves to simply trying their best to answer them. In fact the whole business of developing the habit in young people of asking questions is so vital that it is one of my Seven Reading Strategies for reading success.  I am therefore very grateful to Richard Byrne of  the amazing Free Technology for Teachers website, for the link on Twitter earlier this week to this TED talk by Dan Meyer, who is a high school maths teacher in the USA. In a way that I’m sure most teachers will recognise, Meyer explores the notion that young people have been switched off maths in particular, and learning in general, because we are providing too many of the answers for them.

Look out for an extended version of this blogpost, on the importance of questions in the classroom, appearing in TES Scotland in the near future. In the meantime, if you are looking for effective questions to stimulate classroom discussion and questioning, try these links.

Fermi Questions – named after the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who was well known for solving problems which left others baffled.

Little Book of Thunks – a great source of questions to stimulate thinking and discussion.

Philosophy for Kids – ideas to generate discussion and critical thinking.

The Critical Thinking Community – where teachers can learn about the development of critical thinking skills.


7 thoughts on “More Questions than Answers

  1. Bill,

    Your posting is timely. This year, my board’s directive for professional learning has been on “questioning structure”. Using the Michael Hardt and Mosenthal periodic table of questioniong, we’ve been teaching kids how to break down questions so they know what’s really being asked, and how to design their own high-level thinking questions. As I’ve moved through this program, and incorporated the strategies into my class projects, this preference to be “spoon-fed” by some students has indeed appeared. Interestingly, it is sometimes those students who are usually the high achievers.

    Recently, my class in Ontario completed a project with Susan Carter Morgan’s class in Virginia (via Google Docs, Skype and VoiceThread). After choosing their topic on an issue of social justice, all groups had to create their own higher level thinking questions and find the research to answer them. Yes, I still had my “spoon-feeders” but they had shifted to the right. They were not as reluctant to buy in, I believe, because we had spent a year practicing before getting to a point where they had to take full ownership of the process. On the other side, those students who are not great at memorizing had a chance to really shine. Students who buy into the process, which is becoming a greater majority, find more enjoyment in their learning. It’s tough slogging at times for the teacher, but the rewards are there.

    As you wrote, questioning is a reading strategy. It should be incorporated into all subject areas as we move towards more inquiry based learning to support critical thinking skills.

  2. Hi Heather,
    Thanks for the response. I’m interested to hear of your project and the shift in your students’ thinking. I think very often teachers, with the best of intentions, try to give kids every ‘support’ they can give them by coming up with good questions which they believe will lead automatically to better understanding – which is not always the case, the point which Dan Meyer makes in his talk.
    Sometimes it is more effective to provide them with a text, and fewer but ‘bigger’ questions. For example, rather than provide a piece of written text and 20-30 detailed questions, as we often do in the English class, provide the text and 2 questions: Who is the intended reader of this text? What is the author’s purpose? In working out the answer to those two questions, most of the other 30 questions will emerge, but this time they will be fashioned out of a genuine need for the answers.

  3. Thanks for such a thought provoking post Bill. Like Heather, I agree in the timeliness as I have been thinking quite a bit about my approach to teaching Maths and today I did something that I wouldn’t normally do which was to step back. In Dan Meyer’s TED talk he provides 5 points that teachers could use to help improve learning in the classroom. Number 5 was ‘Be less helpful’ and today I did just that in a Maths lesson. I stepped back and let the class learn. The results were better than I expected.
    I, like many teachers, use the soapbox method as a teaching tool and even though I know it’s by far the least effective method, it’s one that puts the teachers in control. Learning should be in the control of the learner, the pupils in your class. Teachers need only facilitate the learning but in a way that’s manageable. By stepping back in today’s lesson I let my pupils find their own ways to find the answers, to use the teaching that I had already provided them and put it into solving the problems they were faced with.
    Dan’s video has made me sit up and rethink my plans for next week. Do I really need that much detail in my plans? Do I really need to have every possible outcome predetermined and accounted for? Do I really need to guide them in the right direction? No to all three. Next week I’m taking the role of a participant.
    I’ll use the tools that I have at my disposal to engage the learners.
    I’ll introduce the problems they need to solve.
    I’ll step back and leave them to it.

    It’s a breath of fresh air.

  4. Kevin,
    Thanks for the response. A good teacher always likes to feel ‘in control’ – that’s only natural. However, like you, I wonder whether that means the same as directing every minute of every lesson. I’ll be very interested to hear how your different approach works this coming week. Come back and tell us, but I’ll be having a look at your blog to find out anyway!

  5. Bill,

    you should get in touch with Mary Murray, our Literacy Across Learning Development Officer for Primaries, she has been working on a 3-18 resource to support higher-order questioning based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. I am sure you would find her work interesting!

  6. Pingback: The Pursuit of Ignorance | Bill Boyd - The Literacy Adviser

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