Questions Lead to True Learning; Scripts Lead To Stagnation

Students Asking Questions

When I first started teaching almost three years ago, I often felt under-prepared and woefully unready to teach a classroom of students.

One of the biggest problems I felt I had was that my timing seemed to be off. I’d spend hours planning a lesson, thinking it would take a week for the students to absorb. They’d work through it in a day (albeit, with little depth).

What I thought would take a day, ended up taking three.

I had a hard time anticipating what questions they would have, and sometimes their questions would throw me. The concept seemed so easy to me, I wasn’t sure how to break it down further. In many of those situations, a student was able to break down the concept for the student who wasn’t “getting it,” which in turn helped me understand what the students were asking. I admit, I was afraid of student questions, afraid that I wouldn’t know how to answer the question, and that I would look like an idiot.

I probably did anyway. I’m sure I was a really crappy teacher my first year. I imagine there are some former students out there who would agree with that.

As I have grown though, my classes have evolved from a strictly I-speak-you-write-or-work model to a more organic, we-discuss-and-work-out-the-topic-together version of teaching. My students get involved in the topics. I know they are engaged because they’re all trying to talk at once, to interject their opinions and interpretations, to ask their questions about the topic and related topics. My role is to maintain some semblance of order, to teach the students how to interact with one another in a respectful manner, and to ask thought-provoking questions that gently guide them to answers for the questions we’re exploring.

While scripted lessons might have helped me my first year, being required to teach that way now would have a seriously detrimental impact on my class.

I love questions.

Yes, some students like to derail the class with silly questions. Those are easy to deflect:

“I’m glad you asked that Suzy. See me after school and I’ll be happy to explain in great detail why roses are red and violets are blue.”

I guarantee you’ll be waiting a long time for a student to show up after school with a silly question…

It doesn’t take long for most students to learn that silly questions won’t get them anywhere. And it doesn’t take me long to learn how to redirect those students who try anyway.

While there are occasions that we might get off track, they are always worth it in the end — maybe not from a Common Core, get ready for the test perspective, but from a we-are-growing-human-beings-here-who-are-going-to-run-the-world-one-day perspective.

Nancy Flanagan, in her Teacher in a Strange Land blog at EdWeek said it best:

Teachers who host rich conversations in their classrooms (whether in kindergarten or high school civics class) do so by asking juicy questions, and not presuming they have the one right answer. Lots and lots of questions. Provocative and probing questions that make students uneasy or curious. And they practice, practice, practice. Discussion–taking turns, sharing viewpoints, deconstruction of ideas, asking questions–is a learned skill.

And let me speak up here for floundering–not being sure how to interpret that poem, read that graph or distinguish between evaporation and condensation.  There’s something to be said for extended wrestling with un-mastered skills and content that isn’t immediately grasped. The purpose of letting students struggle, however, is not to prove that you, the teacher, have the answer–ta da! It’s to give students experience with uncertainty and problem-solving strategies.

Because the all-knowing teacher won’t always be there. (Emphasis is mine.)

The last line is the philosophy that informs both my teaching and my parenting. I am raising (or teaching) kids to be independent, to be able to go out into the big wide, unforgiving world and make their own way. They can’t do that if I don’t let them ask questions and explore the world in a safe way now, if I insist on being the fountain of information, instead of letting them discover questions and answers on their own.

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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