Because I’m All About the … Questions

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Some of the most valuable professional development that I have experienced recently has been online. One blog post by Jenny Froehle has gotten me to thinking about the questions I ask students. In her blog, Jenny Froehle challenges us to rethink the questions that we typically ask students at the beginning of the school year. While we may be beyond the “What did you do this summer?” question, some questions that we do ask are simply “icebreakers” in nature and give us tiny glimpses into a students life. What we need to consider are more meaningful questions, the kind that lead to deeper thinking, questions that get students poised to orient themselves in the world.

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She suggests modifying questions, for example:

Instead of “What did you do this summer?”, ask “What did you learn or learn to do this summer?”

Instead of “What do you want me to know about you?”, ask “What do you want the world to know and think about you? Now and in the future.”

Instead of “What do you like?”, ask “What do you want to learn more about?”

Instead of “Tell me about your pets.”, “Tell me about what’s on your bookshelf, Kindle, iPod, app list, blog, Twitter feed and what does that tell me about you as a person?”

These are the kinds of questions that will get students thinking, engaged in conversations, provide a deeper insight to who they are, what is important to them.

In her Tedx talk, teacher Shelley Wright speaks about a transformational time in her teaching career. Shelley had been a teacher who stood in front of her classroom, looking out at straight rows of students and lectured, because, as she says,

she “…(W)as the center of the universe.”

She taught like that because that’s what she knew, how she was taught, how she learned. But, while participating in her Masters Program, learning about inquiry, PBL and constructivism, she was inspired to try a new approach, one which would make the students the center of their learning. So one day she garnered the courage to step away from her lesson plan and take a risk.

She asked her students the question,

“If you could create your own school, what would it look like content-wise, in practice, even in spatial lay-out?”

She tells us that her students had plenty of ideas to offer her, but the underlying theme, she willingly admits was “Stop Being Boring.”  She laughs about how her students told her “We don’t mind that you lecture but maybe not quite so much.” The discussions that followed led to her reconfiguring her classroom to promote student discussion. The class sat on the floor in a circle with learning pods on the outside and from the discussions that followed, Shelley learned that her students  “…wanted to make a difference.”

Out of this single question came a journey which ended in the raising of over $20 000 in 45 days for a charity in Uganda. Sure, they had their ups and downs along the way, but they learned so much from the rollercoaster experience, like how to persevere, pivot and plug through. But the most important lessons learned were not about the challenges involved in fundraising, but the underlying, more meaningful lessons that Shelley and her students learned in the process. Shelley learned to believe in her students and, more importantly, the students learned to believe in themselves. She tells us that throughout the experience, her students had a saying, “We are not the future, we are right now!”

Now, I’m not saying that you need to start fundraising. What I am saying is that maybe we need to consider the types of questions we ask students. We need not focus so much on providing answers, but rather focus more on providing questions. We need to talk less and listen more. We need to find out what is important to our students and help them to see that they can make a difference. We need to provide students with opportunities which will allow them to develop new skills, to thrive, to be active participants in the now. As Shelley Wright mentions, one boy in her class, who rarely ever spoke, became that student who was out and about in the community, asking for donations. The opportunity was provided for this student to be a part of something he was passionate about and it ignited a fire in him.

Thought provoking questioning can lead to powerful lessons.

What are some thought provoking questions you would like to implement?

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