Saturday, 13 April 2013

Asking Good Questions

Asking questions has always been an important aspect of any teachers job but understanding what makes a great question is the hardest part of the job.  As a teacher we have watched those Professional Development (PD) videos on the classes that seem to be in rich discussion, always learning and having students say such wonderful and impacting statements.  I know I often sat in those said PD sessions and said, " How in the world did that happen?" or "Those students must be the best of the best?"  It wasn't until I watched my own videos up in a PD session that I realized there was more to this then meets the eye.

Part of my research has been to look at how my questions impact the learning of my students understanding in mathematics.  As a secondary question I also wanted to understand how teachers plan in order to ask good questions.  I have noticed three important aspects that may help in asking good questions.

The first is that as teachers we need to plan for good questions and good talk. Discussion just doesn't happen.  We may think that they do but real discussion takes time, just like real learning takes time.  If we want to impact our students learning, we, as teachers, need to plan for it to happen.  The first step is planning meaningful, rich tasks that allow students to explore the concepts.  These tasks need to be open ended and have a real context for all students to access the problem/tasks.  The second step is anticipating students problems, responses and learning.  I often have these mapped out based on my experiences, learning and research into the subject matter.  As a teacher we MUST understand my students learning and we MUST understand the curriculum and concepts being taught.  It is more then just opening a textbook and learning steps or procedures to solve the problem.  When you can identify the problems students may have you are better prepared to give a question instead of directly teaching the concept.

The second aspect of asking good questions is the type of questions that we ask as a teacher.  Often, (and I am included in this) we as students questions that only have one answer, or we just want to check for understanding and move on.  If we want our students to develop deeper understanding our questions have to be focused on learning objects and linked to further explanation of concepts.  For this to happen our questions should: 1) push our students beyond the basic procedural output and into connecting it to conceptual big ideas; and 2) introduce connections to other concepts or subjects.

The final aspect is giving our students wait time to respond.  Often, we expect an answer to a question right away.  This is due to the fact we already have an answer that we are looking for or the question only has one answer to respond too.  When we give our students the time to think they have time to develop an true understanding.  When we rescue our students or go right to direct teaching we rob our students of their understanding and thinking.  In addition, the wait time also allows our quieter students to feel a part of the community and wanting to participate.  It honours their learning.

Asking good questions just doesn't happen.  It takes practise, it takes time and it takes patience.  You will make mistakes but that is okay.  Some times it may seem that you are going backwards in learning but when you sit back and reflect your student's learning, you may just be surprised; I know I have been.

For more information read the following articles:

http://bfc.sfsu.edu/PRIME/OrchestratingDiscussions.pdf

Orchestrating Productive Mathematical Discussions: Five Practices for Helping Teachers Move Beyond Show and Tell.  Mary Kay Stein, Randi A. Engle, Margaret S. Smith, Elizabeth K. Hughes.