Tag Archive: asking questions

The Non-Talkers Really Will Talk

By Scott Knecht Here is something I wanted to write about a while back and thought I did, but was reminded by a friend that it never happened. So here it is now. The question is how do you get more students to open up and speak more often? Teachers will tell me that their students won’t say anything in class. I think “That’s odd because as they were walking…
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A Gift for You

About  10-15 years ago a colleague handed me this little essay and asked me to read it.  He got it from a website (criticalthinking.org) and was intrigued by it.  He gave it to me right before the start of a meeting.  Well I stayed physically in the meeting but mentally I was in this paper.  It shook me in a good way and has caused me from then til now to think about the role of questions in teaching and constantly re-evaluate how I use them.  I go back and re-read this every so often and it still inspires me, so I thought I would share it with ‘you’ (whoever ‘you’ may be out there). Consider it an October 8th gift.

The Role of Questions in Teaching, Thinking, and Learning

One of the reasons that instructors tend to overemphasize “coverage” over “engaged thinking” is that they assume that answers can be taught separate from questions. Indeed, so buried are questions in established instruction that the fact that all assertions-all statements that this or that is so-are implicit answers to questions is virtually never recognized. For example, the statement that water boils at 100 degrees centigrade is an answer to the question “At what temperature centigrade does water boil?”.

Hence every declarative statement in the textbook is an answer to a question. Hence, every textbook could be rewritten in the interrogative mode by translating every statement into a question. To my knowledge this has never been done. That it has not is testimony to the privileged status of answers over questions in instruction and the misunderstanding of teachers about the significance of questions in the learning process. Instruction at all levels now keeps most questions buried in a torrent of obscured “answers”.

Thinking is Driven by Questions

But thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. Had no questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field-for example, Physics or Biology-the field would never have been developed in the first place. Furthermore, every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously as the driving force in a process of thinking. To think through or rethink anything, one must ask questions that stimulate our thought.

Questions define tasks, express problems and delineate issues. Answers on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought. Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life as such.

This is why it is true that only students who have questions are really thinking and learning. It is possible to give students an examination on any subject by just asking them to list all of the questions that they have about a subject, including all questions generated by their first list of questions.

That we do not test students by asking them to list questions and explain their significance is again evidence of the privileged status we give to answers isolated from questions. That is, we ask questions only to get thought-stopping answers, not to generate further questions.

Feeding Students Endless Content to Remember

Feeding students endless content to remember (that is, declarative sentences to remember) is akin to repeatedly stepping on the brakes in a vehicle that is, unfortunately, already at rest. Instead, students need questions to turn on their intellectual engines and they need to generate questions from our questions to get their thinking to go somewhere. Thinking is of no use unless it goes somewhere, and again, the questions we ask determine where our thinking goes.

Deep questions drive our thought underneath the surface of things, force us to deal with complexity. Questions of purpose force us to define our task. Questions of information force us to look at our sources of information as well as at the quality of our information.

Questions of interpretation force us to examine how we are organizing or giving meaning to information. Questions of assumption force us to examine what we are taking for granted. Questions of implication force us to follow out where our thinking is going. Questions of point of view force us to examine our point of view and to consider other relevant points of view.

Questions of relevance force us to discriminate what does and what does not bear on a question. Questions of accuracy force us to evaluate and test for truth and correctness. Questions of precision force us to give details and be specific. Questions of consistency force us to examine our thinking for contradictions. Questions of logic force us to consider how we are putting the whole of our thought together, to make sure that it all adds up and makes sense within a reasonable system of some kind.

Dead Questions Reflect Dead Minds

Unfortunately, most students ask virtually none of these thought-stimulating types of questions. They tend to stick to dead questions like “Is this going to be on the test?”, questions that imply the desire not to think. Most teachers in turn are not themselves generators of questions and answers of their own, that is, are not seriously engaged in thinking through or rethinking through their own subjects. Rather, they are purveyors of the questions and answers of others-usually those of a textbook.

We must continually remind ourselves that thinking begins with respect to some content only when questions are generated by both teachers and students. No questions equals no understanding. Superficial questions equals superficial understanding. Most students typically have no questions. They not only sit in silence; their minds are silent at well. Hence, the questions they do have tend to be superficial and ill-informed. This demonstrates that most of the time they are not thinking through the content they are presumed to be learning. This demonstrates that most of the time they are not learning the content they are presumed to be learning.

If we want thinking we must stimulate it with questions that lead students to further questions. We must overcome what previous schooling has done to the thinking of students. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called “artificial cogitation” (the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration).

The Big Question

             The question I am asked most frequently about teaching is this one: “How do I come up with good questions to use in the classroom?”  This is a critical skill for a teacher to have because, “To ask and answer questions is at the heart of all learning and all teaching” (President Henry B. Eyring).  It would seem a simple thing to ask a question in class, and it is if you aren’t too particular about what follows. If, however, you want to stir up thinking and created a lively learning atmosphere in your classroom, you will need to learn how to craft excellent questions.

            When a person tells me about their inability to come up with great questions, my first response is always the same: “You can’t come up with good classroom questions because you don’t ask good questions as you read the material in preparation for the class.  You simply read the material.”  Most people read a text just to read it.  A teacher needs to read it and think about how to use it in class.  I find that the most effective way to do that is to ask questions of the text as I read it.  Here are 3 examples:

1.      I remember the first time I read the Iliadas an adult (this did not happen as I read it in high school because I just sort of faked my way through it).  I was struck with the opening line: “Sing O Goddess, the anger of Achilles…”  Why was he so angry?  How did his anger reach a point where it caused multiple deaths (which the line goes on to say)?  Why is this the very opening line of the story?  I was full of questions from just those seven words and I read awaiting the answers from the text.  Those are questions that could launch a discussion.

2.      This summer I read a book entitled “Empire of the Summer Moon” about the Comanche nation in North America.  For 150-200 years, up to about 1880, they were the undisputed rulers of the great middle section of the continent, from Texas, and New Mexico on the south up through Kansas and Nebraska.  They were fierce warriors, incredible horsemen, and ruled their territory.  Their power kept the Spaniards from moving further north from Mexico and the French from moving west out of the New Orleans area.  Both groups wanted to keep colonizing but were bottled up by the Comanche protecting their lands.  As I discovered that insight in the text, I started asking questions:  how did that help or hinder further migrations by different people?  What caused the demise of their power and did that hasten migration?  How different would America be today if the French had colonized much further west, or the Spaniards farther to the north?   Can you see how questions like that could really enable discussion?

3.      When I read the scriptures I am full of questions.  Recently I was reading in Luke 17 and found this in verse 5: “Lord, increase our faith” and immediately I wondered what is the way to increase faith?  So I read the subsequent verses slowly and found that in 6-10 He uses a story to outline one way and in verses 11-19 He shares a second way to do it.  I would have never seen that if I had not asked a question of the text.

If you struggle to come up with good questions try doing this – have a conversation
with the text as you read through it.  The three examples above all could have just been an ‘ooh and ah’ moment in the reading but I asked questions and was stirred up.  Be full of wonder.  Think deeply.  Probe and push and pull.  The questions that bubble up as you read can be turned into good questions that you can ask your students in class.

      I’m going to devote the next couple of posts to the art of asking questions, both how to do it and how not to do it.

Pop Quiz

Ah, the dreaded Pop Quiz. There’s a reason that this old-style teaching method hasn’t been thrown out: it’s super effective. This evil-sounding tool can be used by the wise teacher to help cover a lot of material very quickly, review previously studied material, or to determine how well students are understanding material.  Plus, it takes very little preparation time by the teacher. Write your questions. Your questions should be of…
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Finding “Witnesses”

When I teach, I try to apply the law of witnesses: “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established,” (See D&C 6:28, 2 Corinthians 13:1, Deuteronomy 19:15, 2 Nephi 29:8, Matthew 18:16) to my Lesson preparation. The idea is that as teachers, we’re always looking for “witnesses” to the word. When we establish the word with multiple witnesses, or testimonies, we help it sink deeply…
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Elder Richard G. Scott taught, “Never, and I mean never, give a lecture where there is no student participation. A ‘talking head’ is the weakest form of classroom instruction.” (Address to CES Religious Educators, February 4, 2005) Lecture has its place in teaching, but teacher presentation or lecture should not be your entire lesson. It should not, in my opinion, make up the majority of your lesson either. I learned…
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Asking better questions

The following is a report I wrote after a Seminary inservice meeting where I attended a class on Asking Better Questions: I had the good fortune of being in Brother Baraclough’s class on Asking Better Questions. Watching him teach was at least as instructive as the material, if not more, and so I really enjoyed this. Improving the Set Up First Brother Baraclough demonstrated a common mistake teachers make (one…
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Jesus and Disruptive Questions

In Luke 10:25-37, we find a lawyer trying to trip up the Savior with his disruptive questions and justify himself in sin: And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He [Christ] said unto him [the lawyer], What is written in the law? how readest thou? [Here, Christ is establishing a starting point. He’s asking the lawyer to…
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