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 that I make often) is not setting up a question correctly before asking it. To demonstrate this mistake, he turned and asked a student if she knew what time of day the martyrdom of Joseph Smith took place. Crickets. Of course she didn’t know, and they talked about how it made her feel (stupid). It made her not want to answer any more questions or talk in class. Brother Baraclough pointed out that a lot of time we ask students to recall dates/times/minutiae that are not important to their salvation. Instead, let them use their brainpower on questions that really matter.

(I’m interpolating a bit here — he didn’t say that stuff flat out, but that was the takeaway.)

Then he demonstrated a better way to jump into the material. He described the setting of the martyrdom, talked about the bullet stopping John Taylor’s watch, Joseph fall/jumping from the window for a few minutes. Then he asked us, “What do you know about Joseph Smith, and how does that knowledge make you feel?”

Much better. And the resultant discussion would be much more meaningful to students, too.

He told us there are some important things to do when questioning. You
1) set up the question,
2) you give students time to think,
3) you know what’s coming before you ask (you know the answer or type of answer already because you’ve asked a proper type of question), and
4) you physically approach the student closer and closer as they respond.

He did one other demonstration of this technique. He asked who was the fourth president of the Church? That’s a bad question — no set up. You feel dumb for not knowing (or smarter than everyone else if you do know).

A better way would be to have that little Primary song with the names of the Presidents of the Church playing, and then ask the question.

The Redirected Question

He also demonstrated another technique I have yet to try in my class: the redirected question. I read about this in Teach like a Champion, but it’s an advanced questioning technique, in my opinion, and I’m not quite there yet. So the way it works is, you look at kid A while you’re asking the question as part of a string of questions — even approaching them, but you name kid B to respond. It draws a laugh, but eventually students come to expect it. It keeps everyone involved in the conversation, because they don’t know when they might be called on. It also helps you get responses from multiple students.

This is something I want to learn to do myself.

Power of the Pause

Teachers need to learn to embrace the pause. During a pause after a question, give your students time to think. Ask yourself if you need more set up or explanation for the question.

I’ve found that holding out on a pause helps reluctant students participate sometimes. There are just some kids who don’t formulate verbal thoughts as quickly as others. Teachers too often swoop in to save them embarrassment, and the kid never gets any better. I saw this work in a YW class once. We had a girl who was notorious for not participating. She would just stare at the teacher with a kind of blank look on her face until the teacher finally answered for her and she would nod in assent to whatever the teacher said. During our lesson, we had all filled out a worksheet and then were going around the room to respond. I did 3-4 girls first in order around the group and then got to this girl. Pause. Pause. Pause. Seriously, the pause went on for almost 45 seconds. I was just opening my mouth to prompt her again in case she didn’t understand part of it, when out she came with her response. It wasn’t great, but very good, and it was all hers. The other girls saw her struggle and triumph, and you could sense their happiness on her behalf. I watched her very carefully to make sure that she wasn’t overwhelmed by the pressure or annoyed or anything. Rather, she was pleased with herself. Not exultant, but pleased. The message for this girl was the teacher felt that she had something important to say, and wanted everyone to hear it. That was essential.

It was a big thing for me to learn. As teachers we can setup the expectation that everyone will respond by explaining how an activity will work before we begin (all write, all share afterwards). Then call on those who respond easily first. Don’t call on difficult person last. She’s just part of the group. It’s good if you can go in order around the group.

Interrupting Student

“What do you do when you have a student who answers all the questions or speaks up just because it’s quiet?” one teacher asked.

Brother Baraclough taught us that teachers should first determine if you are dealing with a smart kid or a smartaleck kid. Your response to interruptions will be different based on the reason the student is always responding.

Brother Baraclough said you can set up the question to allow for a silent moment afterward: “After I ask this question, I want you all to pause for a moment and think silently about your answer. Your first idea might not be your best. After a moment, I will call on class members to respond…” or something similar.

Another technique I use is to say, “When you find the answer to this question, put your finger on it and raise your hand.”

You might also ask the student privately for help teaching in a way that allows the Holy Ghost to be present. During pauses, people can feel the holy ghost or can focus inwardly.

This is an area where I have some first hand experience. When I was in elementary school, my teachers would ask stupid questions. Seriously, dumb yes/no type responses and then wait interminably long for someone to respond. I got into the habit of answering so as to move the lesson along. I thought I was being helpful. One teacher asked me to wait and see if anyone else would respond before I answered, so I started doing that. If no one would, I would answer. Finally my teacher told me not to answer at all because she felt the others didn’t have a chance to respond because of me. It poisoned me for a long time. I did what she wanted, and I was still shot down. From that day on, I never once answered a question at school without being called on by name. I spent the next 8 years of school being that sullen kid scowling in the back.

One thing teachers need to do, too then, is make sure that we’re asking good questions — ones that don’t just require yes/no or recall responses. Ask questions that require some thoughtful reflection before being answered. Interrupting student may actually think that he or she is helping you move class along by answering overly simple questions quickly.

Better Questions

I have the following list in my notes. I think it was probably a list of question beginnings that will help teachers ask thought-provoking questions, though I can’t remember for sure:

In your opinion what …
In your estimation how …
Where do you think …
In your mind …
Would you please explain …
When have you felt … (Gonzales)
How do you feel … (Gonzales)

The Rescue

Sometimes you will ask a bad question or a student may not understand the question. You need to be prepared to rescue the student. Will you call on the group for help? Will you direct the student to the answer in the text? Will you ask additional questions to lead the student to the answer? Will you repeat or add more set up information to the question? Will you redirect to another student?

Brother Baraclough says you have to plant for a rescue so that you don’t “chill” the class. Chilling the class is when a discussion grows cold because someone has been humiliated by a bad question or technique. A teacher’s behavior may unintentionally make a student feel unwelcome and excluded, or stupid. Chilling can occur because of the teacher’s response to an incorrect answer. Rescuing helps avoid the chill.

It’s especially important to respond to incorrect and inappropriate answers so that students feel comfortable answering even if their response may be incorrect. You also want to handle inappropriate answers in stride, without drawing too much attention to them, and redirect the question back to the original.

You might say
– Perhaps I didn’t make that question clear.
– I had not thought of it that way.
– Perhaps you were thinking of another instance.
– I’m glad you brought that up (and follow it) (This is my personal favorite)
– Thank you for your responses, but keep brainstorming.

Remember also that you might ask a question in the middle of someone’s thought process on a different topic and may need to rescue. Brother Baraclough shared an experience where he was in a class with Elder Packer. Elder Packer is a hero of Brother Baraclough’s and he was sort of basking in the awesomeness of being there with him, when Elder Packer asked him a super easy question. All he could do was give a blank stare. It was too hard to change gears. Elder Packer turned to someone else for the answer, and so he was rescued.

There’s some more information about classroom chill here:
http://www.ncsu.edu/diversity/faculty_staff/InclusiveClassrooms.php

Striking Gold

We used to have a CES coordinator here named Brother Rose, who taught teachers that when they strike gold, stop digging! Apparently this had a big effect on teachers, because it’s brought up time and time again in these courses. The idea is that teachers shouldn’t act like miners, just moving rock — getting through our lesson outlines and going home. We should look for the gold in our lessons and then focus in on that. Don’t be afraid to drop the rest or part of a lesson in favor of the gold when you strike it.

As teachers, Brother Baraclough points out, we should be prepared for gold and develop a plan for dealing with it when you hit it.

This was a very helpful course for me. I’m so glad I was there. That guy could have shared his wisdom with us for another hour, and I would have been soaking it all up.

More Questioning tips from Brother Gonzales

I went to another class on questioning. I only jotted down a few things, but they’re worth noting:

Characteristics of a good question:
– stimulates thought
– encourages student response
– adapted to the experiences of the student

As a teacher, you want the student to develop the idea/knowledge/concept that they can go the scriptures to find answers. Try to make your teaching focus on that.

Don’t do the “search and apply” portion of questioning for your students. Let your students do the work in class. Don’t answer for them.

No Fishing

This information is taken from Becoming a Great Gospel Teacher by Eaton and Beecher:

“[Fishing] is when teachers ask a difficult question with a particular answer in mind and then won’t accept any answer but the one they have in mind. …. Pretty soon, the class realizes that the only acceptable answers are the ones the teacher already has in mind, and they get tired of trying to read the teacher’s mind. So they stop participating. … often we see teachers fishing with questions that don’t necessarily have one right answer, like, ‘What’s the single most important thing you can do to prepare for a mission?’ … Frankly, when teachers fish for answers, the one answer they have in mind may not even be the best answer, which just aggravates the students all the more. …

“Instead of asking what the single most imporant thing someone can do to prepare for a mission is — rejecting all answers other than sharing the gospel with your friends — ask what some of the things are that prospective missionaries could do to help prepare themselves for a mission, and accept all answers with merit. That question gives someone the opportunity to make the particular point you have in mind, and it also opens the door to a lot of other useful insights, including some you don’t have in mind.

“In fact, almost anytime we have a list of points we’re hoping to make … we try to ask a question that will allow students to make as many of those points as possible. Your motto chould be: ‘Ask before you list.’ When you see a list of points in your lesson, make sure you put a question before it.

“But what if [students] don’t come up with the points you’re thinking of? No problem. After listening to theirs, you can always throw in a couple of points yourself. Their lists will rarely match yours completely, but some of the best points might be things you didn’t even have on your list.

“How about the other extreme? What if they come up with all your points — then there’s no lesson left? That’s one way to look at it. We look on it as a moral victory. The more information and insights we can get the students to articulate themselves, the more they will remember. In fact, that might be a good final step in crafting questions for a lesson. Look at your lesson plan and ask yourself, ‘What questions could I add that would allow students to make more of the points I’m hoping to make?’ ”

More Question Asking Tips from BYU Education Week

Never answer your own question

“First, never answer your own question!” Mark E Beecher said.

Oftentimes teachers get nervous and start answering their own questions. Brother Beecher encouraged teachers to not be afraid of silence, because “it takes time to formulate an intelligent comment or answer.”

Rephrase questions and accept every answer

If the question is too long or confusing, rephrase it, he said. It is also important to find ways to accept every answer—even wrong ones—in a way that increases participation and creates an atmosphere of safety. It is important to encourage participation while still taking into account the students who need bounds.

“Use techniques to involve the more quiet students and limit the more talkative ones,” he said.

He said that often a class has one student who can overpower the other students. In that case, he will often talk to the vocal student and say he will invite the student to share during the lesson—and he follows through with that.

Avoid “yes” and “no” questions

Part of using effective questions includes asking questions that don’t have an obvious answer but that aren’t so difficult that it is beyond the student’s capacity to know the answer. It is important to avoid “yes” and “no” questions.

“You teach and clarify doctrine, allow the students to comment on individual adaptations,” he taught.

He spoke of three levels of questions:

1.      Low: Low-level questions are those that can be answered by searching for the answer in the scripture block. They tend to ask who, what, when, where, how, and why and can be found within the text the students are reading.

2.      Medium: Mid-range questions are those that ask the student to analyze information that is within the scripture block. They help students understand more broadly and deeply and invite them to think about the meaning of the principle. Such questions as “Why do you think … ?” and “What do you think that means?” help students to dig a little deeper.

3.      High: Questions that encourage students to feel and apply the doctrine to their own lives are high-level questions. They have the student synthesize information and make personal applications or bear testimony of gospel principles. Teachers encourage students to reflect on spiritual experiences and lead them to feel the significance of gospel principles as they find ways to apply them to their lives. These questions have more than one answer and are very personal.

Since low-level questions are easier and more specific, teachers are able to help students ease their way into the lesson.

Mid-range questions get them thinking about the meaning of their answers, and the high-level questions invite students to think about how the doctrine relates to them.

As teachers build upon the three types of questions throughout their lessons, they are able to foster an environment for students—and teachers—to learn the doctrine and apply it to their own lives. (Ask Good Questions to Get Students to Participate During Class)

Great for: Lesson preparation, Asking questions, Handling disruptions, Handling disruptions, Classroom management, Helping shy students participate

Class size: Any class size

Helps Students: SEE a gospel principle in action, SEARCH the scriptures or text, SHARE feelings, thoughts, or personal experiences

Prep Time:

Student Age: Any age

Equipment needed:

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