How to Ask Questions

Given that students remember only about five percent of what they hear, I talked way too much in class. I wish I had asked more questions to facilitate the talking of students. But asking good questions is hard.

How can you avoid always calling on the same eager hands and, at the same time, provide safety for students who don’t like to be put on the spot? Here are a couple tips:

When questions are convergent, questions with one right answer:

Divide students into small groups. Tell students: I’m going to ask a question. Write the answer you think is correct on your paper. After everyone has finished, compare your answers. If you all have the same answer, find evidence for your answer. If you have different answers, look for evidence to show which answer is correct.

When questions are divergent, with multiple appropriate answers and meant for wondering and musing:

Tell students: I’m going to ask a question—a question with more than one right answer. I’ll give you some time to think, so jot some notes about the reasons for your answer. Then I’ll call on three or four of you to respond. It will be interesting to hear these different perspectives.

In these scenarios, students do more than answer questions. They discuss, which increases the retention rate to around 50%, and teach others, which increases the retention rate to around 90%. They thinking at deeper levels—comparing and analyzing and evaluating. This kind of purposeful student talk is the foundation for literacy, and this altering of the ratio for student/teacher talk increases learning.

Serious with Seuss

Dr. Seuss books are fun, as little kids know. Between their covers, you find zany characters, enchanted worlds, and rhyming phrases that roll off the tongue—Stop telling such outlandish tales. Stop turning minnows into whales. And in the middle of the fun, phonics clicks away in the brain, and even reluctant readers turn another page.

But in a middle school classroom? For years only one Seuss book appeared in my room. I didn’t bring it. Parents did. Every spring they’d come sneaking in with it and without their kids.

“Could you please write in this?” they’d ask. “Every teacher since kindergarten has written a note to my kid. It’s for a graduation present.”

Oh, the places you’ll go, the book says. It promises great sights and high flying. But it also warns about bang-ups and hang-ups and lurches with bumps. Maybe it was the macabre in me, but I’d turn past those pages and find the sad blue page with the words: But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. And on that page, I’d write my encouraging note.

This book got me to thinking about Dr. Seuss, and I came to see that he offered wisdom beyond kindergarten. Some of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s books address serious issues with a light touch. These books are a good way to introduce a unit, or a discussion about a conflict in class or a distressing topic in the news. Here’s a list of a few books I’ve used:

  • The Butter Battle Book—for conflict of any dimension: interpersonal, among groups, or national; Every Zook must be watched! He has kinks in his soul.
  • Horton Hears a Who!—for honoring the significance of every human life; A person’s a person, no matter how small.
  • Yertle the Turtle—for using, not abusing power; I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here on the bottom, we, too, should have rights.

And to console myself in the great testing rage at the end of my career, I read a Dr. Seuss book to myself:  Hooray for Diffendooffer Day!

Not Gifted?

“Your child didn’t qualify for gifted.”—those were words I dreaded telling parents. But under Ohio law, only students who tested at an IQ of 130 or above qualified for our district’s gifted program. At first, I was awkward and unprepared at these post-testing meetings. But an educational theorist, Howard Gardner, came to my aid.

Gardner, I’d tell parents, said there are multiple ways to be smart. And I’d list his categories:

  • People Smart—understanding and communicating with people
  • Self Smart—knowing and managing your own emotions and motives
  • Music Smart—discerning sound, pitch, tone, rhythm
  • Picture Smart—using visuals to express meaning
  • Logic Smart—reasoning abstractly
  • Word Smart—finding the right words to express meaning
  • Body Smart—coordinating the mind with the body
  • Nature Smart–relating well to natural surroundings

According to Gardner, an IQ test measures only a narrow band of intelligence—abstract reasoning. And abstract reasoning was the focus of the gifted program at our school.

What I wished, I admitted to parents, was that the school had a gifted program for each of the multiple intelligences. But I encouraged parents to find the strengths of their children and then to develop those strengths through music or art lessons or sports programs or writing classes or speech competitions or leadership camps.

This idea of multiple intelligences was especially helpful for parents who had one child in the gifted program and another child who didn’t qualify. One family, for example, provided horseback riding lessons to a child who went on to win blue ribbons at the state fair. Because that family celebrated both athletic and logical abilities, both students felt supported.

I never learned to look forward to telling parents their students didn’t make the cut on the IQ test, but the tension of the meeting was eased when we talked together about talents that could be developed.

Not Cool and Young; Maybe Old and Groovy?

I never was a cool, young teacher. After all, I was older than most when I graduated from college—that, and I grew up wearing pigtails and watching no television. And in many ways I was still culturally illiterate as an adult, not knowing, for example, the latest movies or dance moves. And my vocabulary was, let’s say, archaic.

“You’ve got it made in the shade,” I might say to students when something turned out well. And they’d look at me like I had just drifted in from the Middle Ages. So I’d try to move it up a few decades and say, as they were leaving class, “I’ll catch you on the flip side.” Apparently, I needed to make greater chronological strides than this because they’d still shake their heads and roll their eyes. They might not have understand my words, but I could understand those gestures.

I wasn’t slow on the uptake. I could have learned by listening, but using their vocabulary—like saying, “Yeet,” or “That’s lit,” to show enthusiasm for a project—only brought exaggerated sighs.

So I couldn’t compete with Mr. Ulery down the hall. Being young and cool, he had a natural rapport with students, speaking their language, wearing their type of clothes, using examples from modern movies to make conceptual points. He was techy and informal and kids wanted to be like him. They needed him as a model. And I valued—and sometimes envied—his influence with them.

But I discovered that students also needed me. In some ways they saw my age an asset, or at least a fascination, coming as I did from another time and culture. To them, I was history walking—having lived through the moon landing and the Civil Rights Moment and the Viet Nam War and flower power. We might not have had much in common, but my distance from them in chronology and experience and culture gave them practice in relating to someone “different.”

And there was something about being so “old” that garnered some innate courtesy from students. I reminded them for a while of their parents and later their grandparents, or of the parents or grandparents they wished they had. They brought me their confidences. It’s not so hard, after all, to reveal vulnerabilities to someone with no coolness factor.

Toward the end of my career, it became common practice for students to give me a hug at the end of a school day or in the grocery store. I may not have been a cool young teacher, but maybe I was an old, groovy one.

North Isn’t Up

One of my favorite classroom wall hangings was a south-side up map. I liked it because it made a scientific point—that space does not have an up/down orientation. I liked it because the map gave me a chance to explain that for most of human history, north seldom appeared at the top of the map. Often east—where the sun appeared every morning—was on top. Europeans, I’d tell students, were doing most of the exploring when modern maps were drawn, so they put themselves at the top.

But mostly, I liked the south-side up map because it was a visual in perspective-taking. I wanted my students to learn to see through others’ eyes.

“Yeah! How would you like to be always at the bottom like Australia?” I heard one student ask another as they stood in front of the map together.

That sentiment, I hoped, would transfer to how they interacted in class, with the kids who wore uncool shoes, who struggled with learning, who couldn’t coordinate their bodies.  Students who were other-oriented, I found, had fewer conflicts and healthier and more varied relationships. They could look beyond their own interests to the interests of others.

But beyond empathy, perspective-taking increases critical thinking. Students who can back up from a geometry proof, an analysis of a short story, or a social studies essay and take another look, see things a new way—these students think deeper and construct concepts more skillfully.

My students loved to correct a teacher or principal who walked into the room and said something about the map being upside down.

“It’s not upside down,” they’d say. “It’s south side up.”

For me, the map was a daily reminder to pause and consider whether I was self- or other-oriented.

And for all of us in the school room the map was an invitation to think. After all, when you put the up side down and the down side up, you see in ways different than you have always visualized.

Decoding Strident Talk

Some messages, I’d tell my students when I taught them to interpret a text, are clearly stated. The author is explicit, comes right out with the meaning. But other ideas are indirect, hidden in the text, implied, and meant to be discovered, teased out. And sometimes what seems explicit has implicit meaning.

Like texts, I found that that the signals my students sent me also needed to be interpreted. Some of their messages at first seemed straightforward enough. But the longer I taught the more I was able to recognize the unspoken meanings under their words.

I discovered, for example, that strident talk, especially, often covers unstated needs. Here are a few typical cover-ups that are often calls for help:

What the Student Says What the Student Could Mean Possible Intervention
I’m bored. This project is too hard, but I don’t want to admit I’m confused. Pair the confused student with a student who is experiencing success with the project.
I can’t understand anything you are saying. All I can think about is my parents shouting at each other last night. I think they’re going to get a divorce. When I was talking to the class I could tell you had something on your mind. Could you write a note to me about what you are thinking? Then I’ll help you later with the project.
I hate school. I want to be cared about and noticed in this room. You know, I’ve been looking for someone to help me set up for the next lesson. Could you come help me at lunch?
I can’t stand anyone at this school. I’ve just lost my best friend, and I don’t know where to sit at lunch today. Ask a group of students to step up by inviting this student to their lunch table.

Successfully decoding student statements can make a marked difference in the emotional climate of the classroom and in the futures of students.

Thinking About Thinking

Metacognition—this is a word I liked to teach students. And we had fun with its definition: thinking about thinking before, during, and after the act of thinking.

“Faster,” I’d tell students, “say it faster.”

After a little practice, they’d rattle it off in under five seconds. And for the rest of the year, I’d call out the word at random times—to open class, or in the middle of a discussion, to wake up a dull afternoon—and they’d recite the definition back to me in unison.

Playing with a word—I liked to do this with students. But more important the idea of metacognition gave students a framework, a tool to manage their thinking:

Before: When you develop a plan, ask

  • What do I already know that will help?
  • What should I do first?
  • In what direction do I want to go?

During: When you are maintaining a plan, ask

  • Am I on the right track?
  • What do I do if I’m stuck?
  • What information is crucial?

After: When you evaluate a plan, ask

  • Did my thinking produce?
  • What could I have done differently?

I posted these questions in my classroom. I’d refer to them before we stared a class project or when I conferenced with a student who was stuck. The last set of questions was good for students as they wrapped up an assignment.

My students, I hoped, would continue to think about their thinking well beyond the classroom. And so, when I run into my grown-up students, in the grocery store, for example, I’m delighted when one of them says, “Hi, Mrs. Swartz! Metacognition!”