Leading with Questions

Fall semester came to a close just before Christmas. On our final day, we do a “go around” inviting everyone to share a thought, observation, favorite activity, memorable learning, or anything else they might like to share. In reference to me, one student commented, “At the beginning of the semester, it bugged me that you never answered our questions, instead asking us another question back.” It made me smile. I often shared in class that the worst thing you can do when a student asks a question is to answer it. Most of the time, the answer lies within the student. It is our job to pull it out. A carefully worded question in response serves that purpose. When it is not there, an effective question can point them in a direction that will lead to an answer. In doing so, we place the learning squarely in the lap of the student – where it belongs. When we simply provide an answer, all too often we reinforce a teacher centric approach and take away the joy of student discovery. Granted, there are times when it is most appropriate to provide an answer: time doesn’t allow, the question is too complex, seeking an answer would take them too far away from the intended instruction, etc. In those cases, answer, but do so strategically and with intent. My student continued on, “by the end of the semester, I came to really appreciate it and hope to model it with my own students.”

Several of the kindergarten classes at Crossroads called me Mr. Question. I found great pleasure in that title. It reflected the power of the question and its ability to empower the joy of learning.

What do you think of questions?

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About wlindquist

I'm a career educator currently teaching pre-service teachers at Hamline University - Master of Arts in Teaching program. Interested in science education, inquiry-based science, and the intersection of science and literacy.
This entry was posted in Becoming a science teacher, Engagement, Science, The Art of Teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Leading with Questions

  1. Barb Yarusso says:

    The unit operations laboratory in Chemical Engineering at the U of M is taught using the Socratic method. Instructors don’t answer student questions (unless it’s a safety issue). They ask leading questions so students can learn how to solve problems themselves. I learned that it was helpful to make sure students understood that this was deliberate; then they didn’t get frustrated with not getting answers.

    I also learned some good leading questions. For example, typically a student will come to the instructor reporting that something “doesn’t work”. It’s useless to ask what is wrong with it, since if the student knew they wouldn’t have come to the instructor. Often the problem is actually that the student has the wrong expectations, has forgotten a step, or is failing to observe something. A good question at this point is “What is it not doing?”. (Often followed by “What have you tried so far?” or “What were you doing right before that?”) This helps get to what the student’s assumptions are, whether they have followed the procedures correctly, or whether they understand the principles.

    Since students work in groups, asking question is also a good way to make sure all group members are given the chance to contribute. You can direct questions to a specific group member, or follow up on suggestions a group member has made.

    I also learned that asking open-ended questions is often the only way to learn that the lab group is very confused about procedures and principles, and has done something I would never have anticipated, possibly causing a safety issue or a hazard to the equipment. This has useful parallels for parenting.

    Barb Yarusso

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Barb. With my elementary students, when they said they didn’t understand, I often responded with “What do you understand?” “What else do you know?” Several questions like this and they walked away with their answers. They often gave me a puzzling look when they said they didn’t understand and I said, “good” and smiled. “This is the place where learning occurs.”

  2. I’m not in the sciences (I’m an English teacher), but I absolutely support your emphasis on questions. My students ideas of education have become far too transactional for me. “I am paying you to give me answers. Then I will be educated.” I also try to frustrate there attempt at answers. Though we do have to eventually evaluate people on what they “know,” the emphasis on product over process is damaging to education. It is the asking of questions that matters in education. The answers are incidental at best.

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