The Substitute Teacher Guide to Questioning (page 4)
Good teachers never lecture. They prefer to make their point by asking questions and encouraging discussion. They look for that “a-ha” moment of self-discovery. When students acquire knowledge from their peers, their retention and appreciation of the information improves. Learning via discussion is much more effective than hearing it from a podium.
As a substitute teacher, one of the ways that you can earn respect and maintain control is to run an interesting class. From the students’ perspective, interesting means that things happen that involve them—actively, repeatedly, and enjoyably. Students always prefer to speak themselves and to listen to their classmates rather than listen to you! Lecturing is a sure way to lose the group.
A skilled teacher can gently guide a discussion to make a point or impart important learning. To accomplish this, you must learn how to ask effective questions.
What are the Keys to Good Questioning Techniques?
In order to ask a good question, you must have a firm grasp of the material under discussion and appreciate its meaning and context. Your questions should focus first on “obvious” information— those things that the majority of students will grasp. This includes factual information. In education we call these low-order questions. Once you get the entire class involved, you can move on to consider more creative and analytical information and relationships, high-order questions. As you begin asking questions and soliciting responses and discussion, follow these guidelines:
- Don’t rush! After you’ve asked a question and the first hands go up, wait a few moments. Many students need time to understand and process the question and then formulate a response.
- Use a proven questioning strategy. The basic strategy is threefold. Ask a question (posed to the whole group), pause to allow children to think, and then call on one student to answer. Be sure that you have given all students enough time to understand and then formulate their responses. Many teachers count to five silently and slowly before choosing a student to answer.
- Never say a child’s name and then ask a question. Studies have shown that other students will tune out if they know that they will not have to answer. Ask the whole group, and then choose your responder.
- Always use positive and specific reinforcement when responding to an answer. Try to use the student’s name in your response. For example, say, “Thank you, Jared. That was very insightful. I’m glad you remembered some of Jackie Robinson’s heroic acts.” This type of response is pleasing to Jared and reinforces his answer for the rest of the class. In addition, it encourages others to answer in hopes of obtaining some of your positive stroking.
If you take the time to get your students involved, they will respond. Your job is to draw them out, and a solid questioning strategy will help you do that.
Are There Different Kinds of Questions?
Yes, there are different kinds of questions, and good teachers ask them in a specific order. These teachers begin with questions about basic factual knowledge and build up to questions that invoke higher level thinking. If we again consider the Jackie Robinson story, an initial question might be: “Who can tell me when Jackie Robinson played baseball?” or “Who can tell me the city and team Jackie Robinson played for?” In asking these questions you stress basic factual knowledge and, as a consequence, involve all students who read the story.
As the questions and responses continue, a transition to high-order questions allows your students to consider the subtleties of the story. A high-order question like “There are a number of important characters in this story. Who do you think was the real hero?” forces students to consider many facts about the characters and their relationships to one another and the story as a whole. The question allows students to be analytical and to form opinions about the information they have learned.
You can create a discussion that raises awareness and promotes understanding by structuring the order of your questions. When you want to reach those high-order questions, be sure to use words and phrases such as why, how, explain the differences, organize those thoughts and describe, can you predict, and can you compare.
A useful way to organize your questions is to follow Bloom’s taxonomy (learningandteaching.info/learning/bloomtax.htm). Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, developed in the 1950s but still relevant today, lists six levels of cognitive operations: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Questions that focus on knowledge check basic facts about people, places, and things. Comprehension questions check for the student’s broader understanding of a topic. Application questions encourage students to use knowledge for problem solving. Analysis questions help students explore the smaller elements of a larger topic. Synthesis prods students to use basic knowledge in a creative way, and evaluation questions encourage judgments and predictions.
Tom Drummond (“A Brief Summary of the Best Practices in Teaching.” Available at http://northonline.sccd.ctc.edu/eceprog/bstprac.htm.)provides us with an excellent example of a good classroom dialogue, reaching higher levels of questioning.
- Description: What did you see? What happened? What is the difference between . . . ?
- Common Purpose: What is the purpose or function of . . . ?
- Procedures: How was this done? What will have to be done?
- Possibilities: What else could . . . ? How could we . . . ?
- Prediction: What will happen next?
- Justification: How can you tell? What evidence led you to . . . ?
- Rationale for reality: Why? What is the reason?
- Generalization: What is the same about . . . and . . . ? What could you generalize from these events?
- Definition: What does . . . mean?
When you plan a lesson that will involve lots of Q&A, you might consider selecting questions from a number of these categories. Doing so will keep the questions interesting and force your students to look at many different facets of the subject matter.
Should I Encourage Students to Ask Questions?
Many subs shy away from encouraging student questions, particularly when the subject matter (e.g., science) is not their area of expertise. Stated bluntly, the sub doesn’t want to look stupid. I think this is a mistake and short-circuits an important opportunity for learning.
Encourage your students to ask questions. Even if you’re unsure of the answer, another student might have it if you open the question to classroom discussion. And if no one knows, don’t hesitate to admit that you’re unsure (a little selfdeprecating humor might help). But don’t stop there! Promise the students that you’ll find out and tell them later in the day. During a break, refer to the Teacher’s Guide for the textbook you’re using—it often has the answer you’re looking for. And if that doesn’t work, have a student look up the information on the Web.
What is the “Correct Pause Time,” and Why is it so Important?
You’ll recall that our first guideline for asking effective questions is don’t rush. But proper pacing for one teacher might be radically different from proper pacing for another. And that’s okay—your style and personality will dictate the rhythm of your questions. But it’s also important to note that if your pause time is too short, you’ll inadvertently exclude many children from the discussion. And if it’s too long, you may risk boring some of the better students.
As I noted, the general guideline for pause time after posing a question is about five seconds before choosing a student to respond. This brief silence helps students think about what was asked and lets them refl ect on the right response. As important, the silence increases the dramatic effect of the question and serves to further engage the students. It takes a confident teacher to feel comfortable with the silence, and as a sub, you need to foster that feeling of confidence. Any time you have silence in a classroom, you know you are on the right track.
Is There a Correct Way to Ask a Question?
A good question elicits information and at the same time enhances learning. The following guidelines will help you ask good questions:
- Try to state your questions clearly, using a single statement. The longer the question, the more difficult it will be to understand and answer.
- Avoid repeating a question. If you repeat your questions regularly, students will feel as if they do not need to listen the first time.
- Be sure that you make eye contact with as many students as possible when asking a question. Your intent is to draw as many students as possible into the discussion, and making eye contact personalizes your approach.
- Call on a variety of students. It’s natural to call on the student whose hand is up and who you are sure knows the correct answer. Try to draw out the quiet ones. It’s also natural to call on the student who misbehaves, just to keep him or her in the discussion. This is fine, but don’t forget the others.
A good teacher imparts information by asking questions and encouraging discussion. If you learn to ask questions effectively, your students will become more actively involved in each lesson. The following guidelines will help:
- Ask both low- and high-order questions. Your intent should be to draw students in with relatively straightforward factual questions and then move into questions that require more thought and analysis.
- Don’t rush. Try to pause five seconds before accepting an answer.
- Use a proven questioning strategy. Ask a question, pause to allow children to think, and then call on one student to answer.
- Use positive reinforcement. Be sure to respond to answers using specific praise and reinforce (restate) the correct answer.
- Ask different kinds of questions. Have the students describe, justify, predict, and generalize as part of your questioning technique.
- Encourage students to ask you questions. This creates a dialogue that can only improve the classroom atmosphere.
- Follow guidelines for asking “good” questions. Use the guidelines in this book or refer to many other guidelines available on the Web.
The art and science of asking good questions is a skill that you’ll hone as you gain classroom experience. If you master the skill, you will improve your students’ learning significantly.
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