Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Asking is Teaching

Lately I've been thinking about questions. Upon the death of Mike Wallace, much was made of his ability to ask good questions. Commentators spoke with admiration for his ability to ask tough questions and elicit information from interview subjects. I noticed some debate about the actual value of the responses he received, and naturally Wallace had critics who accused him as barely more than a showman.

But this isn't about television. This is about asking good questions in our classrooms.

Asking good questions in the classroom is an art form. I consider it an essential tool for the craft of teaching. I'm always trying to ask good questions. These are some of my favorite questions to ask in the classroom:

1. So, what do you make of this? This question basically asks a student to give her/his opinion. It's a simple open-ended question that begins discussion. No doubt it calls for a follow-up question.

2. Do you want to say more? Some students are comfortable talking a lot, others prefer to say something brief. Quite often a student only gives me a little answer, but I love the content in the initial offering. And so I give the student an opportunity to expand her/his thoughts.

3. Can you think of a counterexample? It's common practice to ask for examples, but I also like to ask for counterexamples. It's a wonderful way for students to engage with the subject matter.

I said earlier this isn't about television, but TV interviewers do provide an interesting frame of reference. An interviewer like Bill O'Reilly often behaves like an interrogator. Supposedly on the hunt for "the truth," he promises to find information in a fair and balanced manner (laugh track). As you can see from my three questions above, I pose questions in a gentle manner. I'm not out to prosecute them. I'm not out to embarrass them or put them on the spot. I want them to have their say and to think critically about the material--key parts of the learning process.

Here are a few more examples of questions I ask on a regular basis:

4. Do we agree with what the student just said? One way I get students to think critically is to have them discuss the ideas of their peers. Suppose a student says something controversial or something that is easily fact-checked. In such cases, I let the students do the work by asking students to respond to what a student has said. Sometimes students voluntarily do this work by raising their hands, but I often have to prod them to challenge their peers. I work hard to ensure that the conversation between students proceeds in a respectful way.

5. What's a counterpoint? Gotta say, I love this question. It opens the door to an additional point of view. Sometimes I ask this to a student who has just said something, thereby making the student immediately come up with an alternative viewpoint. I frequently ask it as another way for students to engage with the ideas of their peers. It's also gives students a way to discuss the information I'm presenting at the moment. This lets them know that they can question whatever it is that I'm teaching. Just because I'm teaching something doesn't mean that I'm trying to convince them of something. In fact, this leads to one more example:

6. Do you buy this? Admittedly, this is the kind of question you might hear on television. It's not the smartest question in the world. But suppose you've just spent twenty or thirty minutes introducing a set of ideas. You notice students aren't nodding. They seem to understand what they're hearing, but they're skeptical. Perhaps they're not comfortable voicing an opinion that runs counter to what you've presented; that is, until you ask "Do you buy this?" The question assures them that they are welcome to disagree with the premise of the material you've just taught.

All of these questions come around to the same goal: getting students to think, getting students to articulate their viewpoints, encouraging students to consider various perspectives, and teaching students to discuss ideas in a respectful and serious manner.

No doubt about it, folks: asking is teaching.

Author's note: I recognize some of these questions aren't a good fit in a Research Methods or Statistics course. The six questions I've included here are ones I frequently use in my Introduction to Sociology course and topical courses.

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