June 23rd, 2009

The Power of a Good Question


“What can a teacher do … to encourage students to take a deep approach to learning? Hanging in the front office of the Research Academy for University Learning at Montclair is an old poster from the 1930s. It’s one of those Depression era placards encouraging schoolchildren to develop good habits. A little boy is tugging at a large yellow question mark, hooking a book labeled ‘knowledge.’ The caption reads: ‘Ask Questions. Sometimes the only way you can capture Mr. Knowledge is with a question mark.’ A bit stilted and old fashioned, the poster nevertheless captures something we’ve known for a long time. People are most likely to learn deeply when they are trying to answer their own questions or solve their own problems.

“Lots of evidence points to that conclusion. But here’s the catch: in a formal educational environment, learners typically are not in charge of the questions. Teachers usually frame the curriculum and at least implicitly shape the questions.”

This great quote appears in a recent article authored by Ken Bain (of What the Best College Teachers Do) and James Zimmerman. I’ve been thinking some about participation and how teachers might do more with these in-class interactions. It’s easy to forget the power of a good question, whether it’s asked by the student or the teacher.

But that’s not the point here. Most of us regularly ask, “Are there any questions?” Most of us don’t wait long, if there aren’t any. Sometimes we even say, “Good, let’s move on to the next area.” Students are encouraged to ask questions in most classrooms, but they typically ask about those things they don’t understand, those things they think they’ll need to know for the exam. They don’t often ask about those things that interest them, those things they’d like to know because something discussed in class or assigned in the reading has got them wondering or just because they’re curious.

The rest of this article talks about how teachers need to find those questions that tap students’ interests. Bottom line: we need to spend more time thinking about the questions we ask students and how they can do more than just test what students know (or don’t know). They can also hook students and pull them into our fascinating content domains.

Reference: Bain, K., and Zimmerman, J. (2009). Understanding great teaching. Peer Review, 11 (2), 9-13.