Mention “teaching to the test” among educators and you will certainly hear a lot about what is wrong with education today and probably more about the importance of teaching critical thinking (and how this cannot be done when you are teaching to the test). Let me suggest a slightly different take on working with tests and the development of, if not critical thinking, greater self-awareness among students as learners—teaching with the test as a form of Socratic mentoring.
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
types of questions
I continue to be concerned that we don’t design learning experiences as developmentally as we should. What happens to students across a course (and the collection of courses that make up a degree program) ought to advance their knowledge and skills. Generally, we do a good job on the knowledge part, but we mostly take skill development for granted. We assume it just happens, and it does, sort of, just not as efficiently and extensively as it could if we purposefully intervened.
Much has been written about creating natural critical learning environments in our classrooms, places where students feel free to pose stimulating questions and pursue interesting answers. But how much do we put students’ questions at the heart of our everyday teaching? The answer might be “not as much as we think.” A number of years ago I was frustrated by how seldom my students asked questions in class, even after I encouraged them to do so.
Most students find it difficult to think of famous historical personalities as real people. They also read texts without realizing that there are tangible personalities behind them. I have found one of the most effective ways to give flesh and blood to the past is by designing questions that ask students to bring authors, historical characters, and texts into the classroom. There are a variety of formats that these questions might take. Following are some that I’ve used and other examples that might trigger queries you could adapt for your courses.
Kant declared false the commonplace saying “That may be true in theory, but it won’t work in practice.” He acknowledged that there might be difficulties in application, but he said that if a proposition is true in theory, it must work in practice. What about the proposition “If teachers don’t ask questions, students will ask more and better ones”? A preponderance of practical and empirical evidence shows that teacher questions suppress student questions (see the Dillon reference). Thus we have every reason to believe that if you want students to develop, ask, and attempt to answer their own questions, we have to quit asking the kinds of questions teachers typically ask.
I was looking at one of my old teaching and learning books, Kenneth Eble’s 1988 book The Craft of Teaching. Some parts are now a bit dated, but many are not. It was one of those books that greatly influenced how a lot of us thought about teaching and learning back then.
But I found something in the book that was even older. Eble includes a discussion of and several quotes from an 1879 book (actually the ninth edition) by Josiah Fitch titled The Art of Questioning. Eble writes that it’s a small book and was originally aimed at British Sunday school teachers. Here’s the quote that caught my attention.
At one time or another, most of us have been disappointed by the caliber of the questions students ask in class, online, or in the office. Many of them are such mundane questions: “Will material from the book be on the exam?” “How long should the paper be?” “Can we use Google to find references?” “Would you repeat what you just said? I didn’t get it all down in my notes.” Rarely do they ask thoughtful questions that probe the content and stir the interest of the teacher and other students.