We're eager to encourage students as well as teachers to ask better questions at Pender's Grove Primary. Recently released, Make just one change: Teach Students to ask their own questions, by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, offer the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) as a process to encourage students to ask their own questions and empower their own learning.
She was a student in my class for the last two years. Bright and intelligent she was able to persist when confronting difficulties and enrich her learning opportunities with questions where needed.
Recently, when interviewed by an outsider around the theme of student's questioning, she quietly and reflectively shared some regrets. She explained that concepts in her class were taught in many different ways over and over which helped with her understanding. “My teacher goes over stuff again and again so I don’t need to ask questions. The questions are answered before I ask them.” She continued almost to herself, “I enjoy asking questions before I’m told the answer.” It was interesting to note that a Year 5 student participating in the discussion recognised the power of problem posing stating, “Sometimes asking the question can provide a prompt to answering your own question.”
In an age emphasising explicit teaching, demanding curriculum outcomes and a time when 'learning intentions' are clearly and unequivocally prescribed on a whiteboard prior to the lesson, it is easy to loose sight of the significance of student led learning. Rothstein (2011) of The RIght Question Institute describe empowering people to ask questions as fundamental to democracy.
Over this break I'll do some thinking. I'll be asking myself a few questions and be sure to head into the new year with some ideas about shaping a democratic community of students who are empowered and provided with opportunity to ask their own questions as a starting place for enriched learning.
Small focus groups of students from Years 3 to 6 at times fell silent in reflection and at other times chatted over each other as they sought to put into words their thoughts on students' questions. Here is a summary of the rich ideas students generated. Thanks for their honesty and willingness to invest themselves in exploring teaching and learning in different ways.These ideas are in no way complete or finished but will contribute to further discussions and actions in the new year.
1. The Importance of Questioning
All students affirmed the importance of questioining as a way of taking ownership of learning. One Year 5 studnet commented "Most of the kids ask questions because it’s good for learning. I think it’s really an important part of life because you’re putting your learning forward." Another Year 5 student commented, "If you’re not getting involved than you are not learning anything."
2. Trust Trust Trust
The best student questions occur when students feel they are secure and encouraging environment. Students from Years 3-6 repeated their fear of peer exclusion as a primary reason not to ask questions in class. One Year 6 student commented, "It’s not that you think others will laugh at you it is because you know it. You can’t trust." It's a reminer that safety and a secure base needs to be the prerequisite for learning risks.
3. Questioning as a Transfer of Knowledge
Students’ comments on questioning focussed on their quest for knowledge or the teacher’s role as an imparter of knowledge. There was no discussion of wondering arising out of internal contradictions. The Year 5 students explained that one of their group, known for his academic ability, did not need to ask questions because he was, as one of his peers described him, ‘the go to man’ knowing all the answers. One student explained, "If you are one of the smarter kids you wouldn’t ask other kids."
4. Opportunities to Pose Questions
With the pace and shape of lessons students often felt that answers rather than questions were the focus of lessons. One student explained "My teacher goes over stuff again and again so I don’t need to ask questions. The questions are answered before I ask them." One female reflected almost to herself, "I enjoy asking questions before I’m told the answer." A Year 5 student recognised the power of problem posing stating, "Sometimes asking the question can provide a prompt to answering your own question."
Others were eager simply to have more time to consider their questions. One student lamented, "Sometimes when I’ve really thought of a good question they have already moved on to something else." A Year 5 student noted, "It would be good to have a little more time thinking about the question rather than just asking about it. It would be good to have a certain amount of time to think about the question. Even just 2 minutes would be good."
5. A Questioning Journal
Some students really thought that using a questioning journal to brainstorm questions before asking them would be a powerful way to come up with better questions and give those who feel threatened by asking questions a secure space. A Year 4 student commented, "I prefer writing down questions and not saying them and then having my teacher saying it rather than me reading it. In my class there are a lot of quiet students and they would enjoy putting it on paper."
Recycled Christmas Card
Claire and Tara persisted with some really tough questions asking, "Why is it so hard to feed the hungry?" As noted in a previous post they caught me making excuses, skirting their questions and we finally agreed that together we could make a difference.
Students in Years 3 and 4 have audited the school and conducted an environmental impact study. Now they are making a difference. Some are instituting a Monday Earth Hour while others are planting indigenous plants to increase the biodiversity of school grounds. Claire and Tara's paper recycling group have made dozens of paper bricks and recycled paper Christmas cards. They'll be sold and the money raised will be sent to South Africa for communities to buy fruit trees and planting a sustainable food source.
Tara and Claire have reminded us that we can find ways to answer our own questions and make a difference at the same time if only we are willing to listen to each other and act together.
Teachers and students have been getting to know what's going on with questioning at our school. We are in the process of looking at the data from our Year 3 to Year 6 Survey entitled 'Students' Questioning: What Do You Think?' and have been encouraged and surprised at what we are finding. There will be further updates in posts to come.
Here is a little insight into the reflective honesty of one student who took the time to share their feelings about questioning in class. It is great that we are open enough to find new and supportive ways to encourage the participation of all.
sometimes people in class don't give us a chance to ask questions and sometimes when you do ask a question and other people think it's really dumb and you shouldn't be really asking that question. They laugh or they pretend they are not laughing or they nod their head at you and you feel like you don't want to ask a question in class ever again. Also the teachers don't sense that you don't feel good about asking a question and sometimes they force us to ask that question and you really dont want to do it in front of the class because we're not that confident. Also I have seen other people telling other people from different classes that they said this dumb question. I dont feel that great asking questions in class.
Not sure if I should thank Claire and Tara or not. I can't recall where or even how the discussion began but it has haunted me over these last few days. The conversation went something like this ...
Claire and Tara cornered me in a quiet moment, amidst the frenzy of the school morning hustle and bustle. "Why are people hungry and starve in the world Jeff?" Tara asked. Wanting to get on with the planned learning for the day I tried to quickly appease her, "It's really complicated girls. There are many issues that make it difficult."
But Claire persisted, "But why is it so difficult?"
I lamely fumbled, grabbing at phrases, "International relationships, poverty, corruption." Then, realising I was sinking fast, I offered, "You're right. It shouldn't be hard at all!"
I'm heading back to thank Claire and Tara for their persistence in asking important questions and to invite them and others who wish to join us to work out what we can do about hunger in our world.
Adults often use questions to explore what they want to know of others. Perhaps they come across as interrogators of personal worlds rather than prompters of imaginations! A chuckle arose in the Pender's Grove staffroom recently when teachers passed around a Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman comic entitled Zits.
For some sharp ideas about what makes a lame question check out the cartoons at http://zitscomics.com/comics/october-31-2012/.
Do students really think this way about adult questions at home and at school?