By Michael Michels
“Questions, I’ve got some questions” is how a Jack Johnson song from the Curious George Soundtrack begins. From the beginning of our lives, we are always questioning something. They start as simple things at first as we explore our new, vast world and the complexity grows as we mature. One of the most amazing faculties afforded to us as humans is the ability to think. The problem for teachers is how to get our students to utilize this amazing skill to the best of their abilities. We all know that students who are constantly involved in the learning process will thrive and grow the most academically.
So, here is the situation. Questions are being asked all day and every day in schools, offices, homes and elsewhere around the world. But, what kinds of questions? Do they always work? Do we get the answer we were looking for? Are our students engaged in the learning process? Do we use questioning enough? You can figure out the answer for your specific instance very easily.
Think about your daily lesson, work or social life. If you just completed a project in class with your students, do you ask, “What did you think about the project?”. You will most likely hear lots of “Yes’s.” and “It was OK.” and responses like that. These are short answers that make students feel like they are appeasing you.
Imagine being at work and asking your employees or co-workers, “How did you think the meeting went?”. Again, you will hear quick responses that have little to no thought involved in them. This will happen for a variety of reasons.
The same thing will happen with friends, family and basically any other situation you are in. Sometimes we hear people talking about “digging deeper” to find out more information about something. What does “digging deeper” really mean? It means, asking the right question.
When trying to elicit a response from anyone, we need to use the proper start to every question. Simply asking “How was your trip?” will never work. The answer could just be “Good.”. Not exactly what you were looking for if you plan to take a similar trip to the same location. You need to get more information. The question starter “How was….?” was very insufficient in promoting conversation. Promoting conversation is the key to making the mind think. Simply asking, “How could you summarize your trip to…?” would work better. This person would then describe and explain the major parts of the trip and you can guide the conversation in the direction of your curiosity.
How does this relate to the classroom? In the classroom this means that the student has to think about prior learning and come up with an organized response to the question. Higher-level thinking questions do just that. They do not allow for one-word or short answers. The student must become engaged in a conversation. This may mean that they are interpreting data, defending an opinion, coming up with a solution to an issue or any other variety of responses that cause students speak their thoughts aloud.
Now, how is this done? Higher-level thinking questions have beginnings that are well defined. They automatically cause individuals to “ponder”. Many times they will relate to opinions that individuals may have formed so that they want to express themselves. Here are some examples of question starters: “How can you explain why…?”, “How would you compare…?”, “In your owns words, what is…?”, “How could you simplify…?”, “What is the significance of…?” (Kagan, 1999). Right away you can see how the gears start working and the process of being involved begins. Students, or anyone for that matter, begin to think! When you get immersed in it, you can have the students use the “starters” to come up with questions regarding a topic. Again, making them a part of the experience keeps that involvement at a high level.
We have all heard of the value of good questions somewhere in our lives. Dr. Spencer Kagan has developed sets of these “question starters” along with entire books devoted to specific topic areas. This way of thinking and teaching stresses the development of thinking skills along with higher-level thinking, such as creative and critical thinking. By utilizing this type of questioning in you daily lessons and lives, you can help individuals to become more intellectual, creative and involved than they ever have been. Dr. Kagan has devoted his life to Cooperative Learning in the classroom and has a wealth of resources available. Check out Kagan online or search for Kagan on Amazon and see what the buzz is all about. I could say, “What are you waiting for?”, but I can make you really consider it by asking, “What differences might you see in your students if you apply this type of questioning strategy?”. Good Luck!!!