Beautiful Questions

I recently read a KQED News piece by Katrina Schwartz entitled "How to Bring 'More Beautiful' Questions Back to School" -- connected to the book "A More Beautiful Question" by Warren Berger.  I was motivated to write this post due to one particular past experience and my belief in the power of good questions.

First, let me describe my past experience.  I was lucky to visit Uganda for 30 days during the summer of 2009.  I taught at a school there but also visited a few others to get a more complete picture of Uganda's school system.  On one visit to another school, I sat in on a geography class at a local high school.  The class had dozens of students crammed into a small room and the teacher stood in front of the class with his chalk in his hand.  I, along with another tourist-volunteer, took a seat with the students and anxiously waited for class to begin.  The class was about an hour long (I say about because staying on any kind of schedule is not a priority to many Ugandans) and the teacher lectured for about half that time.  The lecturing seemed normal to me and I assumed it would continue until the end of class. 

About a half hour in, however, the teacher concluded his lecture and asked students for their questions.  A few students had questions and he happily answered them.  The teacher then asked for more questions.  And then more.  And then more and more.  I remember thinking, "Geez, what if there aren't any more questions?!" and "Why is he just assuming they have more to ask?"  There were pauses here and there but eventually someone would ask yet another question.  That went on for over thirty minutes. 

Wow.  Three things struck me during and after that class.  1. Who told the teacher to reserve half his class for questions? Was this normal in Uganda or was this part of his personal teaching style?  2. How wonderful is it that some of the best questions came ten or twenty minutes into the questioning portion of his class?  What does that mean for my class, where I sometimes only allow a few minutes for questioning?  3.  What kind of message is this sending to the Ugandan children?  How does this affect how they view questioning and the role of questioning in school?

Although it occurred years ago I'm reminded of this event often, especially when I run out of time in class or read an article on good questioning like the one mentioned above. While I highly recommend reading the linked piece (here it is again), I will give you the gist of it.  The articles states:

-Little kids love to ask questions but questioning "drops off a cliff" when they go to school (so sad!)
-Time constraints make it difficult for teachers to ask good, deep questions in their classrooms
-People feel vulnerable when asking questions which makes this process even more difficult
-Teachers and parents should value great questioning because we want to create an informed citizenry who isn't afraid to ask questions
-Asking good questions takes practice
-There are five things teachers can do to help bring about good questioning in their classrooms.  They are:

1. Make it safe -- use smaller groups so students feel more comfortable asking questions or make questioning the point of the activity (versus getting the "right" answer).
2. Make it cool -- tell students that people who ask new questions are cool and are the ones who can change the world.
3. Make it fun -- turn it into a game or frame questioning as playing the role of a detective, for example.
4. Make it rewarding -- give a "best question of the week" award or add a bonus question that asks students for a question on a quiz or test.
5. Make it stick -- make the above part of your normal classroom routine so it becomes a habit for your students.

Good questioning skills are something that can be developed across all ages and subject matters.  It would build curiosity and confidence.  I think this would be a fantastic school culture goal, don't you?  If you teach, how do you use questioning in your class?  Do you feel, as I do, that you can improve in this area?

Ms. Vila