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I was observing a class before and was pleased to see a number of hands that were constantly raised as the teacher carried on with her discussion. Midway through the lesson though, the raised hands began to dwindle and students’ engagement with the lesson ceased.
What went wrong? Why did students become disinterested in class after so much enthusiasm in the beginning? What affected the marked decline in their participation?
Many things possibly contributed to students’ lack of interest and attention in class. What I did notice however was the line of questioning the teacher used as the lesson progressed.
Questioning is at the heart of learning. From the moment we gain an awareness of the things around us, asking questions provide us with opportunities to know, feel and experience them. But more importantly perhaps, questioning is the essence of teaching. In asking the right questions, we are able to motivate students, assess what they know and how much, and evaluate the skills they have acquired.
In my observation of the class mentioned earlier, student’s attention and engagement declined because the teacher failed to bring them to the level where their interest had grown. Imagine reading a book that knocks you off your chair at the start but unsuccessfully holds your attention due to loosely crafted characters that do not evolve or the lack of a climax, conflict or tension. Without these important elements, a book fails to arouse the readers’ imagination. Questions teachers ask in class aren’t any different. Without the important elements that will wake up students from their disenchanted notion of the world, learning cannot and will not take place.
Such is the importance of asking the right questions in class. But what are we to ask? How should we ask?
What do students already know?
Questioning always begins where the student is, what he knows, what he can get from the text, what he can look for by himself.
This builds his confidence. It also builds the groundwork of his learning. This type of question allows students to point out significant facts covered in the lesson topic.
This type of question is phrased simply and clearly. It uses words that students can understand easily. It is brief, complete, sensible and direct to the point.
What can students know more?
Asking questions is an invitation. It asks students what they know but perhaps need to look at closer and deeper.
It invites them to reflect on what they know, make inferences about what they read, and create their own understanding of it.
This type of question brings students to challenge previously held knowledge and assess it according to the new information they have obtained.
It is an invitation to discuss their thoughts and ideas with both classmates and teacher. It is the type of question where multiple answers are possible thus demanding even greater reflection and discussion.
Reflecting, assessing, challenging are important mental activities for this type of question hence proper waiting time is vital.
What else is there for students to know?
A good question is not easily answered by yes or no. A good question does not just give one plausible answer. A good question opens to other questions.
It raises students to the level of wonder and allows them to freely explore their own thoughts. They are asked to probe, to clarify their views and to extend their thinking.
This type of question calls them to inquire further, to refocus if necessary and continuously calibrate their inquiry on recently obtained knowledge and understanding.
In the end, it broadens the student’s thought processes so that ideas he culls are developed according to his engagement, insight and good judgment.
This is the stage where questioning ceases to be the teacher’s role. It is passed on to the student who is now master of his own learning.
Questioning is a great resource for life-long learning. But to bring students to that level where they are not afraid to ask, we first need to show them what and how to ask. Only then will they remain engaged, not only with the lessons they learn in the classroom but to the bigger lessons that await them outside.