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Questions teachers ask

October 07, 2008

Hello again,

Questioning is a key teaching tool but I sometimes wonder...

...how often teachers actually plan their questions in advance and how aware they are of the effect different question types have on students.

We often find ourselves using rhetorical questions, for example, as a way of moving activities on: has everybody finished/shall I write that on the board? We don’t expect answers but if we ask too many rhetorical questions, students may become unclear as to when they should answer and when to stay silent. Questions can also be quite daunting if they are handled in a certain way. The teacher who singles out a student and asks a specific question can appear to be trying to embarrass or humiliate. And when the teacher is merely asking questions to check the answer to something s/he already knows, the question can seem like part of a power game.

Benjamin Bloom tackled this area in his iconic work in 1956 but what he said then holds true today. He suggests some question types that help the teacher and the student really engage with each and the subject. The first kind is the inference question. This type of question allows the students to seek their own reaction to the material. Let us say the teacher has a text about a key issue. The inference question would be along the lines: what do you think the most important message of this text is? The point is that there is no correct answer, as the students can reveal their personal interpretation. But they then have to justify their answers by pointing to the clues that made them reach their conclusion. This process should help the group see just how the text works and should help individuals to pick up points they might have missed.

Interpretation questions require the learners to look more closely at details. For example, the teacher might suggest that the students look at all the adjectives and discuss their effect on the piece. If the adjectives were changed, how would the meaning be altered?

Transfer questions allow students to think about the wider implications of the material. If the text concerned the recycling of waste in the home, students might be asked to think about how their behaviour could be more environmentally friendly.

Questions about hypotheses require learners to think about the on the objectivity of the material they are studying: to what extent is the information evidence-based and to what extent personal opinion. Teacher: Find a scene where you have an exchange with a character

Reflective questions enable students to question their own assumptions and prejudices. For example, the issue of recycling materials might prompt students to reflect on their attitudes to buying: do they follow fashion and throw things away when newer models become available (typical of the mobile phone market, for example)?

Questioning in these ways helps students relate personally to the lesson, rather than go through mechanical exercises. It might be argued too that such questions help students to train their minds to become more probing and analytical.

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  1. Eric Roth Says:

    Excellent points. Sometimes we zoom in to much on the tiny details of a text, highlighting the need for reading comprehension or vocabulary.

    Yet critical thinking skills and developing connections between ideas, previous knowledge, and life experience remains more essential. We need to ask both open and closed questions, gently moving classroom discussions forward.

    Robert Hutchins, the legendary president of University of Chicago and educational reformer, captured the challenge. "Education is a kind of continuing dialogue and a dialogue assumes, in the nature of the case, different points of view."

    Unfortunately, the need for high scores on standardized test taking and filling in bubbles on bureaucratic forms often undercuts these higher educational aspirations. ESL directors - and English teachers - must actively uphold nobler teaching philosophies.

  1. muthaqir jenkins Says:

    I find in my teaching area, the use of reflective questions, stimulates the learners.WE have a unique system in SouthAfrica, were Outcomes Based education is now official educational policy. I find the transition stimulating, and the ideas that have been shared with us, little short of invigorating. I will certainly pause for thought, whilst i am presently attempting a Masters degree in Global communication, were by stimulating the learners to try and developed their own intrinsic thought patterns, learning outcomes become achievable, as the learner fills in the "gaps" in order to become competant, in all aspects of self exploration.thankyou for a wonderfull presentaion.
    Mr, Muthaqir Jenkins Senior Lecturer Pinelands College of Capetown Faculty of Electrical Engineering Capetown Southafrica.

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