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DEEPER UNDERSTANDING THROUGH QUESTIONS

by Ellen Weber in
PRAXIS
The National Teaching & Learning Forum
Vol. 8, No. 6, 1999, Page 5 & 6


Biological research tells us that our brains "like" challenges. They are hard-wired to unscramble complex puzzles and address questions. So it makes sense to raise challenging questions to help students engage with and apply facts. Jared Diamond won a Pulitzer Prize when he asked: "Why were Europeans, rather than Africans, or Native Americans, the ones to end up with guns, the nastiest germs, and steel?" Answers to most questions will not win national prizes, but students understand deeply what they question most. So inquiring teachers can help students learn more through posing key questions. Questions motivate learners to ask, wonder and discover in order to know.

The brain creates pathways to information in response to questions. We ask, "Can anything positive come from the horrors of school violence?" Then, in response, we admit that we fail to understand each other. School violence reminds us that we often lack awareness of the inner maps of another's mind, even of those closest by. We question why pain brings out the best at times and the worst at times. We wonder why a bit of fortune inspires one person but destroys another.

Political scientists might ask, "How can Hillary stand by her man after public humiliation?" We simply do not understand until we ask and seek. Understanding depends on much more than delivering more facts. To one instructor worried about "covering" enough facts before exams a brain specialist replied, "Even a cat covers its material." Under-standing requires much more than rote memory. Excellent questioning techniques-as good teachers from the time of Socrates to the present day have known - provide the bedrock for increased under-standing.

Here's my checklist, my "aid to memory," of what good questions and good questioning techniques include:

o Working from the known to the unknown. When students connect new ideas to their past knowledge and experiences, they can draw facts from personal bodies of knowledge for a deeper response.

o Skipping hesitant persons for the time being or providing clues to generate good answers. Rather than insisting on asking questions aimed at uncovering new facts which all students may not yet know, mine for the gold they do know first.

o Tapping others for more complete answers when a student responds briefly. Rather than grasp quiet moments to play oracle or lecture on the topic at hand, probe students with further queries engaging them to go deeper with you.

o Varying the questioning techniques so that you engage humor (especially laugh at yourself to help students gain confidence.) Varied questioning techniques include contests, competitions and mock interviews.

o Visualizing questions on charts, boards, overheads and diagrams.

o Asking questions before calling on a particular student so that all students spend time thinking about a response to the topic.

o Avoiding jargon in questions, finding other means of being precise. Make sure that questions adequately cover all content that you intend to assess and make sure your questions span various levels of thinking. Lower level questions include facts and figures. Higher level questions require students to make judgement and apply content to real life problems.
Finally, we must make sure to choose questions that elicit the best responses for each specific purpose. Different types of questions provide different opportunities for responses. So, for example, questions can be:

o Open-ended questions - when material contains a great variety and quantity of factual content. Open-ended uestions involve the application of knowledge. For example, "What would happen to the ecology if all frogs suddenly died?"

o Focusing questions - when you want to help student's select specific responses from a myriad of facts. For example, "Looking more closely at the fate of birds, why might the snowy owl soon be extinct?"

o Interpretive questions - when you want to compare, contrast and show logical connections among facts. For example, "How do you account for the shutdown of the Maritime fisheries?" Interpretive questions sometimes require students to analyze and identify relationships within a body of ideas. For example, "What properties in this group belong together?"

o Capstone questions - when you hope to create closure or draw conclusions. For example, "What lesson might you take away from this event?" Capston questions that involve interpretation of data call for enveloping generalizations, inferences, or interpretive summaries. For example, "What could we say that would be true of all industries?"

Questions like the ones identified her help students explore, illustrate, and express new information. When questions are designed for specific outcomes, and when they are thought-provoking and stimulating, they help students clarify and express precisely what they have learned.

Rather than teach toward our tests, we should be guided by questions that generate information and later test our students' ability to grasp and apply that content. Questions should become a focus in all classrooms. Why? In part because inquiry provides the core tool for assessment, and because as we know, good assessment increases learning. Perhaps it's the combination of those factors that explains why good questions provide keys to motivation and encourage students to achieve deeper understanding of any topic.