DEEPER UNDERSTANDING THROUGH
by Ellen Weber in
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
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
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.