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January 8, 2015 | Volume 10 | Issue 9
Table of Contents
Einstein's 55 Minutes
"If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution," Einstein said, "I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes."
Questions and their solutions are the basis of all learning. A good question generates energy and invites exploration. It elevates a commonplace lesson to one that's holy, creating a moment a student remembers years later as an epiphany that cracked open the universe.
Both students and teachers can feel daunted at the idea of setting an energetic question loose in the room; the best ones won't be corraled by a single correct answer. The mania from standardized testing has grown a fear of not covering material rapidly enough. Questions invite depth, and depth takes time.
Students have their own fears. Jere Brophy (2004) categorizes them in four ways: those whose abilities make it difficult to keep up and who have developed low expectations; those experiencing learned helplessness; those who are obsessed with self-worth protection; and those who underachieve in order to avoid responsibilities.
An instructor who has mastered when and how to ask questions can create learning situations that build confidence for all of those groups while covering subject matter more memorably. You can improve your practice with these tips for successful questioning:
1. Provide sufficient wait time. Most teachers wait only one second for an answer. A wait of at least five seconds is recommended, but even longer is preferable for higher-order questions. The quality of answers will be better, also. Count the seconds slowly and silently to yourself until you are in the habit of waiting long enough. Also, before you pose a question, tell students to anticipate silence for thinking until you ask for the answer.
2. Model how to answer. While building your initial relationship with students and teaching the procedures of your classroom, don't forget how to model answering questions. Don't take for granted that they understand your expectations of what makes for a detailed, thoughtful answer. For example, a student might respond "Yes" to the question, "Is Hamlet's reaction to his mother's remarriage reasonable?" Although you want students to take a position on this topic, you also want them to back their claim with evidence. By modeling a response like, "Hamlet's reaction is reasonable because little time has passed since his father's death," you set an expectation that any answer will come with at least one supporting reason.
3. Keep higher-order question stems posted for easy access during discussions. Here is a helpful list of question stems (PDF), sorted from low to high levels on Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning. Ask students to keep a copy ready in their binders, or distribute laminated copies during discussions.
4. Don't accept easy answers. Challenge students to go deeper by posing your own question to their response or asking more questions to elicit their elaboration. The simplest tool is to ask "Why?" and follow it with another "Why?" If the learner's argument is, "We have a reason to fear Ebola outbreak in our country," asking why makes the student consider the source of his belief. Repeating "Why?" forces him to question the validity of his belief, and perhaps arrive at a different conclusion. Asking, "How do you know you're correct?" is another method for bringing depth to casual answers.
5. Don't accept, "I don't know." Many students have learned, "I don't know," is a way of disengaging and getting off the hot seat. Tell such a responder you want him to listen to the next two students, and you'll be back for his opinion after he's heard other responses. If he still says he doesn't know, ask him to repeat what he just heard the other two students say.
6. Make sure all students expect to participate in discussions. I use names on Popsicle sticks pulled from a cup to make sure everyone participates. Checking names on a roster also works. If students know their turn will come, they aren't tempted to consider questions a chance to check out while a select few with raised hands run the show.
7. Teach students to be the author of questions. Asking good questions is an acquired skill. Use the Question Formulation Technique or another research-based approach to explicitly teach your students the process of creating good questions.
The next time you hesitate to "waste time" setting off a class discussion, remember Einstein's 55 minutes. Practicing purposeful questioning engages students and teachers in the dialogue of learning.
Brophy, J. (2004). Motivating students to learn (2nd ed.). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Donna Shrum currently teaches 8th grade English in Shenandoah County, Va.
ASCD Express, Vol. 10, No. 9. Copyright 2015 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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