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Start the School Year Right...Four Reasons Why Effective Questions are the Answer

For teachers, August is the month filled with both excitement and anxiety. For me, it all centered around the moment I received my class list. These students, which for now were just names on paper, would become the center of my teaching universe for the next nine months. I was very excited to meet them, but equally anxious that I could quickly get to know their learning needs and do right by them educationally.

I have found that by honing my questioning skills, I could quickly get a broad picture of the students' learning abilities while at the same time engage student thinking, spark curiosity and take the lid off of learning. By asking the right question in the right manner at the right time, a classroom climate that cultivates individualized student learning is set up from day one. In the process, my students were also becoming better questioners as well. Here are some of the fruits of becoming a questioning guru:

1. Student curiosity is sparked. By asking students to consider questions that go beyond a "factual, one answer is the correct answer," the learners are required to look at the knowledge they have acquired in a unique perspective. This primes the brain for learning! For instance, instead of telling students what they will be learning in math this year, provide them with a figural icon or made up word that combines multiple concepts of the discipline. Based on this, ask them to think about what they may be learning in the months to come and have them jot down their ideas. Then pair them up for discussion and consensus. Finally, share with the large group. Your students have just provided you with a quick look at how well they understand abstractions and you have given your students a preview of your expectations into the type of thinking that will be required of them this year. At first, many students may be a bit uncomfortable with this type of question as they may not have had much practice in looking at information in such an open-ended way. But practice makes thinkers!

2. Student creativity is strengthened and valued. Once you have put your students on notice that "thinking with a twist"is valued and that all relevant (and school-appropriate) answers are accepted, students begin to become risk-takers. This is especially important for those perfectionist students who equate a mistake with failure and who may hide their thinking from the classroom rather than take a chance on being wrong. One beginning of the year activity that provides a creative outlet is to have each student list their strengths, both academic and those outside of the classroom. Then, based on those strengths, ask them to decide what super power(s) they would have and create their own Super Hero avatar. This introductory lesson allows the students to let their creative juices flow and you to get to know their individual strengths better. (Hold onto this information as it may come in handy when a student or two hits an achievement plateau and you need a way to connect with them!)

3. Students become effective questioners and own their learning. As students are engaged in a thought provoking classroom, they come to understand that asking questions themselves aids in a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. When a student asks their own questions, ones that go beyond simple yes or no answers, they are demonstrating an engagement and ownership in their own learning. Once a student reaches this level of involvement, their is no stopping their education! Tony Wagner, educator and author of Closing the Global Achievement Gap, believes that effective student questioning is the single most important skill we can teach our children in order to close the gap in achievement.

To further encourage students to start asking questions, I made a chart with each of the question stems and every time a student asked a question, they could mark the correct column with a tally. It was very interesting to see the students hesitantly start by asking "low impact" questions, but, as the weeks went on, bravely break into the world of "high impact" questioning. We did this for about 4-6 weeks, until questioning had become routine in the classroom.

4.Students are primed for taking on open-ended assignments. Once your students are practiced in applying the creative thinking needed to answer an effectively worded question and are now asking deep questions themselves, they are fully equipped to successfully handle open-ended assignments. These type of divergent activities are a mainstay of the differentiated classroom. Open-ended assignments are much like effective questions in that they require the learner to apply what they have learned and go beyond just the mere facts. Students can take the assignment to the level that is commensurate with their abilities, so everyone is a winner. When there are many possibilities for completion, the ceiling is taken off, and a student's true level of thought can be showcased. This is often how I have found the sleeping cerebral student. One example that I have used in my elementary math classroom is to pose this problem: If 10 is the answer, what is the question? The obvious answers filter through first, but when I start getting,"What is the square root of 100 ?"or "What number is our number system based upon?' I start taking a harder look at this child's learning and adjust my lessons accordingly.

Effective questioning is an art, and, like any art, becoming a master questioner takes time, practice, technique and talent. I will be discussing some of the strategies of effective questioning throughout this year. In the meantime, this link introduces you to an easy way to categorize types and purposes of questions and should act as a good next step. Remember the Chinese proverb: "Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still."

As you embark on this school year, my wish for you this August is that you take time to enjoy the excitement of new beginnings. Get to know those minds and souls that will be in your care. And remember, by asking effective questions, you will be getting to know your learners quickly which then allows you to make appropriate adjustments to their curriculum. Hold on to your lesson plans and let the adventure begin!

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