In the Classroom
Questioning: A Vital Part of Classroom Discourse
October 24, 2017
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Casey Dove

Every teacher, regardless of grade level or subject area, is told to write a lesson plan that includes pre-planned questions to be asked of the students as the lesson unfolds. These questions include basic checks of understanding as well as higher order questions to provoke the most advanced students’ thoughts.

What if I said that the students’ questions are just as important as the best planned questions that teachers include on their lesson plans?

The biggest mistake teachers make is being offended or becoming angered by student questions. Now, of course, I am not talking about that student that asks you to repeat the directions a third time since he was too busy playing with his fidget spinner. There will always be those cases that frustrate even the most seasoned teacher. I’m talking about the question from the boy in the second seat of the first row that did not bring down his negative sign on step three, which made him miss the entire problem.

Did he not hear me say, “8th grade kids often forget to bring down the sign on this step, so be sure to look for your negatives!”

I guess not—and that’s ok. It is my job to say it again.

A teacher must remember that students’ questions are not a reflection of your teaching, but of their understanding.

Building a classroom climate where students will take the risk to ask a question is vital to mastery. No one can master content without clarification in any subject area. Think about the most successful student you have ever taught. Were they in your advanced class? Aren’t they the most likely to ask questions? Could it be that clarification is part of the reason they are advanced? They’ve been taught by someone—parents or previous teachers—that questions are a part of the learning process.

How do we build such trusting classroom environments so that students will take the risk to ask questions?

Expect them:

Whether you are a rock star teacher or novice, even the best-planned lesson will leave the students with misconceptions. The longer you teach a particular subject area, the more you will be able to predict what questions will come up in each new lesson. Ask the questions for them if they are not ready to ask themselves. This will build trust that you understand the harder parts of the content and don’t expect perfection the first time.

Encourage them:

Tell them on the first day that questions are a part of the expectations in your class. Praise them when they ask a clarifying question, especially one that leads to an “ah-ha” moment for the entire class. Say things like, “Thank you for asking, I bet someone else was wondering the same thing.” Instead of ending a lesson with, “Are there any questions?” ask them, “What else do you need from me?”

Answer them:

Immediate feedback is crucial to trust. Even the fidget spinner kid’s question should be answered. Perhaps with a small remark such as, “Had you been focused on me instead of that fidget spinner, you would know to be on page 312 working on task 2.”

If you don’t answer the first question they ask you, even if it is menial, you run the risk of them never asking another question again.

When students feel comfortable asking questions and taking risks, their growth is inevitable.  Providing a single answer could take that student from “On Track” to “Mastery” level on that standardized test at the end of the year. But most importantly it gives them the opportunity to learn from mistakes, gain confidence and eventually discover more on their own.

Casey has served in Sumner County for eleven years. She taught three years at the Elementary level before moving to 8th grade math for eight years while coaching. She received Sumner County Middle School Basketball Coach of the Year in 2013. Casey is entering her first year as Lead Educator in Sumner County but has also acted as Demonstration Teacher, Co-Athletic Director and Department Chair for the Project Based Learning Committee. Casey received her Bachelors in Elementary Education from Cumberland University and a Masters in Instructional Leadership and Administration from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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