Hey Teachers, STOP Answering Questions!

If you are a teacher or if you every attended school with a teacher, the title of this post may seem counterintuitive. Aren’t teachers supposed to answer questions? Aren’t teachers supposed to be the givers of knowledge to the young minds sitting in their classrooms? In my mind the answer to both of these questions is a resounding, NO! I believe that posing questions is a vital part of the education process, but answering these questions is not what the teachers are getting paid to do. Think about it, if the teachers could not answer the questions that they pose or their students ask (well most of the questions that students ask) would we want them in the classroom with the students in the first place? Probably not, so why then do teachers jump at the chance to answer questions in the classroom? It may have to do with showing the students that they know a lot about everything, or it may be because they want to help their students understand things, or it could be that they just don’t want students to struggle. Either way, I am here to tell teachers to stop it, just knock it off already. Let the students attempt to answer the questions, let the students help each other determine if an answer is logical or if it makes sense, and basically assist the students by asking more questions and then just get our of the way!

If you are in the world of education, you probably have heard the saying about teachers being the “sage on the stage” and how we are now attempting to be the “guide on the side.” I believe that this is an important shift, that is currently taking place in the thinking and actions of teachers, but I am getting sick of hearing those empty words if they are not accompanied by some positive actions or changes in teaching styles. The two statements above are actually the verbalization of moving from a teacher-centric classroom to a student centered learning environment. We need teachers to move away from planning and thinking about teaching to planning and thinking about student learning. This is huge change in teacher mindset and it will take time, but just by saying we are going to change doesn’t actually mean we are going to change. If you don’t believe me, ask most teachers today if they want to be a “sage” or a “guide” and I am guessing that most, if not all, will say that they are attempting to be the guide in their classroom. But if you observe some of these same teachers classrooms, you will see the adult at the front of the class, being the giver of information and answering most of the questions.

I do not write this to blame the teachers for this reality, that I feel they are stuck in. There are many different variables that keep teachers at the front of the class, spewing information and answer as many questions as they can. One of the biggest reasons that I feel teachers do this is because of the amount of information they feel they need to cover in a finite amount of time. Many teachers feel outside pressure to cover as much material as they possibly can in a miniscule amount of time, because the teachers know that their students will be taking a standardized test of some sort, that will then be used to determine if the students have learned enough about the right things during the year with their teacher. Thus, teachers then feel that if their students perform poorly on these assessments, it is a direct indicator of their poor teaching skills.

I also believe that teachers utilize this teaching strategy to maintain organization in their classroom. They want to ensure that they are able to cover all of the necessary content during the school year and what would happen if a student asks a question that takes the class off in a tangent that is not on the curriculum? That would be lost teaching time and that would mean that the class might not cover all of the needed material in time for the test. Teachers are also able to use this teaching style to stay in control of the classroom. They are worried that if they give up some of the control of the classroom to the students, then chaos could erupt and then nothing would get done. The classroom would be in disarray and their classroom management skills would be called into question and this again would reflect negatively on their capacity to educate students.

Yet the biggest reason I feel that teachers have changed their styles of teaching to becoming more “guide-like” is because much of the discussions about becoming a guide are too philosophical. Teachers do not use philosophies in their classrooms unless they have learned a strategic way to implement the philosophy. If you are or have ever been a teacher, think about any training session that you have attended that was based on teaching philosophies. Were you excited to go back and implement that philosophy, if there were no examples of how to do this or what this would look like in a real classroom? I know in my experience, these sessions just frustrated me and made me feel that the presenters did not understand my classroom and what I was going through on a day-to-day basis. So I began to think about how to shift teachers away from being a sage and becoming more guide-like. This lead me to how teachers use questions and the amount of questions that teachers answer during a typical day.

Teachers typically ask students questions that have a specific answer that the teacher is looking for. These questions are very low level and can typically be answered with a short response quickly. These questions allow teachers to cover many facts or tidbits in a short period of time and students begin to realize that the “smart kids” will answer the questions quickly and the rest of them will just need to sit there and wait for class to be over. This is a terrible way for students to spend their time in class, but in reality I think it happens more often than we think to a lot of students. This brings me to my first tip for asking questions: Wait, just wait. Wait time as been around in teacher education for a long time, but how well to teachers utilize this practice, especially with the time crunch that most of them feel they are under? But this simple act of waiting and being silent, allows all students to digest the question and then determine an answer to the question. This is vital for students with special needs or English language learners. Imagine if you are learning English or have a slight cognitive delay. The teacher asks a question and you begin to either translate the words in your head or are attempting to figure out the answer and before you know it, another student has answered the question and the teacher is now 3 more questions down the road and you are left there thinking, why try.

Teachers must understand that there are two different wait times. The first wait time comes after posing a question to the students. This wait time is to allow all of the students to digest the questions, think about all that they know that relates to the question, and then formulate a response. Different students take different amount of time to do this, but if the teacher would simply pose a question and then silently count to ten in their head, this would give ample time to all of their students to answer the question. But the more important wait time comes after a student has answered the question. The teacher then waits again, SILENTLY, to allow the students to think about the response and if they agree, disagree and why. This is how discussions can begin in the classroom allowing many more students to participate. Believe me, this wait time can seem like an eternity and a lot of “dead air” but I believe this is vital to allow every student access to the conversations and knowledge that is abundant in the classroom.

The next questioning tip I have for teachers is to not tell students if they are right or wrong when they answer a question. Teachers must also have a “poker face” when it comes to this practice. The reason I feel that this is important for teachers is because if you are continually telling students if their answer is right or wrong, this will teach students to not raise their hands or to not participate in class for fear of being wrong. If you are a struggling student in a classroom and every time you share an answer in class, you are told that you are wrong, my bet is that you are just going to stop participating. It also works this way on another level as well. If a student responds to a question and the teacher says, “You are absolutely right. That was an amazing answer.” More than likely, no student will want to attempt to answer the next question. How could their answer compare to the last student’s answer? So it is just easier for the student to not participate. This practice of not stating if an answer is right or wrong, also allow students to debate answers, with more supporting information. In combination with wait time, students now have the opportunities to have classroom discussions about answers to questions and talk to each other, instead of the teacher talking, one student talking, teacher talking, one student talking, etc. It creates the atmosphere of a learning community, where we can all learn from each other. This is important to remember when a student asks a question of the teacher. Why must the teacher answer this question? I feel that the teacher should have the student ask the other students in the classroom the question and have them discuss the answers together. Collaboration is skill that students are going to need to be successful throughout their lives, but how can it be learned if the teacher keeps answering all of the questions or telling specific students that they are right. This can kill the collaborative efforts of your classroom.

But in my mind, the best part of this action is that it will drive some of your “top performing students” crazy. These students are the ones who live off of being right or that a teacher has told them that they are right. This can be a dangerous thing for these students. In my classroom, I would talk with these students in private about this issue. They usually would come up to me and ask if they are right or not and then I would put it back on to them by asking if they though they were right. The reason I did this was because I wanted the students to become independent thinkers and problem solvers. I even told them that I was not going to be with them all of their life and that they had to determine if they believed they were right, based on what they knew or the evidence in front of them. It is a change in teaching strategy, but one that I think allows students to become better problem solvers and better communicators overall.

Lastly, to need both wait times and to allow these deep conversations to happen in class, teachers must ask higher-level questions that do not always have one right answer. This means that teachers must determine the questions they want to ask before the lesson begins. Teachers must determine the most critical portions of the objectives and then work backwards to the questions that would lead to the deepest conversations. While I feel that teachers must plan out these questions, they also have to be flexible at the same time to ask follow up questions to stimulate thinking and discourse in their class. This is not something that will happen overnight or even after a couple of days, this takes practice. To be able to ask a question, listen to the students’ responses, and then know what question to ask next to move the conversation further is not easy and takes time for teachers to develop. But any teacher can do it, with the support from their administrative team or the district by providing professional development on questioning skills.

The Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) has worked extensively to develop a new vision for public education, which you can see here: http://www.transformtexas.org/the-visioning-document/ One of the goals for student learning stated in TASA’s vision is the need for, “Students who are encouraged to cultivate their curiosity and who realize questions are sometimes more important than answers.” Isn’t this something that all educators would want for our students? I believe that it is and the first step to achieving this goal, in my mind, is to change how we as teachers use questions in the classroom. We need to shift from teachers answering questions to students collaboratively working on solving problems.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

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