Walk into almost any classroom and you’ll observe teachers asking questions, calling on students who raise their hands, and evaluating the respondents’ answers as to their correctness. This right-answer orientation to classroom questioning relegates a potentially powerful assessment strategy to an uninviting, low-impact routine for the majority of our students. Embedded in this familiar, time-honored classroom narrative are teacher and student beliefs related to three questions: Why do teachers ask questions? Who will answer? What happens as a result?
Why do teachers ask questions? Pose this query to students, and the majority will respond: Teachers ask questions to find out if anyone knows the right answer. Teachers have a myriad of purposes for questioning, including to highlight important facts and concepts, to enlist students as they cover required content, and to check for student understanding.
Who will answer? Students also have a quick response to this question. Most will name classmates who almost always volunteer by raising their hands or calling out a response—and most are confident that their teachers will rely on these eager beavers, while letting others “off the hook” as long as they don’t call attention to themselves.
What happens as a result? Students would say “the beat goes on.” Teachers continue calling on the willing to surface the answers they are seeking. As they use this strategy to march through the content, a majority of students tune out. The rich get richer as the unengaged fall further behind academically.
Contrast these to the beliefs and behaviors of students whose teachers are using quality questioning practices to transform their classrooms to communities where students use questions to assess their learning, listen to and interact with peers to receive feedback and extend their learning, and demonstrate ownership of their learning by setting goals and choosing strategies to take next steps.
In one fourth-grade language arts classroom we recently visited, each student reflected silently on a focus question presented by their teacher, moved to dialogue with a partner, and then transitioned seamlessly to whole class discussion where they shared and extended their ideas. Their language reflected a learning culture grounded in equity and respectful listening:
- I agree with you, and I’d like to add what Jasmine, Yvonne, and I thought . . . .
- I respectfully disagree with you because. . . .
- What do you think about this, Jose?
Following each student’s comment, there was a pause to allow that student to add to or change his comment—and for other students to think about what had been said.
- I’d like to piggyback on what you said. . . .
- Mia, I’d never thought about it that way.
Over the course of the class period, each student contributed to the whole class discussion, and the teacher intervened only occasionally—to pose a question for clarification, to affirm the collaborative thinking of students that resulted in the creation of a powerful metaphor for their idea, and to share her own thinking about the topic with the students.
Down the hall, a class of third graders was engaged in a spirited discussion about polygons and quadrilaterals. Connor, I respectfully agree with you because . . . . I agree with you for the most part, Tristan, but you said that polygons could be four sides or more, and they can be three sides or more. The teacher asks one student to provide a summary statement. The student responds, I’m not so sure that I can think of one, so I’m going to phone a friend. Another student spoke up to offer his friend a response. The requesting student made this request without embarrassment, and she listened to her friend’s summary with interest. As these students engaged in dialogue, each was actively listening, making eye contact with classmates (not the teacher) and building on one another’s ideas. They asked questions of one another, provided feedback—both confirming and corrective—and demonstrated an authentic interest in polygons and quadrilaterals!
Both of these teachers confessed that they had not always taught this way, that they, too, had once operated teacher-centered classrooms. They reflected on the change in their mind frames, including the intentionality with which they and their students co-created classroom cultures in which the kinds of discussion we observed could flourish.
The language arts teacher reflected on her journey with her students to create a culture where everyone’s voice is valued, where collaboration is the established way of learning. We intentionally set out slowly to go very far. I have backed away. It’s about them and not me. I let them know that there is no opt out in this classroom, that everyone will be called on and that it’s not about the right answer. I tell them that if you’re wrong, you’ve just not yet processed the information—then one of their classmates or I will provide the support they need. I don’t give up on any of the kids; they’re going to learn at their own rate.
Her colleague, the third grade math teacher, echoed these beliefs. Establishing a classroom culture starts on day 1—we talk together about providing time to think, listening and learning from one another, using encouraging words and supporting one another, being one another’s cheerleaders, celebrating “aha”s. Part of it is about creating a safe learning environment. The payoff for me is seeing those reluctant students who might not know where to begin a problem become fully engaged. Listening to the discussion sparks their thinking; soon they are making connections and participating in the discussion themselves. I’ve seen the confidence grow in all my students; they’ve become powerful learners.
As we listened to these two veteran teachers, we called to mind the following mind frames John Hattie (2012) identified from his synthesis of almost 1,000 meta-analyses.
- I engage in dialogue not monologue
- I believe that my role is to develop positive relationships in my classroom
- I see assessment as feedback about my impact
- I want to talk more about learning than about teaching.
And we also reflected on the professional learning journey we were taking with these two and other teachers in their school and district, a journey focused on quality questioning to engage both teachers and students in thinking and learning that lead to higher levels of achievement for all.
Our view is that quality questioning is the most accessible and potentially the most powerful formative assessment strategy available to teachers and students. Quality questioning is grounded in the following responses to the above questions.
Why do teachers ask questions? In quality questioning classrooms, teachers ask questions to stimulate student self-assessment—and to surface student responses that will serve as feedback to the teacher about where students are in their learning. When teachers believe this, they frame questions that align with standards and learning intentions (where are we going?) and consider their students’ interests and current levels of mastery. In other words, they create questions that engage students and are worth their students’ thinking about.
Who will answer? Every student is responsible for using teacher questions as prompts for thinking to access their current conceptions and understandings. Students understand they cannot opt out; they know they are expected to be ready to respond with what they think they know. Teachers select response structures that offer time for initial individual thinking, optimize student-to-student talk and hold every student accountable for being ready to answer aloud. They use questioning strategies that encourage each student to wrestle with the question: where am I now in my learning?
What happens as a result? All students and teachers are learning as they engage in ongoing assessment of their own and others’ thinking. Students and teachers give and receive formative feedback and correct misunderstandings. They build individual and collaborative understandings. Along the way, teachers and students are determining where to next? in teaching and learning.
Walk into a quality questioning classroom and you’ll observe teachers and students posing questions, students engaging in dialogue with one another and with the teacher, and students and teachers evaluating responses and providing feedback to self and one another. In this classroom, wrong answers are viewed as opportunities for learning. Questions invite all students to think, self-assess, listen and learn from one another. This is a classroom community that rests on a collaborative culture where all are comfortable and confident learners who demonstrate ownership for their own and other’s learning.