Sunday / July 21

The Power of NOT Answering Content-Specific Questions

The Power of NOT Answering Content-Specific Questions

I challenge all teachers to try this daily: forget all you know as an expert of your content area. Yes, I am asking that, for a moment, pretend you cannot remember all you have learned as you followed your passion as a reader, writer, historian, chemist, artist, athlete, chef, or whatever your expertise may be.

Once you have done this, recall how you learned all about your area of expertise. Did you read widely or tinker? Did you write reflectively or talk with experts? Did you grapple with ideas or ask for feedback? Whatever you did, this is the key to teaching students to be learners of that content.

What this can look like

Whatever the content area, your response to questions can go two directions:

  • How to be a learner of the content
  • What to learn about the content

It’s up to you. A balance of the “how” and the “what” engages learners.

For example: I was co-teaching in a science classroom about electricity, specifically conductors and insulators. A student asked, “Is an insulator just a really poor conductor?” Instead of answering the question, we suggested ways the student-scientist try to uncover the answer by:

  • Trying out a few items considered conductors and insulators with the question in mind. See what you discover.
  • Reading up on conductors and insulators and see what other experts say.
  • Sketching what is happening when electricity passes through conductors and insulators. See what conclusions you can draw.
  • Speaking to others about your question and get their take on it.
  • Jotting your ideas and try them out.

These are only a few ways we responded. Notice the responses are not about electricity, conductors, and insulators but rather how to find out the answer to the question posed by the student.

Strategies to become content experts

No matter the content you teach, here are a few strategies you can offer that help learners uncover the answers to their questions, and in turn become experts in that subject:

  • Research widely with your question in mind.
  • Study what others do and gather potential answers to your question.
  • Jot your best guesses and compare. Talk them out with others.
  • Bring your question to others (students, teachers, parents, experts in the field). Get their take.
  • Experiment and see what you discover. Tinker, play, uncover, discover, make mistakes and try again.

Outcomes of not answering questions about content

Honestly, we were surprised! We instantly saw an engagement, sometimes a bit of frustration, that had not been present before we stopped answering questions and started suggesting strategies. The frustration emerged because the students were used to getting answers right away. However, the frustration was also motivating and pushed learners to try out different roads to discovery that they did not try before. There was a passion that fueled discovery. When we stepped back, we realized that these were roads similar to those we took to become experts in our content.

You are a strategy!

While at the beginning of this post I asked you to forget, for the moment, all you know about your area of expertise, this should not be permanent. You are a priceless asset to a learner and should be considered an expert they consult for both strategies to learn and essential understanding of content.

As the teacher and expert, you create the artful balance between delivery of content knowledge and the strategies for lifelong learning of the content. What a gift!

Written by

Patty McGee is a Literacy Consultant whose passion and vision is to create learning environments where teachers and students discover their true potential and power. Patty’s favorite moments are when groups of teachers are working with students collaboratively in the classroom. She does her best literacy research by practicing on her two children. Prior to her work as Literacy Consultant, she was Coordinator of Professional Learning in Literacy with the Northern Valley Curriculum Center. Previously, Patty was a fourth grade teacher, a Library Media Specialist, and a Literacy Coach. Patty received her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education at Loyola University in Maryland, an Associate School Library Media Specialist certification through Rutgers University, and her M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership through Montclair State University. Patty has also studied literacy and literacy coaching through Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project and Iona College. She has received the Milken Educator Award (2002), worked as a consultant for Workman Publishing, Scholastic, and Corwin, and served on several committees for the New Jersey Department of Education. Furthermore, she has been an adjunct professor at Montclair State University and presenter at the ILA, NCTE, ASCD, and Learning Forward national conferences. Patty is the author of Feedback That Moves Writers Forward: How to Escape Correcting Mode to Transform Student Writing.

Latest comments

  • Hey,
    This is a great post! I love that you included experimentation as a way to learn. Sometimes, this can be the best option for hands-on learners. You can become an expert by doing! However, studying is still very important!

    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Dennis! No doubt, reading widely and delving deeply into any subject area when not in class is helpful too. I also find moments of reflection after experimentation (or any other learning experience) like glue for the learner’s brain.

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