The Power of Good Questions

questions. seamless pattern.


Everywhere I look, it seems there is something being written about inquiry and questions in the classroom.  Students should be asking their own questions, teachers need to pose good questions, good questions are more important than answers and the list goes on and on.

I have just returned to the classroom this year after spending many years as a learning support teacher.  I worried about taking over classroom responsibilities in combination with my admin duties, but for the most part it has been a great change.  I am enjoying the challenge of setting my students up for learning,  then stepping back and guiding them along the way.  The frustrating part of going back to the classroom this year has not been the challenge of balancing admin and teaching as I anticipated it might be, rather it has been reaching those students that are difficult to engage and motivate.  How can I motivate them to be involved in the learning?

A few weeks ago I came across a link on twitter to CBC AMexpress.  It is a podcast put out by CBC radio that talks about some of the highlights in world and north American news.  Since I teach social studies and I am always looking for ways to connect my students to current news I decided that we would start each social studies class listening to the 2 minute express.  At first some of the students were showing little interest in participating until they realized I was going to set the bar high and expect them all to have opinions and participate in the discussion after the podcast.

In my quest to engage all my students in their learning (it is still a struggle, by the way) I wanted to really start thinking about the questions that I was asking, how I was asking them and who I was asking them to.  I decided to read the book, Ask, Don’t Tell, Powerful Questioning in the Classroom, by Angela Peery, Polly Patrick and Deb Moore.  It is a very practical book on questioning in the classroom that encourages teachers to consider the questioning techniques and try to give students opportunities to ask their own questions.  I started to really think about my own questioning techniques.

Was I asking the right questions that would require my students to think and form opinions?

Was I giving wait time after I asked the questions?

Was I asking random students questions, and not just those eager students that were always the first ones to have their hands up?

Was I asking questions that lead my students to ask  more questions?

According to in an article titled “Asking Good Questions,  published @ASCD, written by Kenneth E. Vogler, verbal questioning has the potential to  motivate students to pay attention and learn, develop students’ thinking skills, stimulate students to inquire and investigate on their own, synthesize information and experiences, create a context for exploring ideas, and enhance students’ cumulative knowledge. 

When I started tracking and really thinking about the questioning techniques I was using, I was amazed at the immediate change in my  students, especially those that were unmotivated or were not confident in their ability to add to the discussion. I decided to give the 3 second wait time to allow everyone time to think, even though some of my students had their hands waving in the air immediately.  I also started asking random students to answer questions, especially those that were not waving their hands.  When I called on a student and they did not have an answer, I didn’t let them off the hook.  I tried to find a way they could add to the discussion by pulling someone in to help them and then going back to them.  I tried praising them for adding anything they could to the discussion and put down the expectation in the classroom that each and every student had something to add. The rest of the students are expected to listen carefully because they might miss something really important. When I started focusing on my questioning and made an effort to involve all my students, I could not believe the immediate difference it made in my classroom.

Research tells us that students by  grade 4 have already settled into a role that they often play for the rest of their schooling career.  If they are perceived early as someone who does not have the answers to questions, then they will stop trying to participate. (Ben Johnson, The Right Way to Ask Questions,  It is a fallacy that some of our students are not answering questions because they do not know.  Many of our students will go through school without being expected to answer questions and participate in discussions.

My 2 minute news podcast every morning is a totally different experience now then it was the first week I introduced it.  Now I have everyone listening and engaged…yes even my students at the back of the room that were not involved before.  We have great discussions after the podcast that are often tied back to things were are learning in class or things that affect us as Canadians.  The students know that everyone is involved in the discussion and what they have to say is important.

I had no idea that making such a small effort on my part could make such a big difference in my classroom.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am a long way from where I should be with questioning in my classroom.  I am trying to keep it at the forefront of my planning and classroom management and hopefully it will continue to make a difference for my students.

Oh, and by the way…I am also much more aware of what is happening in our world and the knowledge of my students continues to amaze me.

Leading with Your Heart


At the end of June I reflected on my first year as principal realizing that it had been a great year and although I had done many things right, I had many things I wanted to change.  There were times when I wondered if I could lead with my heart because  I took things too personally or I was hurt when I was criticized for doing things I felt were good for children.

After reflecting on this I realized  I probably couldn’t lead without my heart-not in the way I wanted to lead anyway.  I am such a lucky principal to be working in the community that I do, with the staff and students and parents I get to work with.  As with any leadership position, especially ones in the public spotlight, there are many times I have been criticized for the things I do.  Unfortunately we often hear the criticism loud and clear and the good comments softly and not as often.  I watch the staff in my building every day and I am amazed at the things they are able to accomplish.  They put in many extra hours and try to do the best for every student in our care.  Most days they make my job easy and they certainly always make me look good on a daily basis.

The job of being a principal is a rewarding and difficult job, I have found out.  There are countless tasks and expectations that come with the job every day.  There never seems to be enough time to do the things I feel are the most important. It is a constant balancing act.

This week I was publically criticized on a talk radio show for a decision I made with my staff to not have a costume parade on Halloween.  We have not had a costume parade in our school for 3-4 years now.  It seemed like the importance of the costume parade was getting misplaced and causing sadness and disappointment for some of our students.  We had students that did not have costumes and often felt left out and sad on what was supposed to be a happy and fun day for everyone.  It was for this reason we have done away with the parade at our school.

We have replaced the wearing of costumes with black and orange day.  We still celebrate with fun activities and last year we had a short dance in the gym involving all the staff, students and parents, if they chose to attend.  It was such a fun time and was enjoyed by everyone (with the exception of the odd little kindergarten student who became overwhelmed by the noise) so we have decided to do it again this year.  I love those times when we are all together and I see my older students being such good leaders and mentors to our younger students.

Our middle year’s students work on leadership teams for our school and they will be working hard to plan activities and fun that will pull together the whole PDale School community.  It is my hope that no one will feel left out and that we will all be able to have fun in a respectful, caring and accepting environment.

So in my musings and reflections about being a principal, I have decided that I will continue to lead with my heart.  I have also realized that I cannot change who I am.  In the words of Shakespeare, as a throw back to the number of years I spent teaching high school English, “To thine own self be true.”  I hope I can always be true to the most important part of my job and that is to make sure that all of my students are safe and are feeling important and cared about. So to those who feel the need to criticize publically, sometimes it is better to dig to the heart of the matter and see what motivates teachers and principals to make the decisions they do.