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.

Have I had an “ah ha” moment?

I don’t  know how many times I have posted my frustrations this year about my inability to motivate and encourage my staff to try to integrate more technology into the classrooms in this school.  I have tried a few things, but it took a presentation at a staff meeting that ended with feelings of frustration and anger to make me realize I had to change my techniques.  One of the things I have learned this year as a new administrator, and trust me there have been many, is that my passions are not necessarily other people’s passions. I needed to back up the bulldozer and realize that everyone is not in the same place and I need to respect that.

On the other hand I have had monumental success in the area lately! I decided to apply for a school division technology grant (TIP) this year and sent out an e-mail to see if anyone would be interested in joining me.  What was in it for them was a new Flip Video camera and digital still camera for each of their classrooms, the possibility of learning some new things about assessment in math, and some release time to do it.  I had 4 teachers jump on board and we had a great time.


Our questions were:

1.  Could we improve student engagement in math by using the cameras?

2.  Could we increase opportunities for teacher assessment through using the cameras?

3.  Could we increase opportunities for student assessment through using the cameras?

The answer was yes, yes and yes!

We had a lot of fun doing the project and we learned a lot.  It had the exact effect on everyone that I wanted and had a few extra effects that I  was hoping would happen and some that I did not anticipate…

  • Other staff in the school were  wishing they would have jumped on board when they saw what we were doing
  • We had the opportunity to share our learning with division staff
  • Another teacher in the school wants to add some more technology into her teaching and has met with me and spent a half a day with the technology consultant discussing possible ways to do that
  • One of the teachers that participated in the action research wants to present our learning at convention in the fall and has taken responsibility for that
  • Three other teachers have agreed to jump on board with another action research grant project I have successfully applied to do in the fall

Wow! What else can I say!  Look what happened when I stopped talking and started walking!

Making the Shift

It seems to me that everything is changing on the education front in Saskatchewan right now!  I am a relative newcomer to the province, but I have never before experienced so many educational changes at one time.  My mind is constantly spinning with all of the new ideas and the things I want to implement and change.  I am sure that I drive my staff crazy sometimes because I am always talking about the things that I learn in ECI 831, the many things that I am always finding on the net and the things that I am reading.  I am beginning to wonder if they are starting to  run and hide when they see me coming down the hall.

At our last staff meeting I showed them the video- “Shift Happens“.  Just one of many videos at youtube presenting relatively the same idea-we better wake up and realize that change is happening faster than we can even anticipate and our teaching strategies need to reflect that.  Next time I plan to show the video “42” so we can have a discussion about alternative forms for student audience.  I really liked Starkg’s comment to my last post  “So many tools…so little time?, suggesting that we could have a Best of… site to showcase some of our students fantastic work.  There are so many opportunites for students to publish their work and open up their ideas to others.  Gone are the days when I expected my English students to write for an imaginary audience that could not be me, but in reality that imaginary audience would never see their writing and I would be the only one reading it.

For those of you that read my last post, “So many tools, so little time?” you could tell I was very excited about the changes in assessment practices.  I like the whole idea of assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning.  As our division moves forward with Ken O’Conner’s, “15 fixes for Broken Grades, it will be interesting to see the movement from traditional grading practices to grading practices that reflect assessment for learning and outcome based learning.  I am a constructivist by heart, so it all works for me.   It can still be a difficult transition for everyone and as I sat listening to parents talk at our SCC meeting last night I could see that parents were struggling with the “shift” as much as we were.  I was trying to explain that it was a huge change for us too to move from information feeders to learning facilitators.  As Jeffg stated in his comments to “So many tools…so little time?” he was struggling to find some different assessment practices that worked for him and I really agree that we need to keep looking and helping each other make the shift.  We all need to be in the process together. I would like to be able to go back in time and change some of my past students grades to reflect fair grading processes.

One thing is for sure, we are all in this shift together and the amount of support available is astounding.  Thanks for the support in my new projects and I hope that Ican do the same for you.  Catch you on the back channel!

So many tools…so little time?

I couldn’t help but think that laying on my bed in my flannel pjs  watching very cool digital stories last Tuesday was a great way to spend an evening.  Once again I walked away with so many new ideas and so many new tools at my finger tips.

On Wednesday I left for Saskatoon to attend the Assessment conference sponsored by SPDU.   It was excellent and very practical.  I absolutely loved our first speaker, Sandra Herbste-Luedtke, superintendent of River East Transcona School Division in Manitoba, and her very sincere message on transforming barriers to assessment for learning.  Ken O’Conner spoke about his 15 Fixes for Student Grading Practices and I now think that I could answer questions intelligently and feel much more confident in my ability to guide my staff  to the understanding of the  new assessment practices in our division.  Lucky me though, because I also got to attend a session by Dean Shareski as he discussed using technology to support and enhance best practices in assessment.

The best part of Dean Shareski’s session was that my principal came with me and now she has a better understanding of the things that I am always yattering on about.  I also think she has a better idea why I am so passionate about sharing my information with my staff.  I think there were 3 ideas that stood out for me about Dean Shareski’s session.

1.  “Teachers spend way too much time doing the wrong things”. This is an idea that we have discussed often, this fall, as an administration team in our school, and I think it is very true.  Sandra Herbst-Leudtke also spoke in her session of the bag of marking that was always “calling” her before she learned to used other forms of assessment.  There are so many tools out there for us to use for student engagement and assessment, but for some reason we cling to old practices even though they make our daily lives harder than they need to be.  I was looking at a bunch of web sites this morning that could help alleviate this  idea.  These are a couple of them:

2.  “It is not information overload, it is filter failure”. Again could not be more true, and again, could this be the reason that teachers are feeling overwhelmed?  Could it be that we can’t give up our traditional ideas and latch on to something new?  Could it be that we are not making the best use of other assessment tools that are available to us?  Could it be that we feel like we have to do everything sometimes, so we don’t try anything new?

3. “On average, only 42 people see a student’s work during their K-12 education.” Now that is sad.  Dean went on to say ” if kids do not have an audience, kids don’t care.”   We have so many opportunities to give our students an audience, so why are we not doing that? Just today I was searching away, going from web site to web site, and I discovered a short video entitled, “42“.

As you can tell I left the conference pumped up about student assessment for learning in many different ways. Upon reflecting on the questions given to us by Alec on Tuesday, “how have all these tools changed the way we do things and think about things?”  Well, to tell you the truth I don’t think they have that much.  I think there are still a lot of us that are reluctant to jump in and get our feet wet and take advantage of the tools that are available to us.

I think back a few years to when I was teaching drama and wanting my students to make digital stories and the trouble we have with video cameras, cords, lack of equipment, etc.  What I would have given then to have what I have now, or maybe I did not realize what I had.  See you on the back channel.