Sunday, 20 November 2011

The art of questioning in classrooms: Language of classroom dialogue

Ask a teacher how he or she teaches and, chances are, the answer is, "By asking questions." However, if you go on and ask just how he or she uses questions or what sets apart keen, invigorating questioning from perfunctory versions, that same teacher might have a hard time replying.

A major league pitcher is sure of dozens of algorithms for trajectory, though his theory is as much in his elbow as on the tip of his tongue.

There are many classrooms in which teachers rarely pose questions above the "read-it-and-repeat-it" level. Questions that demand inferential reasoning, much less hypothesis-formation or the creative transfer of information to new situations, simply do not occur with any frequency (Gall 1970; Mills, Rice, Berliner, and Rousseau 1980).

The questions and answers that do occur often take place in a bland, if not boring or bleak, intellectual landscape, where student answers meet only with responses from teachers at the "uh-huh" level.
Even more sobering is the observation that teachers'
questions often go nowhere. They may request the definition of a sonnet, the date of Shakespeare's birth, the meaning of the word "varlet"- but, once the reply is given, that is the end of the sequence. Extended stretches of questioning in which the information builds from facts toward insight or complex ideas rarely take place (Goodlad 1984, Sadker and Sadker 1985).

It all about allowing children to continue to learn in extended stretches of learning to achieve a insight which effects their own life.

Classroom questions are often disingenuous. Some are rhetorical: "Are we ready to begin now?" Others are mere information checks-a teacher knows the answer and wants to know if students do, too. Missing from many classrooms are what might be considered true questions, either requests for new information that belongs uniquely to the person being questioned or initiations of mutual inquiry (Bly 1986, Cook-Gumperz 1982).

The very way in which teachers ask questions can undermine, rather than build, a shared spirit of investigation. First, teachers tend to monopolize the right to question -rarely do more than procedural questions come from students (Campbell 1986). Second, the question-driven exchanges that occur in classrooms almost uniformly take place between teachers and students, hardly ever shifting so that questions flow between students. Moreover, classroom questioning can be exclusive. It can easily become the private preserve of a few- the bright, the male, the English-speaking. Which leads to others become dis interested and disruptive to gain attention by the teacher. (Erickson 1975, Erickson and Schultz 1981, Hall and Sandler 1982).

Questions can embarrass, rather than inquire. They can leave a student feeling exposed and stupid, more willing to skip class than to be humiliated again (Bly 1986).

This can be seen in teachers that think they know better than the students and certain teachers show off their ego by making the student feel stupid (oh you silly child) for asking an unexpected question. This can be seen in teasing by peers which shows the lack of trust within the the group leading to an unhealthy learning environment.

I have spent a number of hours in the back of classrooms. From there I have seen skilled teachers raise questions that ignited discussion, offer a question that promised to simmer over several days, or pursue a line of questioning that led to understanding. Those teachers suggest a counter-portrait of classroom questioning, one that contains detailed clues about how the language of classroom dialogue can be used to establish and sustain not just a momentary discussion but a lasting climate of inquiry.

I want to suggest that the issue of what questions are asked and how they are posed is, or ought to be, part of a much larger inquiry.

Currently, there is a deep concern about how -or even if we teach students to think.

We have apparently developed a system of education in which rote learning(memorisation) occurs early and inquiry late.

We teach the skills of scribes and clerks, rather than authors and inventors.

We have come to accept a view of education that sees the experience of schooling largely in terms of its power to produce employable, rather than intelligent, students and that suffers from basic confusion over the conflicts between pluralism and excellence (Lazerson 1986).

Independent of whom they teach(design which works for all ages, not directed at specific age range), skilled teachers question in distinctive ways: they raise a range of questions, they sustain and build arcs of questions, their inquiries are authentic, they inquire with a sense of respect flail decency.

A Range of Questions:

Benjamin Bloom (1956) suggested that the same information can be handled in more and less demanding ways.

-asked to recall facts
-to analyse those facts
-to synthesize or discover new information based on the facts
-or to evaluate knowledge.

Dennis Wolf's classroom observations suggest that there is an even greater range of challenging questions than Bloom's familiar taxonomy indicates:

Inference questions-

questions ask students to go beyond the immediately available information.

Good example activity: teacher held up a black-and-white portrait of a machinist taken by Paul Strand, and asked, "What do you know by looking at this photograph?"

Through careful questioning and discussion his students realized that the image contained hints that implied a whole network of information: Clues to where and when taken, where photographer stood, meaning of photo relating to industry workers.

To push beyond the factual in this way is to ask students to find clues, examine them, and discuss what inferences are justified and to use their student voice thus having ownership over the learning experience which is not forced along by teacher. Can lead a student to water but can't force them to drink.

Interpretation questions-
propose that students understand the consequences of information or ideas.

struggling to make sense of Frost's poem, "The Silken Tent,' a teacher asked, "Imagine if Frost compared the woman to an ordinary canvas tent instead of a silk one-what would change?" Faced with the stolid image of a stiff canvas tent, students suddenly realized the fabric of connotations set in motion by the idea of silk-its sibilant, rustling sounds; its associations with elegance, wealth, and femininity.

Transfer Questions
provoke a kind of breadth of thinking, asking students to take their knowledge to new places.

Example: Films school exam question: "This semester we studied three directors: Fellini, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa. Imagine that you are a film critic and write a review of "Little Red Riding Hood" as directed by one of these individuals."

Questions about Hypotheses
questions about what can be predicted and tested.
Probe for predictions as a way of making students actively aware of their expectations.

Reflective Questions
When teachers ask reflective questions, they are insisting that students ask themselves: "How do I know I know?"; "What does this leave me not knowing?"; "What things do I assume rather than examine?" Such questions may leave a class silent, because they take mulling over. Nonetheless, they eventually lead to important talk about basic assumptions.
Example:"What would it mean if I called all the music we've listened to up until now, "non-Eastern music?

An Arc of Questions:

continue here...

Art of Questioning

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