Monday, February 14, 2011

We Have Seen the Enemy and He Is Us


Teaching my classes this week after reading your post, more than once I found myself staring into the cruel mirror of recognition: as much as I "know" the questions I shouldn't ask, I catch myself asking them, or almost asking them, more than I care to admit.

(And, for the record, they are terrible questions--so bad, in fact, they're not even worthy of the name, because as you point out, they don't even ask anything. So from now on, I'll call utterances like "Everybody get that?" or "Are there any questions?" nonquestions, as opposed to genuine questions like "So if that claim is true, what about ... ?" )

So why is that? Why is it so hard to ask genuine questions, and so easy to fall into the trap of asking nonquestions that don't accomplish anything?

Thinking about that this week, I've come up with two basic answers.

First, maintaining good questioning habits is hard. You have to:
  • Plan ahead of time what genuine questions you will ask and when you will ask them;
  • Either remember those questions or read them from a script;
  • As Kathleen suggested, get frequent feedback (from videotape or peer observations) that alerts you to poor questions when they happen, just like you would do to keep from backsliding on any bad habit.
Second, planning good questioning requires acknowledging the scarcity of two essential resources.

The first resource is time: as our friend Tom McDougal says, it's the teacher's most precious resource. If nothing else, the simple asking of a nonquestion and waiting for a nonresponse takes time. It sucks time out of genuine questions, in part because it creates ambiguity in every question, by forcing students to figure out whether the question is one to which the teacher really expects an answer, and thereby delaying or dampening students' responses.

The second resource is information: about what students know, think, understand, and can do. A genuine question allows a teacher to garner some information: about one student or, depending on questioning technique and the response mode (individual whiteboards or clickers, small group discussions, etc.) multiple students. A nonquestion wastes the opportunity to find out what students know, and as noted above, actually reduces the effectiveness of subsequent genuine questions by introducing ambiguity into the questioning framework.

For me, just reminding myself of the waste when I hear myself asking a nonquestion is good negative reinforcement. But obviously it's not enough, because I keep asking them, not often, but more than never. Your post and Kathleen's comment remind me that I need to get into others' classrooms more often, and I need to get them into my classroom more often--if only for this one thing.