How to ask a question

Last Friday and this Tuesday I taught very small classes – ten in each. Something of a luxury, not because the showman is put away in a class that size but really because the academic can come out.

The first class was a sort of guest spot on the outdoors in an international perspective in a module called (surprise!) “Cross-National Perspectives in Education,” and raised questions (I hope) around the validity of evidence from sources grabbed (purposefully) from YouTube, and set in the context of harder (but less immediately illuminating) data such as stats on life span.

The second was my “Becoming a Reader” class, where the ungarded students were lively and argumentative while presenting to one another on issues around reading and memory, reading schemes, motivation…

So far, so good.  What struck me was that the smaller classes gave us all time to listen, to question, to discuss. They gave me time to listen, and to raise questions – and to listen to my own questioning.

But what sort of questions do I raise? How do I challenge students? I think – I hope – I do so with some reference to the kind of progression in thinking skills I’m looking for. I’m looking less for an answer about “How many children attend the pre school in Norway that we saw?” than I am for some response to “What do you see as the drawbacks to the kind of provision we saw?” or “Why might a family education project in Kenya be presented as a women’s empowerment project?”

But do I – do we – model effectively enough the deeper questioning we seek from our students? I ask a student to “be more critical” – but can I, hand on heart, say I have shown the students the kind of questioning I want them to do?

This comes to a head with the students I’m meeting tomorrow, and to the stream of Masters students who have come to me this week to check their essay titles are “on the right lines.” What makes a good question, a good area for a short essay, a fruitful line of discussion?

I think we’re back, to a greater or lesser extent explicitly,  at Gibbs’ reflective cycle and Bloom’s taxonomy.  Watch out for that threadbare carpet, please, as I suggest

  • To what extent do you think you can rely on…
  • How valid do you think the argument is…
  • Can you use this argument in a different context/Can we explain this another way…

…are  good ways [for me] to go, rather than nervously saying “Do you understand this?” “Are you with me?” or (in some ways the most cowardly of all) “I’m assuming you’ve all read this.”

This would/could/might lead to better questions at least at M-level or L6. Armed with this – or having armed my students with it? – I can genuinely expect essay proposals that are not “How can a practitioner support role play effectively?” but “To what extent might practitioner support improve children’s experience of role play?” or “What theoretical background might a practitioner employ to understand role play in a setting?” Tentative. Exploratory.


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