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Is There a Question in There?

posted: August 24, 2011 by

Mark

Recently I watched a video of Mark Zuckerberg (see below) addressing educators at The New Schools Summit earlier this year. He was invited to discuss the context of his donation of 100 million dollars to public schools in Newark, New Jersey, and his plans for an educational startup.

After introducing Zuckerberg, the moderator turns to the audience to ask for questions that will guide the discussion. This is where the video gets VERY hard to watch. Because instead of asking questions, the group of business pros and educators alike stumble, mumble, and fumble. Can they think of a question? Not without considerable confusion. The moderator is insistent—going so far as to remind participants that questions must end with question marks. And yet, person after person steps to the mic and … rambles. The exasperated moderator hardly knows how to record their nonquestions on the whiteboard, and eventually gives up. Why did this happen? Because even for highly educated and accomplished people, formulating questions on the fly is difficult. It’s an enviable skill, and it can make or break a meeting or session.

How many professional conferences have you been to, when, during question period, an attendee raises their hand and starts to go on and on, meandering, lost in tangents, prompting the presenter to ask some version of, “Is there a question in there?” Awkward indeed. Why is this such a frequent occurrence? According to Warren Berger and other theorists, it’s because “the habit of asking questions is trained out of us by the educational system.” That may be true—but so is the fact that many teachers are deeply committed to inquiry based learning.

Active, discovery-based instruction is a challenge to design, but as many researchers have shown, the results are amazing, as students hone their analytic skill set. Lessons built around or including collaborative, creative questioning tend to infuse the classroom with energy and enthusiasm. Classes engage with the material when it’s clear their perspectives and positions are critical to the learning experience. Teaching students to ask good questions is a foundational skill, but it’s also strategic.

Glance at any recent human resources research about hiring and mentoring young people today and you’ll see the repeated insight that “millennials love sharing their ideas and want to know that they are being heard, if you invite them to give you constructive feedback, you can gain a different perspective and help them learn” (I’m quoting from Judy Lindenberger from The Evolved Employer blog).

I think of questions as the currency of academic work. Having a cache of great questions enriches research and teaching. Sometimes questions are more important than answers, so the truism goes. And it may seem obvious, but this is where clicker technology fits in nicely to solve a pedagogical challenge.

image By University of Hawaii - West Oahu

Using clickers encourages profs to think about their lessons in terms of a series of questions. Sounds simple, and the technology itself is simple, but creating great questions is anything but. Trying to integrate a few polls into a finished lecture after the fact is profoundly disruptive. I’ve connected with many instructors across the disciplines who say that building great polls into a lesson is a real challenge. The litmus test is student reaction, and it’s very obvious which questions are great and resonate, and which are facile and fall flat.

If questions matter, if asking great questions is an important skill, then it’s worth thinking about how-tos. Here’s a small roundup of tips for creating great questions, culled from around the web, to use as part of inquiry based learning design, with or without clickers:

1. Think of a series of questions instead of several one-offs. “Ask interpretative questions (eg., what does the author mean here?) before evaluative questions (eg. is the author right about this?). Let your earlier questions lay a foundation for your later ones.” (source — opens PDF) Put differently, “During class discussions, rather than beginning with a single question that is multilayered and complex, use a sequence of questions to build depth and complexity.” (source)

2. Integrate some current and/or newsworthy material to keep lectures fresh, and use that as the basis for opinion questions. “Using real-life scenarios, clinical examples, or case studies will reinforce the importance of the material your are presenting.” (source — opens PDF)

3. Ask predictive questions. Students are more likely to pay attention to the material if they’ve been asked to weigh in on it first. “Teachers ask recall questions far more than predictive questions. But predictive questions are more important to develop a sense of understanding. Good readers are unconsciously making predictions.” (source)

4. Pose generalizing and summarizing questions. Get a debate going in no time by suggesting a series of outcomes, and if you are polling, include options such as None of these options are correct, and/or I am undecided. “To get students thinking about effects, implications, extensions and inferences, ask students to weigh in on a series of likely and unlikely consequences.” (source)

More Resources

The book that helped me the most when getting started building my cache of clicker questions: Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments by Derek Bruff.This highly-readable book identifies types of questions and provides a host of teaching strategies and instructional goals which inspired me to develop my own polls.

I also teach online, and one of my favorite and affordable edTech tools to facilitate question-based learning is PollDaddy. I also use Survey Monkey, but find PollDaddy very intuitive and nicely designed.

Here is the Zuckerberg video I mentioned at the outset:

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