Questions that matter

Ten years ago my colleagues and I developed a classroom observation tool. Among other data, it tracked how often teachers asked a question to which they did not know the answer.

You can probably guess how often this part of the tool was used. If the answer isn’t obvious to you, you might be in a very unique school environment and I encourage you to enjoy every second of it!

Unfortunately, many of us can guess how often we ticked that particular box during an observation. Hardly at all. In fact, that part of the observation form was so rarely used that when we moved from a paper version of the tool to an online version, we didn’t even include the option of noting such questions. In other words, although teachers asked a lot of questions, they asked so few questions to which they didn’t know the answer that it didn’t make sense to keep track of them.

You may be doubting that this can be the case in your school. And if you are lucky, maybe it is not the case. But I challenge you to look for questions that are really questions. Really things that the teacher is interested in knowing more about because the teacher doesn’t know the answer. There is an easy way for you to find out, of course. Visit a handful of classes, even for part of the hour, and make a tick for each question a teacher asks that is a true question, not a display question, not a question the teacher is asking instructionally, not a question to which the answer is already known. 

There is room for asking questions we know the answer to. I do see the value in this particular tool of our teaching toolbox. It’s just that there is also room and purpose for including questions that we don’t know the answer to – in order to explore a topic with students to find something out, together. Might this develop a classroom atmosphere of standing shoulder to shoulder to discover instead of face to face to, well, to be blunt, tell

It of course takes no small amount of confidence to set up learning in a way that allows for these types of questions. For one, teachers have to have the confidence to not know, on the spot, with students observing. We tend to shy away from constructing class in a way that exposes the weakness in what we know. After all, we’re supposed to know the subject, right? Even be experts?

Maybe we can finesse those last questions, though. As teachers, let’s suppose that one of our primary roles is to get students interested in our subject. We can’t expect to know everything anyway. And we certainly don’t want to cap what students can learn at the points where our own learning runs out. Perhaps if we focus a bit more of our teacher pride on being experts in how students go about learning and developing further interest we’d feel easier about getting into subjects at the edge of what we know. So we can explore together. So that our questions are a bit more real. So that we are all learning together.

Here’s a challenge for you. When you are teaching today – no need to wait – ask a question that you are interested in and to which you don’t have the answer. And notice what happens.

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