Engaging students: to ask better questions, we must become better listeners


But, why????

When I was young, I would ask “why?” Not once, but

over and over.

It was a kind of game, but one that the adults in my life took seriously, so that each time I asked, “but, why?” there would be a real, thoughtful, serious answer to my question. Until they got tired of answering and shooed me off!

I haven’t grown out of asking questions. Now I ask my students. My geometry class has come to expect that when they give me an answer, I am going to ask them “why” and “how do they know” and “can you explain how you got that answer?” And I really, really want to know! (I should note here that I also have to tell them that there is no “wrong” answer to this question. To come up with an answer, they had to be thinking something!)

I have instituted “turn and tell your partner” moments. As a class, when we’ve worked through a particular idea (and my partner teacher and I need a transition) I tell the students to turn and tell their partner what their understanding was regarding whatever it is we just learned. Then, as I move around the room, crowded with 35+ kids, I listen to them. I comment sometimes, or drop a question to further discussion to a pair or small group of students. And I always try to get a conversation started when the kids are off topic, or aren’t talking at all!

My goal is to have my students facilitate these sharings. I am modeling what I want to hear, using the sentence starters I found in the Book Intentional Talk by E. Kazemi. I recently found a free resource for the talk balloons images. I printed and laminated them for my wall: “I heard you say…” “Why did you…” “Can you give me more information about..”image

To ask good questions, we have to become good listeners.

Part of the model for good listening is to let students paraphrase what they just heard. I started this last week. I had a young man explain the why behind his answer. Then I asked a student across the room to tell me what he just heard the young man say. He hemmed and hawed and finally admitted he wasn’t paying attention. I asked another young man (more boys than girls in this class!), receiving the same response. By this time I had everyone’s attention. “Can anyone tell me what just said?” A student raised his hand and told me how he came up with his answer, but it wasn’t the same thing that J had shared. I tried again, right away. B, another student explained how he had gotten his answer. This time, I asked one of the girls about two rows over to paraphrase what she just heard. She quickly admitted she wasn’t listening, but the girl in front of her raised her hand and repeated B‘s comments. Then a young man across the room raised his hand and asked if he should put what B had said in his own words. I nodded and he did! This group has the makings!!

I can’t wait to see them again (A day, Tuesday block!) and give them more chances to take charge of their learning. Baby steps!

Teacher, facilitator, listener.

The students in this class each learn at different speeds, with some students often leaving the others behind. By listening and repeating and discussing together, we can give them each a chance to be teacher, facilitator, learner. The conversation needs to include everybody. Giving students a voice in answering AND asking the questions is an important step towards student engagement.

One of the best sources I’ve found for good questions, and activities for incorporating questions in lessons, is a site called Right Question Institute. The folks there have developed some great, free resources for incorporating good questions into our classes. I’ve also written about intentional talk, and my experiences. I hope these ideas will help kickstart more questions and listening in your classroom. After all, who wants to answer questions if no one is listening for the answer!

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3 thoughts on “Engaging students: to ask better questions, we must become better listeners

  1. As a side-note: The quotation is misattributed to Confucius (and sometimes, by others, to Benjamin Franklin).

    It is sometimes attributed to Xunzi:
    不闻不若闻之, 闻之不若见之, 见之不若知之, 知之不若行之

    A direct translation of the above:

    “Better than nothing is to be told; better than being told is to see; better than seeing is to know; better than knowing is to experience.”

    The closest line from Confucius of which I am aware is:
    知之者不如好之者,好之者不如乐之者

    A direct translation:

    “Better than the person who knows how to learn is the person who enjoys learning; better than the person who enjoys learning is the person who finds happiness through learning.”

    As for the exact wording provided in your post: You may have to search further to find its original source in English. The earliest source that I see is in the following:
    Young Children, Volume 51
    National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1964
    https://books.google.com/books?id=SMtXAAAAYAAJ

    The wording there is given as:

    An old Oriental
    proverb holds
    much meaning
    for those of us who work
    with young children.
    Tell me, I forget.
    Show me, I remember.
    Involve me,
    I understand.

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