Asking the Right Questions

Finding the best ways to teach critical thinking is a big concern these days. Language teachers can take advantage of speaking and writing assignments to stimulate student thinking. They’ll not only develop the critical thinking they need to succeed, but they’ll produce much better language.

Passive Kids

Many educational systems in the past have encouraged students to sit passively absorbing the teacher’s lectures.
This practice is of questionable value even when students are expected to absorb content, but it is absolutely counter-productive when they are expected to learn the skills of using a new language.

It simply is not possible to learn a new language by passively listening to lectures about it, especially when those lectures are, and they often are, in the primary language.

Students must have the opportunity to use a language meaningfully in order to acquire that language.

Teachers often discuss a topic in class in an attempt to stimulate thinking before assigning a writing task. Sometimes these are called warm-ups or pre-tasks or “activating scheme,” but some questions are better at stimulating thought, and language, than others. Teachers may think they are asking “open-ended” questions, but may not really be. Or they may think that students are stimulated because they “ask their opinion.” But they may be mistaken.

A poorly designed question can actually discourage thinking and speaking. Here are four common question types to avoid:

1) The Yes-No question, the “open-ended” question that isn’t open:

Do you think camels are useful animals? Do you think children view the world differently than adults do? Do you think Amit’s dream is unrealistic?

Some teachers say that they stimulate thinking by having students justify their answer. But use this carefully. If, for example, the reading passage implies that children see the world differently, is there a “right” answer to “Do you think children view the world differently than adults do?” Will you only ask students who don’t choose “rightly” to justify? And what does “justify” mean to you and to your students? Are you helping them to refine their thinking toward universal standards of clarity and logic or are you only challenging them in front of their peers when they answer differently than expected? If you do get students to justify their answers, how many students get to speak? Will other students then believe that the few who spoke have the “right” answer?

Yes-no questions do not automatically stimulate language or thinking.

2) The “stimulate them to think, but only what I want them to think” question:

Do you think that the protagonist was wrong to kill her husband and then lie about it to the police? Do you think the author of the story is trying to tell us that people who commit crimes should be punished for their crimes? Does the writer use poetic language in order to make readers feel as if they are experiencing the situation themselves?

Remember your goal is to produce thinkers. Using polite questioning language to “suggest” to students the “right” way of thinking will not encourage critical thinking.

3) The “state the facts and nothing but the facts” question:

How many questions did the hero ask the wise man? What town did Sandeep travel to? Which line of the poem tells you what the poet did after coming down from the mountain?

Factual “comprehension” questions should not be overemphasized. Beware of questions that can be answered simply by plugging in phrases from the text. They do not actually require any comprehension, just an ability to match the question to the section of text it refers to.

4) The “my students think because I ask their opinion” question:

Do you like living in a village? How do you feel when you read this sad poem? Are you upset when people do not follow the rules in your school?

Asking about feelings and opinions is probably fine in primary grades, but if you want critical thinkers, you don’t want them to think that assertion of an opinion or feeling is critical thinking.

If you are just beginning to teach critical thinking, I encourage you to get a firm grasp of the major concepts. For a concise, clear overview of critical thinking concepts, there may be no better guide than Richard Paul’s classic Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools. The Kindle version is instantly available and very inexpensive.

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Designing Better Questions for Stimulating Thinking and Language

In short, beware of yes/no questions, leading questions, purely factual questions, and questions that may teach students that assertion of an opinion is critical thinking. So, what questions will stimulate critical thinking and language?

Truly open ended questions are those that have no right answer.

If you teach in an exam-centered culture, the concept of “no right answer” can be a bit intimidating, but, as adults, we all know there are many situations and problems in life that have no right answer.

In fact, the reason we are in such dire need of good critical thinkers is that we need help solving these problems. Even young children are aware that there are problems. The simplest way a teacher can produce thinking in her students is also the easiest way for her to devise interesting assignments.

Critical thinking and interesting assignments both begin with real problems. If you have the freedom to choose your own texts, give your students real issues to respond to and half your job is done.

Secondly, never forget that your role as a language teacher is to teach language, not content. Even if you have to use certain texts, whenever possible, focus on the actual text. Use questions that require students to look carefully at the way the writer makes meaning rather than questions that require a student to memorize notes about the text.

HT to Find more on this topic including examples of each type of question for an American literary classic on the blog.

For a more in-depth look at questioning in the classroom, Jim Burke’s, What’s the Big Idea? Question Driven Units to Motivate Reading, Writing, and Thinking (India) , has a lot of great ideas.

For more on questions, The Miniature Guide to the Art of Asking Essential Questions is an economical Kindle source by Richard Paul and Linda Elder.

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