“Computers are useless. They can only give answers.” (Pablo Picasso)
Belvidere, Illinois, 1990, a first-grade classroom (6-year-olds). A student looks out of the window and sees a dumpster below. He asks the teacher where the garbage goes. The teacher arranges a field trip to a landfill site. The students are so shocked by the size and contents of the landfill that they start a recycling campaign in their school. Over several months, their efforts take hold and recycling becomes the norm.
And it all started with one question: “where does the garbage go?” One question, one answer, one concerted effort to take action: some say that’s how we change the world.
Children are natural questioners. They ask things like, why is snow cold? Why did my dog die? Where did my baby brother come from? Years ago a friend of mine overheard one of his sons asking, “Is Daddy older than God?” A tremendous question, and like all good questions, it leads to other questions: How old is Daddy? How old is God? How do we know? A good question is always an invitation to think.
Questioning has a long history in education, stretching from Socrates through Dewey through Bruner through Freire and beyond. It’s a vital technique, but it’s not always used well. The researcher Forestal found that when teachers talk in class, 60% of the time it’s to ask questions, but the vast majority of these are ‘display questions’ – questions for which there is only one answer, which is already known by the teacher. Years ago I read an exchange in a language class that went like this:
Teacher: Is it an elephant?
Student: No, it’s a pen.
Teacher: Very good, Paola!
And, apparently, back in the 1980s something called the British Rapid Method, used in Italy, was based entirely around meaningless questions for the sake of practising form at beginner level.
Forestal also found that the average ‘wait time’ in U.S. classrooms – the time between the teacher asking the question and getting or providing an answer – is one second. What kind of question can be answered after one second’s thought? Probably one with low cognitive demand.
Good questioning is both an art and a skill. The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi says that many Ph.D candidates drop out not because they have trouble answering the questions set by their professors – this is easy; they’ve done it throughout their lives – but because when it comes to doing research, they don’t have the creativity to ask the right questions.
Questions in ELT classrooms
The right questions can be the basis for an English lesson. They can be simple autobiographical questions about the students’ backgrounds or they can be more task-like. Here are some examples of the latter:
1. Look at this map. Where would you go if you could take a round-the-world trip visiting only ten countries and traveling only eastwards?
Students plot their routes, do some research on the countries, and present their ideas in groups, explaining their choices. Follow-up stages include choosing three travel companions (one friend, one historical figure, and one person to document the trip, i.e. a writer, musician, artist or film-maker).
2. Apart from family and friends, who is your hero?
Students prepare a talk on a person they admire. They hear a model of someone doing the same task; study useful vocabulary, e.g. personal qualities; do some factual research; and then describe their hero.
3. You are on a desert island. What five objects will you take with you and why?
Students come up with a list individually, then work with other students to come up with a better list, this time of seven objects. Finally, they present and justify their list to the class.
Each of these tasks lends itself to extended vocabulary, grammar, and skills work at any level above Elementary. The secret, of course, as mentioned above, is that these questions lead to other questions. “Who is your hero?” really means, “what did they do, and what problems did they overcome, and when/where did they live, and what did they stand for, and why do they matter to you?”
I’ve mentioned the questions our students ask and the questions we ask our students. A third type is the questions we ask ourselves. For teachers, the act of questioning is central to our development as professionals. As we become more experienced, the focus shifts from the lesson plan and what the teacher is doing to what the students are doing, and, more pertinently, who the students are. We ask: what is their background? What do they know? What do they need to know? How can we build on their knowledge?
As an extension of this, experienced teachers constantly question themselves: What is my identity as a teacher? What qualities do I possess in the students’ eyes? What are my deficits? How did I become what I am today and who influenced me? How will I be a better teacher tomorrow?