5 Questions to Tackle in Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques

Posted
12/17/2017
Jon Konen
School Principal

No will argue that questioning and discussion drive instruction. They are instructional strategies that should be in every lesson. Yet, it is a component that most teachers do not spend much time perfecting. If you ask a teacher if they remember the questions they asked in a lesson in a post conference meeting, most can only remember one, maybe a few. A follow up question would be, "What level on the Bloom's Taxonomy (or Depth of Knowledge) were the questions asked in the lesson?" Most teachers cannot tell you, but can only guess.

Building on prior knowledge is a keystone foundational skill in creating a powerful teaching lesson. How a teacher might do that varies, but the quickest way is by questioning students. Some of the questions, based on science, can lead to further learning, but for the best teachers, it is an art form. Teachers can craft questions based on the content they are required to teach, as well as connect to the current students in their classroom. The mix of art and science with discussion techniques and questioning make this component in Charlotte Danielson's Evaluation Model one that is difficult to ascertain exemplary status. As you may know in her model at the proficient level, teachers own this process. At the exemplary model, this ownership is transferred to the students.

The following five questions will support your transition in this process from proficient to exemplary.

1 - How Do You Build Discussion into Your Lessons?

There are many components to a lesson plan. Teachers have to hook or excite the students to want to learn the given topic, engagement them. At the beginning of most lessons, the teacher states the learner objective, rationale, and how they are going to be assessed by the end of the lesson. Then the teacher usually follows the "I do, we do, you do" teaching model. Finally, at the end, the teacher has some type of task which students do independently that gives the teacher feedback into how well the student understood and mastered the learner objective. Granted, there are many variations of this format, Madeline Hunter's lesson format or the 5E Inquiry-based lesson design are two of the most well-known lesson structures.

Exemplary teachers know and are able to use discussion to drive instruction. These teachers understand the learning pyramid, with lecture-based instruction at the lowest comprehension level, while a student teaching others is at the highest comprehension level. They build in time for students to discuss concepts with the teacher whole group, small group, and paired up in most of the lessons. These teachers use different levels of structures to get responses, from a simple Think-Pair-Share structure to a more complex Socratic Circle or Kagan Cooperative structure.

There is a fine line of too much discussion and not enough content, as well as when discussion occurs within a lesson. How does a teacher know how much is too much and when to add in discussion. Most teachers follow a textbook or teacher's guide format, while others guess when discussion would be appropriate. Exemplary teachers understand the content so well that they know ahead of time what questions they are going to ask, as well as being able to ratchet up or down the level on Bloom's taxonomy depending on what the students are giving them from previous discussion.

A developing teacher finds him or herself asking questions and the students responding in two camps. The first camp is not asking enough questions to elicit feedback that the teacher can use to determine next steps in instruction. These teachers are more lecture-based and have the philosophy, "Students should know it, because I taught it!" To them, "teaching it," means I told them through lecture already and they should know it. The exemplary teacher understands the "give and take" between the teacher and students. The teacher uses formative assessment checks throughout the lesson that helps predict a positive learner outcome. In the second camp, the teacher asks too many questions and the students are doing a lot of discussion. In this format, the teacher is not getting enough content covered and always finds him or herself behind in the lesson planning and pacing. The teacher thinks…"the students are talking more than me, I am doing my job." The exemplary teacher understands there is a fine balance between too much discussion time and not enough….another example of the art and science of teaching.

Fine-tuning this balance of discussion, as well as being able to read the students in your class, make this difficult for new teachers to master. Years of experience definitely play a role in the development of discussion. Exemplary teachers can "read a class" that are overly chatty and make a decision to increase discussion to curb the chatty behavior. They realize if they do not build in more discussion, the students are going to get it anyway, in a negative fashion. The ability to use the chatty behavior for good discussion is a powerful classroom management tool that exemplary teachers use well. The best classroom management tool is good instruction!

2 - What Level of Questioning Do You Use in Your Lessons and Why?

Tracking the questions you use ask students when you teach is a great eye-opener for most teachers. Master teachers agree and understand that they should be asking higher-level questions to get students to a deeper understanding of the content. What many proficient or developing teachers do not do is to track exactly what they are asking. Once a teacher starts tracking the questions asked, it becomes a routine in all their future lessons. In addition, teachers will be able to raise or lower the depth of knowledge required when answering various questions.

Changing the wording of a question can ratchet up the level of difficulty with only a few slight adjustments. Vocabulary is the key to changing questions. What teachers chose to use elicits a variety of different responses from students. Study the words in the diagram associated with each level of Bloom's Taxonomy. As you travel from the bottom to the top, the level of complexity increases.

The exemplary teacher understands that they need questions from all levels on Bloom's Taxonomy. A teacher simply cannot reframe a question to make it more difficult. They must understand how new the concept is for the students, as well as what level of understanding the students are exhibiting. Sentence stems can be a tool taking a teacher who uses low level questioning, to a teacher that can differentiate in the middle of a lesson. Here are some question stems, from Flickr user enokson, for each level of Bloom's Taxonomy:

Knowledge

  • Can you recall…?
  • Where is…? Who is…?
  • Can you list four…?
  • How would you explain…?

Analyze

  • Why do you think…?
  • Can you compare…?
  • How would you categorize…?
  • What can you infer?

Understand

  • What is the main idea of…?
  • How would you summarize…?
  • How do you explain…?
  • Can you find an example of…?

Evaluate

  • Which is more important…?
  • Can you defend…?
  • What are the pros/cons of…?
  • How would you feel if…?

Apply

  • What would happen if…?
  • How would you clarify…?
  • Who do you think…?
  • What is a situation like…?

Create

  • What is an alternative…?
  • Could you invent…?
  • How can you imagine…?
  • What could you design to…?

3 - How Do You Get a High Level of Student Participation in Discussions?

Getting a high level of student participation in discussions is multifaceted. Engagement, motivation, development of agency, and the ability to ask intriguing questions drive student participation. Active participation and engagement strategies can be used to keep students interested in the content, as well as making sure students are connecting at a deeper level if done correctly. This is explained in more detail in Domain 3 Component C: Engaging Students in Learning. Motivation is intrinsic with a teacher's instructional style. Though motivation can be faked, teachers must show or act motivated themselves in order for students to be motivated to learn. This creates a sense of urgency and importance to learn the content. The development of agency, or a student's ability to take on their own learning process, is something that all teachers should set goals for in the classroom. Lastly, the ability for teachers and students to create intriguing questions and thought-provoking discussions drives student participation in discussions and it is the focus of this domain and component.

Exemplary teachers know they must find material that is naturally interesting to the students. If the content a teacher is using is going to be difficult to teach, finding a connection with student interests will raise the level of engagement and student participation. Questions, and the subsequent discussions, from high interest concepts are easier to keep students on task, which in turn makes discussions more powerful. This takes time, especially for new teachers; experience plays a factor in finding materials. Using many of the same types of questions, as mentioned above in the sentence stems provided, will support student achievement, as well as providing structure and routine that are predictable and easier for students to follow. In contrast, a teacher must also not be afraid to ask questions even though they do not have the answer. This models the fact that we are all learners and we must research as well. In the same tone, we must ask questions that are open-ended and can easily be differentiated. These questions can have multiple correct solutions, divergent and convergent thinking, and celebrate higher-order thinking skills.

4 - How Can a Teacher or Student Build Questions off Previous Questions Asked?

Much like teachers using stem questions to further discussion, students can use stem questions or question starters to build off other student's responses. An exemplary teacher creates procedures, routines, and structures within their discussions to engage students with each other, as well as the teacher. These protocols are important in promoting kindness, tolerance, and empathy…which need to be present in every positive school classroom culture. There are numerous strategies to get students to build questions and discussion off other student's responses. This post will feature a few of the popular or most used structures.

First, the classroom teacher creates a learning environment that is respectful of all individuals. Students are not afraid to contribute and willing to take a risk without ridicule. Here are some typical classroom protocols for discussion from litcircles.org post:

Discussion ElementsLooks LikeSounds Like
Active ListeningEyes on speaker
Hands empty
Sit up
Mind is focused
Face speaker
Speakerís voice only
Paying attention
Appropriate responses
Voices low
One voice at a time
Active Participation
(respond to ideas and share feelings)
Eyes on speaker
Hands to yourself
Hands empty
Talking one at a time
Head nodding
Appropriate responses
Follow off othersí ideas
Nice comments
Positive attitudes
Asking Questions
for Clarification
Listening
Hands empty
Positive, nice questions
Polite answers
Piggybacking
Off Others' Ideas
Listening
Paying attention
Postive, nice talking
Wait for people to finish
Disagreeing ConstructivelyNice face
Nice looks
Polite responses
Quiet voices
No put downs
Focused on Discussion
(body posture and eye contact)
Eyes on speaker
Hands empty
Sit up
Face speaker
Mind is focused
Speaker's voice only
Appropriate responses
Voices low
Supporting Opinions
with Evidence
One person talking
Attention on the speaker
One voice
Encouraging OthersPrompt people to share
Ask probing questions
Positive responses

Learning structures are built around protocols and quality discussion content. Here are 10 of the most popular learning structures that have students build their responses off other student's responses:

Teaching students how to recall, summarize, restate, or analyze another student's response is an influential tool to get students listening to each other, as well as furthering their learning. With controversy so prevalent in the media, we must teach our students how to argue and defend their opinions respectfully. Through modeling of language, holding students accountable to desired protocols and standards, students learn how to interact respectfully.

5 -How Do You Transition Questioning from Teacher-Created to Student-Created?

As a proficient teacher understands and is able to question students with a high level of comprehension, as well as eliciting higher order thinking skills, they must transition these skills over to the students. Exemplary teachers have students who take over much of the questioning and discussion development. This may sound like a difficult task, yet these teachers understand how to empower students with much the same skills they are using to get all students engaged in discussion.

Empowering students to be thought-leaders and questioners can be fun and exciting. No matter the grade level, modeling the metacognitive creation of questions supports students learning. Many times students do not know what they should be thinking about when they are learning…the actual thinking about thinking! What has been recently coined as "mindfulness," we must support student thinking about the questioning process. For example, in a fifth grade social studies Explorers Unit that discusses the early explorer Vasco DeGama, what types of questions come to mind immediately?

  • What is Vasco DeGama known for, or why do I need to learn about him?
  • Where is DeGama from?
  • What struggles did DeGama have as he came across the ocean?
  • How is DeGama like other Italian and Portuguese explorers?
  • What else do I know about Italian and Portuguese explorers that will support me in my understanding of DeGama?
  • What can I create that is going to support me in my learning about DeGama?

These question range from Bloom's "knowledge" level all the way to the "synthesize" level. The teacher can model these questions and students can start to see how questions are created. Students can use question stems or other student's questions to develop their own. Students can justify why they asked the specific question, as well as being able to critique other's respectfully. Students support one in other in the understanding of content and being able to answer or respond to other student's questions. Students also support making sure everyone is participating in class, small group, or partnered discussions. They do it respectfully and with kindness.

Socratic Circles or fish bowl activities have no true sense of a sequential plan for questioning. Though they do have protocols, questions are devised on the go and students build off other students. A teacher can play several roles in these two settings. The teacher can play the role of asking questions and being in charge…not a true Socratic Circle, but a possibility to teach students how to discuss at the beginning. Another role is being at the same level of participation as the students; part of the Socratic Circle. The teacher can also play the role of observer where they are studying the participants, like the outer circle of students who are taking notes. Another role is having the teacher be observer of the entire process and remain quiet and just take notes on observations. Lastly, the ability to have multiple Socratic Circles going at the same time and the teacher bounces between groups listening to conversations can be another role the teacher can play. To learn more about these learning structures, see question #4 above.

Using rubrics and checklists can support a teacher with this transition. Setting expectations on what discussion looks like, sounds like, and even feels like can be powerful tools in getting the best discussion. Exemplary teachers set expectations before discussion, every time, so students understand what is expected of them when using a learning structure or protocol. Here is an example of a discussion rubric created for Socratic circles.

Another easy rubric could be designed with students similar to the following:

3 Points = 100% on task, supporting other students often, asked at least 3 questions, made at least 3 comments or extensions from other students

2 Points = 100% on task, supporting other students, asked at least 2 questions, made at least 2 comments or extensions from other students

1 Point = 80% on task, did not support other students, asked 1 question or made one comment or extension from other students

0 Points = <80% on task, hindered the discussion group, did not ask questions or make comments

When students have to score themselves and self-reflect, as well as goal setting for future discussions, the transfer of power is evident. When students own their learning they are empowered to make learning decisions that are individualized and positive growth is imminent.

(Charlotte Danielson Evaluation Model: Domain 3 Component b)

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Jon Konen

Jon Konen

Jon Konen is a K-6 elementary principal in Great Falls, Montana. His school won the 2012 Blue Ribbon Award. He has taught most all grade levels, been a K-12 principal of a rural school, as well as an instructional coach.
Jon Konen

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