"There's Always Questions..."
Finals are just around the corner and, thankfully, I’ve mostly avoided the triggering, “so what can I do to get my grade up?” question. Mostly. I’m confident that every unit I have is set up for students to succeed with a genuine attempt at demonstrating their understanding of the material. I start every unit by passing out the rubric, letting the students know exactly what we are studying, discussing, and working towards. That way they know exactly how and on what they’ll be graded. I think that’s vital since so many of our students (and also their parents/guardians/siblings, prospective colleges, etc.) put so much importance on grades. After I go over the rubric I ask, “So. Any questions, clarifications needed, or items I can help you better understand?”
Usually the response is attentive silence. I follow up with, “Because I want to make sure every one of you knows exactly how you’ll be graded and how I’m looking for you to demonstrate your understanding.” I embrace the silence by scanning the room twice. Usually a hand or two goes up. The hand-raisers have had enough time to process that they need clarification, mustered the courage to raise the hand, and/or mentally typed out the verbiage needed to convey their query. I answer, and then repeat the aforementioned, “So any more questions, clarifications needed, or items I can help you better understand?” Silence. We move on. Sure enough, over the course of the unit, I will receive lots of questions. Good questions. Questions that demonstrate they either did not pay attention when I introduced the rubric or didn’t process, muster, and mentally type. I’ve learned now that there will always be questions, and there will be questions coming from a variety of motivations. This isn’t just for school contexts. “Now let’s open it up for anyone who has questions” is another triggering invitation in most meetings because most of the questions asked DO NOT PERTAIN TO THE ENTIRE GROUP.
I became an intolerant open-question person because of my mother. When I was in elementary school, she attended, like all the available parents/guardians could, the classroom conferences, PTA meetings, etc. After a long day of work she and her other parent/guardian friends would sigh and roll their eyes every time a non-needed question was asked causing the meeting to be extended. This behavior of mine was nurtured! Now, we as teachers, as professionals who often have to sit in a meeting or classroom setting know questions will be asked. Here are a few of the Types of Question Askers* we can expect to encounter:
The Genuine Questioner: This student really does need clarification. Generally, these are the students we teachers mean when we say, “If you have a question I guarantee five other students have the same.” They usually possess the social-cue awareness to know how to word their questions so it covers many items on the rubric/agenda/assessment, and it leads the teacher to answering in a way which benefits the majority of the class.
The Hopes-to-Distract Questioner: This student knows their teacher is a storyteller, or is passionate about a topic which is off-topic from the topic at hand. “My theatre teacher is obsessed with his fantasy football team, let’s get him talking about that instead of Greek theatre!” Not so fast, buckaroo. I’m better than that. This student usually teams up with a few other questioners because they have no issue paying attention and participating, they just don’t want to work or focus on the intended topic.
The Questioner who Questions Just to Question: This student always asks questions. Always. If you were a betting teacher, you could bet on this student asking a question, whether it needed to be asked or not. You’d win, every time, and you could retire ten years earlier than expected. This student either enjoys hearing their own voice, or is set on the “fact” that they can only understand the rubric/agenda/assessment if they ask about what they already understand. This student places a high value on their grade and refuses to receive a grade less than an A, and they’ll be damned if they didn’t get every bit of info, on verbal record, indicating they understand and will ace it.
The “What Did They Just Say?” Questioner: This student will mostly pay attention, but then not ask the teacher/speaker. Instead, when the instructions/lesson is finished, they’ll ask their friend or neighboring classmate, “so what’re we doing?” More on this later, but they mean well. They just don’t want to ask you, in front of everyone, ya know?
The “Huh?” Questioner: This student genuinely checked out of your introduction/explanation of the instructions and can’t recall a single thing you just said. That’s it. Time to re-explain.
The Non-Questioner: This student will not ask you a question, and they will not ask their classmates a question. But they will have them. They will do their best to either complete the assessment by studying the rubric, or will decide their question is dumb, they won’t ace the assessment, and they pre-accept their “destiny” of not doing well. And the whole time through the unit, they’ll never ask a question.
Now, these Questioners are on a spectrum. Students can be a variety or blend of these types of Questioners, depending on the day/unit, but they all exist; odds are if your class has more than ten students, you have a few of each in there. So what’s a teacher to do? Questions, though usually paid lip service as being something teacher’s love, usually only work if we’re in the tolerant mood to answer them. Often, we hate repeating ourselves, and the proximity of first explanation to re-explanation usually determines the level of our annoyance. And the students won’t question you being annoyed at them asking questions; they can always tell. So, if we can’t change the students from being their Type, then we must take it on ourselves to anticipate and expect.
How to save time and tempers, type-by-type:
The Genuine Questioner: Thank them for asking the question, and be specific as to why it’s valuable. This will encourage others to think about beneficial questions which propel the understanding. Also, these students generally don’t mind being publicly praised, so don’t worry about embarrassing them. Answer it, then ask for more or move on.
The Hopes-to-Distract Questioner: Embrace the fact that the student(s) are genuinely interested in you, so be aware of when a little detour from the topic at-hand is needed as a brain break. Use this time to bond with your students in a non-academic conversation setting, and this camaraderie will pay off in droves when it’s time to get down to business. Just check yourself to ensure you’re in control of the conversation and the timing of it.
The Questioner who Questions Just to Question: Pace your lesson to allow for these questions so you accommodate their learning rather than shame or “shh!” them into silence. You want them to feel you’re approachable because if they get shut down, how many other students will avoid asking questions, too?
The “What Did They Just Say?” Questioner: Maybe your verbiage didn’t connect to the student, so their neighbor can word it differently, allowing them to understand better. I used to immediately jump in when I’d hear a student ask this. “Oh! Did you have a question? I can help!” Well, sure I can help, but maybe that student doesn’t need my help, they need to hear it explained differently. Let it happen. Less repeating for you and better understanding for them.
The “Huh?” Questioner: Overflow the classroom/discussion/meeting with different modes of information. Written out instructions on paper, verbalization, notes on the board, work samples, whatever it takes so this student has a plethora of resources to change that “Huh?” to “Oh! Got it.” Anticipate their needs ahead of time and it’ll save frustration of repeating and repeating for you and for them.
The Non-Questioner: No public shaming needed. No cold calling on them. While all the other Questioners are busy questioning and working, get to this student's one-on-one level and figure out what may be needed. Maybe they’re fine listening at first but will have questions later. Be ready for it. They want to succeed, they just need time to figure out how to succeed. So help them. They may never speak up when prompted, but when they know you got their back, they’ll eventually know what to ask for and how to ask for it.
(*=these anecdotal pedagogy tips do not relate to those students who have conditions or accommodations which require the necessity for asking. To teachers who have those students, make sure you are reading the student's IEP/504s to ensure you have budgeted time and materials to fulfill the accommodations these students require. Discrete conferences are always a plus to gauge and adjust teaching practices as needed.)
In all transparency, teachers fit into these Types of Questioners as well. Bankers do, lawyers do, baristas do, and the list goes on. Questions can be good and questions can be valuable. As teachers, speakers, leaders of the meeting, it serves everyone when we can do the work ahead of explaining to ensure those Types of Questioners are encouraged to succeed, receive clarification, or bring up something you forgot to address. Sure, it takes time and effort, but so does mustering up that courage to even ask in the first place. Go forth and be ready to be the best Type of Answerer your class has ever met!