Friday, January 8, 2016

Putting the Power of Questions in the Learners' Hands

Guest Post by Starr Sackstein, High School English Teacher and author, WJPS, Flushing, NY


Every child has the power to develop the journey that is their learning. Unfortunately, too often they are robbed of this opportunity by well-meaning teachers who have planned so perfectly so as to create the questions and answers to all of the lesson. What teachers need to understand is that by planning the specifics of the guiding questions, we take away a valuable chance to include learners in the process and add value and engagement to the experience.

Children are full of questions. We must teach them how to focus them and then how to find their own answers within the content areas we teach.

Imagine providing learners with some background material for a text or history and then asking them to explore it in a way that works for them and then either in small groups at first and maybe later individually ask them to develop a line of questioning to explore for that content.

It’s time to start saying yes to learner questions instead of “we can’t go over that now because it isn’t on the test!”

In my own classes, I have found that learners develop a deep level of inquiry when we provide agency of some kind and freedom. For example, when reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, after learners did pre-reading Prezi’s about different historical topics directly related to the text, the learners networked with each other to develop questions about their interests. The conversations varied from charity in the 19th century to modern day iterations of the same as well as whether or not Scrooge actually changed. Learners led the discussion. They used text and then debated each other.

In order to get to a place where learners can do this on their own, a teacher needs to develop stepping stones in the classroom. Depending on the age and level of the learners, consider starting with building questions in pieces after teaching parts of Bloom’s Taxonomy. If learners understand what makes a “good” question, one that will be open instead of closed, they are more likely to ask a question that will yield more depth of understanding and improve their learning experiences.

Another option can be to teach learners to dissect questions and reconstruct them as needed. Although I’m not a proponent of test prep, teaching learners to approach questions differently will undoubtedly serve the dual purpose of helping them understand questions better. Having learners workshop questions the same way we would writing pieces will help them develop questions as a group and alone, digging deeper into diction choice and the subtly of word meaning.

Empowering learners with the control of the questions, puts them in the driver’s seat of their journey and progress. They follow their interests and we trust them to develop more questions as they go, unraveling the possibilities in their learning. This is a great chance for learners and teachers to learn together rather than just in a one sided manner with the teacher in control of everything.

It’s time to make this change happen. Where can you add opportunities for learner questioning into your lessons?


Starr Sackstein, @MsSackstein, is a high school English and Journalism teacher at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, NYwhere her learners run a multi-media news outlet at Starr serves at the New York State Director to JEA to help serve advisers in New York better grow journalism programs.

She blogs on Education Week Teacher at “Work in Progress” in addition to her personal blog where she discusses all aspects of being a teacher and education reform. Sackstein co-moderates #sunchat as well as contributes to #NYedChat.

Starr has authored the following books:

Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective, Blogging for Educators, Teaching Students to Self Assess: How do I help Students grow as learners?, Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School and The Power of Questioning: Opening up the World of Student Inquiry

Contact information:
@MsSackstein on Twitter
Starr Sackstein, MJE Facebook Fan page

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