What’s the best way to get our students to engage in deep and meaningful learning? I don’t have the answer, but I do have a lot of questions. And it’s my curiosity and desire to learn that drives my search for that answer. One method I use to get my students’ heads in the game are question strategies designed to get them thinking critically.
When you have students with that innate curiosity, it’s a beautiful thing. And it’s also very rare to have a class full of them. So what do you do when you are faced with apathy, laziness and disconnection? How do you get your kids to engage in the learning process?
Well, one thing I do know for sure is that just giving them the answer will never get those kids to engage. When we “stand and deliver”, we deliver a very passive learning experience for our students. If they sit passively taking in information that they will later regurgitate in a test, they are not engaged in real and lasting learning. Memorization does not equal understanding.
And questions shouldn’t be focused on finding right answers; instead they should be about encouraging students to think.
Which brings me back to my original question: how do we get our students to engage in their learning? I still don’t have “the” answer. And I still have disengaged students in front of me everyday. However, I’m still questioning and trying to find that elusive and magical cattle prod that will have all of them on the edge of their seats, ready to learn. In the meantime, here are some techniques that I’ve found to be successful:
1. Teach your students that good questions are as important as good answers.
In fact, most great ideas are the result of someone asking a question. Imagine if someone had not asked, what if a computer could fit in your pocket? No doubt, many of your best lessons were the result of you asking yourself questions too. We learn when we question and probe and think. When you give them something new to read, tell them to generate a list of questions for the piece. These could be questions about things they don’t understand, questions the author is asking the reader to consider, or questions that they have as a result of their reading. By taking the focus off “the answer” and on to good questions, students may feel less intimidated.
2. Model good questioning. When you facilitate a class discussion, use questions to get your students to think more deeply. Why do you think that? Yes, but what if…? So what do you think the author means when… ? Yes, that’s right, but why do you think the author chose that word/example/phrase? When you help them to flesh out their answers with more detail, they learn a process that they can use themselves when they are trying to fully develop their ideas.
3. Resist the urge to give students “the” answer. After you have given them a task, have them work together to come up with possible solutions or conclusions. Encourage them to come up with multiple possibilities. Students can share their good questions in pairs or small groups and then work together to come up with some answers–and hopefully more good questions. Afterward, you can discuss their findings as a class. When you do, continue to model good questioning. When a student makes a statement, ask the class if they agree or disagree. If they do, why? Ask if anyone can add to the answer with more detail. You can also play devil’s advocate and throw out a question that gets them to consider an alternative view.
4. Wait. Most humans hate dead air. We rush to fill it. But when teachers ask questions and rush to fill in the answer when no one else does, we rob our students of the chance to think. It can be uncomfortable when the crickets arrive, but students will feel that discomfort too. Wait just a little longer and someone will give you an answer eventually. Or, if they have really been paying attention, perhaps one of them will throw out a good question to get the discussion moving!
5. Give them topics they will want to question. In my experience, teens will dig deep and ask all kinds of questions if it’s a topic they can relate to. When I give them readings and activities that are based around relevant issues in their lives, I can usually just stand back and watch them dive into meaningful discussions where they will challenge each other with good questions. Most recently, we have been looking at how the pandemic has affected their lives. Yes, we are all sick of it, but my students really engaged with the lessons and activities I created because they have a whole lot of emotion tied up in the topic.
We started with some of the memes that were circulating in March and April of 2020 that were suggesting that Newton and Shakespeare did great things during their periods of isolation, so we should be able to as well. Then, I had the students explore and question this idea before we did a series of readings and activities on the topic.
There was lots of discussion, debate, and critical thinking. It also lead to some very thoughtful written work, because they could relate on a very deep level. You can check out the lesson here, as well as other nonfiction resources based on real life issues.
I hope you’ve gotten some questioning strategies that you can use to engage your students. Don’t forget to grab the PDF, and let me know if you have any questions!