Are Questions More Important than the Answers?

What if you asked for questions from your students instead of just answers.

As I was reading, “Differentiating Instruction in a Whole-Group Setting” by Betty Hollas I came across the same thought. “The question is more important than the answer” (Hollas 35). Hollas suggested that teachers remember differentiation is about being student centred and being student centered means, “the focus is off you and on your students. It means students are doing something, as opposed to just sitting and listening” (Hollas 34). She asked us to reflect on how we use questioning in the classroom. She also asked:

~ How many questions do you as a teacher ask in a class?

~ How many questions do your students ask in a class?

Research by Kagan (1999) suggests that, “teachers ask 80 questions each hour” and in the same time period students ask two (Hollas 35).

Good questioning is an important skill in a teacher’s tool box. It gives students the opportunity to engage, “helps them to construct meaning, and develops higher levels thinking skills” (Hollas 34). Being cognizant of Bloom’s taxonomy will not only help you to engage your students, but it will model how to ask questions. If you take the time to encourage students to ask questions, it gets them actively involved in the class and develops a shared sense of ownership. Hollas also notes that, “when the students are the ones coming up with the questions, they’re automatically differentiating themselves” (35). It means listening carefully and creating an environment in which students have various ways to ask their questions. If you listen carefully, student’s questions will reveal their interests and how and at what level they are processing the information.

The following are a few strategies to add to your Questioning tool box.

1. In Biology class, each student wrote their name on a recipe card and handed in to me. One of the ways that we use the cards is when we are reviewing or correcting. All cards begin face down in a pile and as I ask a question or the students do, we turn over a name. That person is responsible for attempting to answer the question. If they do, their name gets moved into a new pile (on my right). Because they have answered correctly, these students are now in charge of being ready to expand, clarify or give examples that are relevant to a question that is answered by another student. Now if the original student is unsure of the answer to the question, their name goes into a new pile (on my left). They will be asked another question and must get one correct before their name gets moved to the pile on my right. They can volunteer an answer for a new question before I draw another name. Once everyone has answered correctly or worked through an answer, then start again.

~ I have noticed that my wait time improves because I take the time to ask the question and look around first before I draw the card. The students, even the ones that can’t wait to answer the questions, are respectful of the wait time because they need to listen carefully to hear the question and be able to give it their best try. It is also a great way to include all students, even the quiet ones, because they all know that everyone is part of the game.

~ We have added variations to this by using it as a review at the end of the class. The name that is drawn has to ask a review question.

~ Other variations inlcude making notes on the card for tracking. (See Hollas 39)

2. Hollas (37) suggests the idea of a parking lot for questions. Students have a parking lot graphic on a piece of paper, each student can then write down any questions that they have about the current concept on the question page. At the end of the class, you can address the questions. Hollas also suggests that you could use this for the entire class and students add to the poster during the unit.

3. Wait Time Strategies: Students all process information at different rates. Wait time will help all students deepen understanding when they respond. Hollas explains, “often boys need more wait time because they have less background knowledge and more limited vocabulary. Often English language learners need additional time to process thoughts first in their own language and then to translate” as well as learning disabled students (39). Hollas also points out that the other end of the spectrum benefits as well:

“It may surprise you to know that retrieval rates and intelligence are not linked. Sometimes those highly able students in your room have neural networks that are much denser, and their thoughts and responses are more complex (Kingore, 2004). If you call only on the students whose hands are up in the air first, you and your class will miss the deeper thoughts of some of these students.” ( Hollas 39)

Moreover, if you don’t wait for students to respond, it will form a habit and students will simply learn that it is easier to wait for you to answer than for them to try. Hollas (38) suggests considering these ideas to increase your wait time. Give students 5-10 seconds to think before they respond. Use random selection. Explain to the class that half the hands must be up before you will select someone. Use the hands down method, everyone is expected to try and answer. Not only do students suggest an answer, but they explain their thought process to get to the answer. (I think the last statement is important for students to role model for each other because it may give other students an idea of how that student remembers information. The explanation may include a study tip that other students can try. It also gives perspective. For example, some of the academic students have to work really hard and use specific strategies to learn the info, it’s not just because they are smart.)

4. In class we have tried multiple variations of the think-pair-share strategy. After I have asked a question, I will encourage students to think about it by themselves for 30-60 seconds. Sometimes this includes writing it down. Next they get to share it with someone at their table. Then the team can share their answer with the class. We have also added another sharing step. Students have to get up and move around the room and share their idea with others. (Works well for Kinesthetic and Interpersonal learners) Then when we reconvene students share the best of the ideas that they have heard. Often the students who are willing to talk with highlight that they thought student A had a great idea. This has often brought student A out of their shell and they have, in some cases, become more willing to share. The positive feedback between students is important in building the atmosphere of your classroom. It also leads to interesting discussions between students that can be worked into the lesson.

5. We often use the last few minutes of class to review the current day’s material. Sometimes individual students lead the review by asking open ended questions. Other days, each student brainstorms questions relevant to the day or unit and writes them down. They then have 2-3 minutes to move around the room and challenge other students. When the pair of students meet, they quickly take turns asking their questions. If they get it wrong, they then sign the other person’s paper. At the end of the time you can take a quick look at the questions that have the most signatures. It is great feedback for you as to which topics need to be revisited.

6. Role Model: Don’t forget to verbalize your thinking processes to the students be it for questioning or for study strategies. For example, Hollas explains that “good readers are always asking questions while reading. They’re engaged and active . . . The ability to generate questions is the key to higher levels of learning” (36). Consider sharing your thoughts as you read or have students share their thoughts with each other.

While this is by no means an extensive listing of questioning strategies, I do hope that you have reflected on the ways that you use questioning in your class. Feel free to leave a comment below sharing questioning strategies that have worked for you.

Just think . . . .
is the goal of education to know all of the answers or . . . .

Works Cited

Hollas, Betty. Differentiating Instruction in a Whole-group Setting: Taking the Easy First Steps into Differentiation, Grades 7-12. Peterborough, N.H.: Crystal Springs, 2007. Print.


The Wonderful World of Wikis

After being introduced to Wikis by Kirk and Thad, I began considering the possibilities of using a wiki in my Biology 20 class. I am fortunate this semester to be working with a small group of positive, enthusiastic and motivated students who are interested in learning about Biology, as well as, how they learn. We have focused on learning about their unique learning styles and finding study strategies that will help them in Bio and in the future.

As part of the Biology 20 final assessment, students have a choice to complete a final exam or create a portfolio of what Biology means to them. With a smaller class this semester, all of the students have chosen to try a portfolio. Now our road to creating wiki portfolios began with a class wiki. I set up a Biology 20 class wiki and had all of the students join. Our first use of the wiki was as a place to post questions that we had about current topics in class. After brainstorming our questions, we decided to use google docs to share information about specific types of virus. I created the main google doc and each student selected a topic and question to research and created their own google doc. The students then shared their google docs with me and I linked them into the main question page and we very quickly had the answers to our questions based on the work of the entire class. The following is a link to our google docs experiment. Virus and Bacteria Research – Bio 20

After we had worked through the student research, we debriefed on how we liked google docs. The pros were each student could easily create their own document, they could access it from school or home and any member of the class could easily see the information. The only downfall besides of course a few technological glitches was that I had to do all of the linking for the documents. So we started discussing the idea of using our class wiki as a space to post answers to our research questions. Our next attempt at wikis was a moderate success. Students quickly joined the wiki and started posting answers to our class developed questions; however, too many of us trying to post on the same page at the same time caused some answers to be deleted. So mid class we switched to a discussion forum, which worked very well.

And so began our journey into creating individual student wikis as a tool to develop their portfolios. For those of you wondering what a Bio portfolio looks like… let me explain. The Biology portfolio begins with the initial creation of a concept map of biology, followed a few weeks later by a what is bio paragraph. Then we go for a walk outside and examine Biology in the real world:) Students create a definition of Biology and define what Science, Technology, Society and the Environment mean to them. They create a personalized top ten list of what biological issues are important and they collect biology related news headlines and quotations. The goal is to develop what Biology means to them. In the major project aspect, students have a specific list of concepts, derived from the curriculum, which they must explain. The explanation must be in their own words and include a photograph(s) or image(s) of what the concept means and why it is important. At the end of the semester, we complete a second concept map, update our definition of biology and write a reflection. Traditionally, these have been submitted as scrapbooks, binders, or powerpoints.

After working with wikis, I suggested to the students that maybe we could try creating our portfolios online in a wiki format. After a quick survey, some students were all for it and others were somewhat skeptical. They asked me, “what would a wiki portfolio look like?” Good question, I thought to myself and I explained that I would set up a template wiki for them to take a look at. The following wiki is a brief overview – Bio 20 wiki portfolio. After viewing the wiki, the students agreed that they would try it out and here we are today.

As a I prepared to write this post, I asked my students to share their feelings about working with wikis. The following are the students’ responses to our wiki experiment. (paraphrased from their journals)

Starting a wiki was easy
○ They are useful because you don’ t have to print things off.
○ It’s an easy way of handing in assignments.
○ I work better on computers and it gives us another way to interact with our classmates and benefit from the resources they have found.
○ Working online gives us many different ways to add information to our wiki and portfolio
○ Even if some of us are quieter in class, the wiki allows us to have a voice.
○ You can access it from any computer and it will be easier to finish things.
○ The wiki format works nicely with the portfolio format
○ Everyone in the class can participate on the wiki.
○ I’m new to the world of wikis, but so far it looks like it will work well.
I really enjoy scrapbooking and would like to use this method for my portfolio – (This is completely okay. We decided to use the wiki for a few parts of the portfolio where it would be more efficient. The final product will be a combination of both.)

 ○ It is easier to find information and share it with others in the class.

○ It is less expensive than buying a scrapbook and easier to post pictures and info. You can link directly to your sources.
○ I still like the in class learning that we do, but the wikis can be useful for research and projects.
○ A useful tool for sharing class information and for transferring info between computers

Things for us to work on — points to ponder:
○ I’d like to learn more ways to create & edit material to add more variety to my portfolio. What other tools can we use?
○ I’m worried that there may be a glitch and I might lose some of my information.
○ We need to use the wiki more often to improve our wiki skills (go to the computer lab more often)
○ Will the computers be reliable.
○ I am not always guaranteed access to my computer at home and the internet is slow.
○ I prefer to have the paper version in front of me to work with.
○ I’m not sure about it yet, but we’ll see how it goes.

Thank-you to the Bio 20 students for their insightful and honest feedback.

A few educational reasons that you may want to consider a wiki are:

  1. They are very easy to set up – check out Wikispaces (there is also a way to upgrade your site to a higher level of security for free if it is for educational use.) – Stay tuned for a future video of how to upgrade your wiki for free.
  2. Once students are introduced to the concept, the students will soon be teaching you how to use them (Thank-you to my students for trying out the new concept, giving me feedback, and helping me learn more about how to create a wiki:) 
  3. Wikis also give you the opportunity to be in a protected space (log in is required). For example, you can restrict who can be part of the wiki. You must approve the people that join your wiki, so you have control over who participates.  (Be sure to check out the policy of your school division before students create their own wikispace.  For NESD info check out Kirk’s blog
  4. Once you are invited to join the student created wikis, you can easily check out their progress from any computer with an internet connection. You can also post items on their wiki, so ideally you can be giving feedback on that wiki page when you view it.
  5. It will change the way you teach. It will give your students the opportunity to take ownership of their learning and actively participate in a entirely new way. Prepare to become a learning facilitator and a student.  Because once you have taught your students the basics of wikis, they will soon be teaching you how you can make wikis work better.

So as you can see, wikis are in interesting idea for you to consider. And remember, if you are not sure how a project is going or how to get a Web 2.0 tool to work for you… just ask the Web 2.0 generation, your students. 

Stay tuned for ongoing updates on our wiki experience.