Who's Doing the Work? (Burkins & Yaris, 2016) explores the ways we support students in problem-solving, especially if they are grappling with something that is really requiring them to think deeply and work hard. Right now, when so much about our instruction is different than usual, asking good questions is a reliable and familiar friend.
Of course, we all know that asking higher-order questions can help children learn more. But, while asking "good" questions remains important in mask-to-mask and digital spaces, it's what we do after we ask the question that matters next.
I recently encountered, however, a bit of research on math instruction that is making me think about the limits of these "good" questions.
In a study that compared the way math teachers ask questions during math instruction, researchers found that only 1 in 5 questions required children to make deep connections across the content. This does not seem like big news; we are all aware of the need to ask more questions that push children to take the content they are learning to levels of analysis and connection. We also appreciate the important role that procedural questions ("low level") play when learning new information or processes. Certainly, it would be silly to try and make every question higher- order.
What is most fascinating about the study mentioned in Range, however, is that in many cases, when better questions were asked, children still didn't get the opportunity to think deeply about the content. Rather than actually getting to do the work, they were given a series of "hints." So even though the work began with an invitation into deep thinking, their thinking was actually hampered during the process of answering the question.
While 1/5 of questions in the study were high-level questions, requiring students to deeply process the content, students received hint after hint in the form of a low-level question. So, low-level, hint-giving questions, eliminated the value of the original, good question.
Historically, in developing better questions for reading instruction, we put a lot of energy into thinking about levels of inquiry and Blooms Taxonomy. We craft the questions thoughtfully, but the moments after the initial question matter just as much as the question. In fact, with hint-giving through a series of low-level questions, a question such as, How do authors show the ways characters change over time? becomes no more thought-provoking or learning-inducing than a question like, Who is the main character?
Fortunately, there is a magic bullet for letting our better questions do the work we intend for them to do. The simple practice for making the most of our good questions it to, quite simply, wait.
Wait time is the critical complement to a good question, and it is proving even more tricky in virtual instruction. A few seconds can feel like forever when you are up close on a camera screen. Instructional time is somehow different in this new time-space-continuum. But just because it feels like forever, doesn't mean it actually is forever. In virtual instruction especially, and in light of the negative effects of "hint" giving to move things along, just giving students time to think remains essential.
Now more than ever, the way we support students in answering questions is just as important as the question itself.
Dr. Jan Burkins is a full-time writer, consultant, and professional development provider.