Master Teaching

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The Dialect of Questions

questiondirectionThe best teachers I had in higher education asked questions. They didn’t often offer their views or opinions on whatever material we were working with. I wondered if it was because they didn’t have answers or opinions, like the higher height of education was a void where the enlightened shrug their shoulders at one another and smile because meaning is secondary to the process.

Now I know that it wasn’t because they didn’t have ideas or answers for the questions they were asking. They did. Strong ones. Sometimes scary ones.

And they were gentle and humble at heart, and probably afraid of losing their jobs. So they started us down the trails where later, long after their influence, our answers come honestly, when we are ready for them. And sometimes they scare us.

The best teachers have the answers to the questions that make the status quo look small and meaningless, which it often is. They challenge their students to go farther and deeper, even over lines, and sometimes into “dangerous” territory, but all toward truth and hopefully Truth.

We do not speak the dialect of questions to fill the time, or to avoid teaching, but to get at the deepest levels of learning, leading a quest for wisdom.

Here’s a simple structure[1] for speaking the dialect of questions:

1. Tune into the individual.

Listen to student answers or ideas during the early layers of a lesson or discussion. Make notes, mental or written, about who said what when you hear something that rings, sings, or stings.

2. Name them and restate their input.

Name the student and paraphrase what they said earlier. For example: “Eliza said that it’s impossible to understand the stressors of returning to your own country after living abroad unless you’ve done it yourself, and that vacations and business trips don’t count.”

3. Pose a related question that furthers the discussion.

Invite others into the discussion. Avoid general questions like, “What do you think?” or “Do you agree with Eliza or not?” Instead, hone in on an idea like stressors or empathy. For example:

“What situations could be stressful for a returning expatriate or immigrant?”

Or

“How do you relate to a person who has had an experience that you haven’t had?”

There are many questions that can be derived from a single statement. The questions you pose should be intentional but open-ended. Even though you are guiding the conversation into higher order thinking, you are not necessarily in control of the outcome.

We may be surprised where a lesson leads when we speak the dialect of questions. It may take students down trails, good and honorable ones, they’ve never traveled, or at least send them on their way. As for us, when we ask and then listen, students’ answers may move us out of status quo and into places that are right and just and fair.


[1]Developed by Tom Wilson, director of online learning at Azuza Pacific University.

Further exploration

  • Proverbs 2:1-11

What’s your perspective?

  • How do you use questions in your teaching?
  • What memories do you have of your favorite teachers’ questioning procedures?

Post Author

Kimberly Todd


Photo Credit: frankieleon via Compfight cc

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This entry was posted on April 1, 2015 by in communicating with students, Kimberly Todd, questions.

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