a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher
A friend shared a challenge with me. Rather than jumping in with advice, as is my natural tendency, I attempted to ask questions to help her figure out the problem on her own. At the end of my series of queries, she said, “Those are really good questions. Questions are sometimes suggestions, aren’t they?”
When you think of how professional development occurs, one of the first ideas that may come to mind is receiving feedback. Many of the mentors I’ve worked with find this idea problematic, though, because it suggests one-way communication—advice from mentor to teacher—when they hope to engage their mentees in dialog. In fact, this is so important to them that a primary concern is asking good questions. But as my conversation above illustrates, doing so is really hard. Let’s answer some questions about questions and see how both asking and responding require some finesse.
Why are questions important when stepping toward professional development?
Questions encourage reflection and autonomous learning and lead toward the final destination—ownership of your professional development. Which are you more likely to take ownership of: advice given by your mentor or a problem you solve collaboratively as you answer her/his questions?
What types of questions work best?
What kinds of questions lead to reflection and ownership? It might help to think about their purpose, the answers they may elicit, and their potential effect on the listener. For example, do they lead you around to a “right” answer or to explore an issue collaboratively with your mentor?
The chart linked here—Bloom’s Taxonomy for Professional Development—shows one practical way of thinking about types of questions. It’s based on the revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy with a potential question for teachers at each of the six levels plus a seventh that allows for exploration of values benchmarks or needs. The questions/levels are listed from surface to deep. Which types/levels would help your growth as a teacher? Why?
What role does the questioner play?
Reflecting back on the opening conversation, I consciously attempted to listen well. At least I hope I didn’t interrupt too many times. Obviously, I tried to respond with questions rather than statements as I tried to encourage my friend to take ownership. Perhaps, though, I also needed to be open to different ideas. Could my wording, tone of voice, or facial expression have communicated an advice-giving intent rather than a willingness to learn and collaborate?
What else should the questioner do or not do?
What role does the teacher play?
Asking good questions is challenging. Answering them well can also be difficult. After reflecting on professional development interactions I’ve had (as a mentor or teacher), here are two things you could do to make your mentor’s job easier. What would you add?
As I’ve written this post and reflected on my questions and responses in professional development settings, I can’t help but contemplate other situations. How about you? In what relationships is the Master Teacher encouraging you to be a better questioner? In which ones do you need to respond reflectively and with critical self-awareness?
 This chart is adapted from Melissa K. Smith and Marilyn Lewis, Supporting the Professional Development of English Language Teachers: Facilitative Mentoring, (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).
Questions were listed throughout this post. Please feel free to respond to any of them—or any other idea in the post—in the comments section below.
1. Working with your (peer) mentor, look at your essential questions/outcomes from two weeks ago and make a list of 8-10 questions you could explore together as you attempt to reach those goals. (Some of the questions may be related to last week’s contextual factors.) Then, analyze the questions:
2. Make some revision based on your analysis.
3. Let your mentor choose some of the questions to ask while you attempt to respond reflectively and with critical self-reflection.