Why All The Questions?

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In my line of work I am involved in running many teacher workshops and professional learning seminars. The focus of nearly all these workshops are around advocating the importance of child-directed play, and creating learning opportunities for children to build on problem solving skills and their ability to self-regulate. The underlying theme for teachers participating in these workshops lies around them ‘backing off’ their learners and not satisfying the innate need to continually assess their students throughout every moment of the day.

So it really made me consider exactly how entrenched this need is by teachers to question and assess their students when observing a teacher in a recent workshop, who, despite being explicitly told to stay quiet in a role play, began directing the child in their play. The child was playing by themselves in a construction task and was joined by the teacher. Rather than observing and commenting, 95% of the teacher’s communication involved probing questions. “What are you making?, What do you think will go on there?, What is the best piece to use?” Suddenly a quiet activity the child was in charge of had turned into one in which they were required to respond to a barrage of questions, offering answers to satisfy an adult rather than concentrating on their self-chosen play activity.

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Why do teachers have a default position of question, question, question? And why does every move a child make need to be questioned, dissected and assessed? What happened to allowing children to exploring their world in their own time, without the pressures of having to then explain it to someone else? I can appreciate, as a trained teacher, the importance assessment plays in ensuring we are pitching our teaching at a level suitable to the children in front of us. But surely this applies to the areas of the curriculum we are focusing on, such as our reading lesson, numeracy or science experiment. (Even then teachers over-question). So why then do we need to question everything so that we can continually monitor and assess their learning and understanding of life?

One of the biggest reasons teachers seem to cut-to-the-chase and go straight for the questioning technique, would be the ever decreasing amount of time available to teachers in the classroom. When I went through teachers college (and it wasn’t that long ago) we were taught a variety of assessment strategies to deploy in order to gauge a child’s understanding. One of these strategies was observation. The art of keeping quiet and simply watching. Stepping away from the context of the child’s learning and becoming a fly on the wall……an unobtrusive observer, rather than an active participator. Having time to draw on this method is extremely limited in todays classrooms. And yet have teachers considered how it may change the way the children make sense of their learning if trusted to engage in an activity that they will have total autonomy over?

Yes, teachers will still be required to guide some children, particularly those who struggle to manage themselves independently, or those who are just beginning to problem-solve. But would these students advance more steadily in the development of these skills if they understood there was no expectation for them to then answer twenty questions by the teacher to prove what they had learned? Instead they may feel more valued by their teacher if she/he simply commented on what they had observed their student doing, and implied the knowledge they might’ve gained from the activity, with no pressure to confirm or deny. Their teacher actually took the time to watch them..

This is particularly pertinent to intelligent young boys. The problem-solvers, risk takers and ‘doers’ we have in our classrooms. Their learning happens in the moment. When the activity is over, they have already moved on. So consider how it must feel to then be required to answer questions about something in their minds is over with. Or consider, even, if you were in the middle of an intense ‘thinking’ task, only to be interrupted by someone wanting you to then have to explain your every decision. Yes, it may encourage deeper thinking……but we also run the risk of turning our children off in their learning for the sake of our questions. No point doing it, if we then have to answer a lot of questions after its done. That’s just too much like hard work.

From observing the interaction with the teacher and student during a play activity recently, I came to a very simple conclusion. Teachers need to learn to be happy with silence. Their own silence. They need to assess with their eyes more and their questions less. But even more so, they need to be questioning themselves. Is this really something I need an answer to? Is it an assessable activity…..or is it just a good bit of unadulterated fun? Can i trust the child to enjoy themselves, learn for themselves and make sense of their own learning, without me feeling the need to question and encourage ore learning? A simple conclusion, but I rather suspect far easier said than done!

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