Zac Chase on...Student Wondering

Thursday, September 26, 2019

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The following article was originally published here


I spent a day working with a few hundred teachers a while back, helping them think on the topic of “effective questions”. The conversations were wide and varied. We covered the theoretical and the practical. My goal and charge was to make sure this conversation about student inquiry led to everyone in the room having something to back with them Monday to shift their practice in ways that opened the door to more student inquiry.

A some point in the second conversation, I realized I have one overarching, non-negotiable component to effective questions in classrooms and schools – they come from students. You don’t ask effective questions, you open the door for them, create the environments for them to spring forward, and honor them as they surface. When I get to visit schools, no matter the stated purpose of a classroom visit or observation, I leave with one metric I value above all others – “Do I know what the students in that class were curious about?”

This is different than the question of what can students in that classroom do or what do they know. These are the questions of City, Elmore, Fiarman, and Teitel’s instructional rounds and they are important. They also wedge open the door of compliance over exploration. I can leave knowing a student can perform a complex scientific experiment or recite a renowned soliloquy and be rightly impressed. If I leave these rooms without a clear understanding of what these capable students are wondering, we’ve missed the mark. These are students who are competent, but they are not necessary students who are curious. Watching a room brimming with evidence of student curiosity is an altogether different thing. Such classrooms are spaces where – were the teacher not to show up the next day – it is entirely possible the students would keep on with their exploration and tinkering.

This is also the reason I’ve latched on so tightly to Rothstein and Santana’s Question Formulation Technique and the brilliance of their book and suggestion of “Make just one change.” For those uninitiated to the QFT, the steps are as follows:

  1. Design a question focus.
  2. Produce questions.
  3. Work with closed-ended and open-ended questions.
  4. Prioritize questions.
  5. Plan next steps.
  6. Reflect.

After that, Rothstein and Santana suggest, a teacher can continue on with their lessons as they would have were the QFT not a practice they’d adopted. Sure, they could, but I find it difficult to comprehend why they would. If you’ve ever seen a classroom of students who are conditioned to a compliant, prescribed model of learning taste curiosity for the first time in their school careers, you know that toothpaste is unlikely to go back in the tube. You know it because of the spark in students, and you know it because of the energy it brings to teaching.

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of guest teaching in some grade 11 English classrooms. No ground was broken. I spent most of the time asking students about conversations and what made good ones and what led to bad ones. Then, I let them practice and helped through some processing. What did they want to figure out about having good conversations, I asked them. The opinions were as diverse as the room.

“You got X to talk,” the class’s teacher said, “That’s the most I’ve ever heard him say in a class all year.” When I thought about his contributions later, I realized the moments of X’s participation that struck me as most powerful were not what he knew, but what he wondered.

Here was a student who had been waiting for the invitation for inquiry for too long. I wonder how many others are waiting for similar invitations. I wonder what it will take to prop open the door.

Interested in reading more from Zac Chase? Check out his blog here

Posted by Meghan Burns at 7:01 PM – 0 Comments