What do a middle school teacher in a challenging Atlanta public school and a Ph.D graduate student teaching undergraduate physics students at Harvard College have in common?
They’re both working too hard. We’ve heard from both of them and from many other educators that they wind up doing too much thinking for their students. There may, in fact, be no more challenging task for a teacher than to figure out how to get all students to think for themselves.
The Atlanta middle school teacher talked about spending an entire weekend just trying to come up with the key questions that would jumpstart student thinking. She noted: “Something’s wrong with this picture. When I am working that hard on coming up with the questions, I’m doing all the heavy lifting.”
It’s a vicious cycle as students assume their role is to wait for and respond to teacher questions, rather than come up with their own. They constantly look for cues from the teacher on what they should say, which response this time will get an approving nod, and what is the one right answer. The high-achieving students in the Harvard class, who have already demonstrated much traditional success in their own educational journeys, have largely internalized the same message and yet, as the Ph.D grad student and instructor told us, “getting them to ask questions is like pulling teeth.”
We should make life easier for teachers trying to get their students to think for themselves. Not ‘easier’ as in improve teacher-student ratios, offer better professional learning opportunities, provide more support service and relevant resources, better working conditions and a raise as well as greater respect for the hard work so many teachers already do. That would be nice, but, lacking a magic wand, that’s not within our power. But, there is one immediate somewhat magic-wandish change that could make it easier for all educators.
Turn more of the question-asking over to the students. That’s it. When the Atlanta middle school teacher realized that she had been doing all the ‘heavy lifting’ by coming up with the questions to drive student learning, she observed: “There’s something really wrong with this picture. But, if my students learn to ask their own questions, they’ll have started thinking for themselves rather than worrying about giving me the answer to my questions.”
It is but one change, as we have written about at length in our book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, but it is not a small change. Students may be confused when challenged to ask their own questions and will look befuddled and frustrated if left simply with the request to ask questions. They’ll need a clear structure, a rigorous process and multiple opportunities to practice the skill of question formulation. And, there are actually many opportunities to practice the skill, even in classrooms preoccupied with the next test (be it a state-mandated standardized one or a college mid-term).
Ensuring that students learn how to ask their own questions may be the most enduring gift any educator can offer a student. In the short-run, a classroom full of students better able to generate their own questions will indeed make life easier for a teacher. The challenge will change, as one teacher told us from “trying to engage them to managing their new energy and interest in learning.” That, in the long run, makes for an easier teaching life and a more joyful one.