From: Classrom Confidential - The 12 Secrets of Great Teachers

Secret #5

Great Teachers Don't Take No (or Yes) for an Answer

The inquiry method uses questions, too, but they're open-ended. That means there's no one right answer, since the purpose is to elicit students' thoughts, and then help them examine their thinking. The answers to inquiry questions are knowable to anyone within earshot, if the question is well-crafted and the students work at it by thinking.

Let's look at some didactic questions translated into the inquiry mode.

  • Didactic Questions
    - What shape is this leaf?
    - How was this tool used?
    - What color is this?
    - What is bark?
    - What animals migrate?
    - Who invented the first writing system?
  • Open-Ended
    Inquiry Questions
    - What do you notice about this leaf?
    - How might this tool have been used? By whom?
    - How would you describe this color?
    - Why do you think trees have bark?
    - Why do you think creatures and people migrate?
    - Why do you think people invented writing?

Words like think, would, could, or might embedded in a question indicate inquiry in progress. They signal that there are many ways to answer the question, and typically the answers themselves stimulate more questions. So instead of the tidy game of ping-pong that occurs with didactic teaching, inquiry stimu- lates talking, puzzling, risking, and debating. Students feel confused, frustrated, tense, puzzled, affronted, shocked, determined, and sometimes triumphantly surprised at their own cognitive accomplishments.

Inquiry demands effort. Teachers have to work hard devising great questions, but the good news is that kids have to work harder because inquiry forces them to root around in their heads and come up with details, examples, evidence, ideas, theories, and speculations. In an era when sound bites have replaced communication and thought, this is revolutionary. The teacher listens, thinks, and asks another question and perhaps another to push students' thinking. The result is that kids get smarter through their own efforts. They construct meaning by interacting with others, rather than waiting in a persistent vegetative state for another delivery of information.

Where does inquiry fit in your teaching day? Great teachers are perpetually in inquiry mode. They use inquiry in the moment, to respond to students' remarks. For example, if a student complains, "I don't get why we have to study history, anyway. All these people are dead, so what's the difference?" An inquiry-type response would be, "That's an interesting question. Why might it be useful for us to learn about things that happened in the past?" If you train yourself to consistently respond to questions and remarks with probing questions, students learn to think first, or pose better questions geared toward finding an answer, not just registering a complaint.

Many teachers use inquiry to introduce a specific topic in a content area, such as understanding winter migration routes, examining the cause of low voter turnout, or analyzing strategies to combat discrimination. Great teachers take inquiry much farther, using a set of inquiry questions as the engine to drive an entire unit of study, such as the rise of civilization, the Civil War, or adaptation in animals and plants, which may last all year. Inquiry, done well, stimulates full-throttle cognition. There are few things a teacher can do that are more exciting or exhausting. Inquiry teaching truly is a contact sport.

The Three Basic Moves

There are three basic moves in an inquiry approach to teaching. Master these and you're on your way to creating a gymnasium for youthful minds.

  • 1.
    initiating questions
  • 2.
    Ask questions to
    respond and follow-up
  • 3.
    Insert information
    at key points

Move Number 1: Ask Initiating Questions

Teachers who use the inquiry method launch their lessons with an open-ended question that identifies the topic and jump-starts the discussion. For example, if you were starting an inquiry lesson on the history of your community, you might say: "Our town was founded in 1793, just over two hundred years ago. Why do you think people came to live here?" Given time and encouragement, students will comment on the location, resources, weather, climate, geography, proximity to other places, exile, adventure, vacation, health, opportunity, accident, or luck. They may go for fifteen minutes, rummaging for reasons. How do you get this much discussion out of kids who are used to relaxing in the shadow of the Designated Answerer? Each time students volunteer an answer, you acknowledge their interesting contribution and then say, "What else? What's another reason people would come here?"

What else? is one of the most powerful questions you have to galvanize all of your students, not just the smarties. What else? trains your kids to treat the obvious, superficial answers as warm-up for thinking rigorously about anything from mitosis to medieval art. By your insistence on multiple answers to the same question, you slowly convince kids that there is no one right answer. There are as many answers as there are minds in the room, and you're desperately interested in all of them. You will find many examples of initiating questions in this chapter, so for now let's move on to the second basic move an inquiry teacher needs to master-responding to students' remarks.

Move Number 2: Ask Questions to Respond and Follow-Up

Many teachers ask good initiating questions. They know where they want the discussion to go, and they craft a question that could take them there along a scenic route. The problem is that when students offer listless, sloppy, half-baked answers, they accept them. Kids blurt out some fuzzy, quasi-related string of words, ending with a rising tone that functions as a question mark in an otherwise declarative statement. The teacher feigns satisfaction and moves on. End of inquiry. Actually, it's pretty much the end of thinking once kids realize that this is not a precision event. A rough approximation will do.

Let's return to our question about local history. Suppose you ask, "Why do you think people came to live here?" and get the reply, "Maybe they came here because they were scared?" There are a number of possible ways to respond. Some teachers would shoot the kid a puzzled look and move on, as if he'd never spoken. Or supply a rational subtitle for his remarks- "I think Jeremy means people left some pretty dangerous places to settle here because they thought it would be safer." If he didn't mean that initially, he will by the time you're through. Perhaps you'll say "maybe" with a look of serene blankness, all the while thinking, "Jeez, with answers like that, we'll never get through this material!" Reaching the conclusion that this whole questioning idea is a bad one, you launch into an explanation of why people settled in your fair town, and save your questions for a pop quiz.

Whereas, a teacher bent on inquiry would lean in. That's right. You need to get closer so you can find out what that student means. So it's time to ask another good question! Here are some ways you could respond that would push a student to rethink and clarify:

  • "That's an interesting idea. Can you tell me more?"
  • "Can you tell me about the kinds of things that might scare people into leaving their homes and coming here?"
  • "What kind of things scared people in the past?"
  • "Why would moving be a good solution if you were scared?"
  • "Do you know about any of the things that scared people two hundred years ago when our town started?"

All of those questions put Jeremy back in thinking mode. It makes him accountable for what he said.

Follow-up questions generally come in five flavors. They're used to: clarify, expose points of view, probe assumptions, push for reasons or evidence, and probe implications or consequences. That looks like a lot to keep track of, but your gut will point you in the right direction. You can use the following lists to identify follow-up questions that press students to refine their thinking.