Over the summer, I read Santana and Rothstein’s book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. I kind of wanted to dislike it–there’s a slight tone of just-follow-these-three-easy-steps-to-weight-loss-in-15-days which bugs me–but I have to say that, of all the books I read this summer, it has had the largest effect on my teaching.
Because student-driven discussions are an important piece of what I think I’m looking for, students asking questions is not new to me. What is new is the idea that this is a learned skill. That’s obvious once I say it, right? But I have to confess that I never really spent much time in class teaching students to ask questions. I’m trying that this year and, so far, I’m loving it. I don’t follow the entire Question Formulating Technique (TM), but I do build the conscious generation of questions into my class regularly. I used questions as the focus for my first day of class this year like this:
1) Talked briefly about the importance of questions to scholars: what’s the point of asking questions? What’s the point of us, here in this class, asking questions?
2) Split students into groups of three to brainstorm as many questions about U.S. History, taken globally, as they could in 5 minutes.
3) Asked each group to choose the three questions from their list that would be most interesting to pursue this year, following any criteria they liked, and write those on the board. They ranged from broad, philosophical questions like “What does it mean to be American?” to narrow, factual ones like “Who were the presidents?”
4) Brought the class back together and asked them to group the questions in categories. At first, the categories were all topical (questions about politics, questions about war, etc), but gradually students started to talk about facts vs. judgments, interpretation vs. events, and open- vs. closed-ended questions. By this time, we’d run out of time, so I let things sit there, but we’ve come back to the categories they established from time to time in the course of our discussions.
I decided the other day that it was time for a more formal return to the topic of questions, so the day before I had planned a no-intervention-from me discussion of the Declaration of Independence I asked them to brainstorm questions and choose a few to structure their discussion around. I was really struck by the depth and variety of the questions, even in my weaker class. Here’s what they came up with:
This is, to me at least, the sort of real thinking about the subject that I’m always looking for and so often falling short of.