This past Spring I had the opportunity to attend the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence Inspired Teaching Retreat: “The Olive Tree Effect.” Using a future orientation, we explored several questions. How do we motivate our students? How do we motivate ourselves? What are our plans for personal and professional growth? The retreat encouraged reflection of teaching practices; the readings and content facilitated a constructivist approach to learning. Multiple perspectives represented by various disciplines and experiences contributed to a healthy dialogue, enriching my capacity to learn and grow.
As a teacher, I have observed students who are disengaged from the text and class discussions. This can be an albatross or an opportunity. During the retreat, a discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation challenged me to consider my future purpose as a teacher, and strategies to address disinterest. How can I model intrinsic motivation and promote personal growth, self-acceptance, and generativity? How can I increase student engagement in the classroom and inspire students to become personally responsible, self-directed, reflective learners?
Among the many takeaways of the retreat, I was intrigued by “the power of questions” to build relationships, engage students and facilitate learning. Effective questions are thought provoking, reflective, and inspirational. In the best sense, questions are motivational devices that elicit ownership and accountability. Probing, open-ended questions require thoughtful responses, invite alternative viewpoints, and clarify misconceptions.
Good questions require students to analyze, evaluate, and create new thinking. Questions are used in formative assessment, during instruction, to determine student understanding. Powerful questions inform, organize, and require students to elaborate and act on their learning. Examples include: What are you working on? Can you provide an example? Why are you doing this work? How do you know your work is good? Would you explain further what you mean? What do you need to know in order to complete this work? Where do you go for support?
The quality classroom requires rigorous activities that make learning meaningful and fun. How does the teacher determine that students have learned? Has teaching occurred if the students have not learned? Who controls the learning? What makes learning interactive and personal? The benefits of powerful questions are numerous. Good questions engage students in deeper learning and create energy in the classroom. This is an adaptive challenge that improves the instructional process.
Rather than “telling” students or providing the “answers,” asking the right questions can lead them to “construct” new learning. When you involve students in the process, they are more likely to take ownership, invest, and contribute. Active listening and probing become instructional tools to deepen students’ knowledge. Effective questions are invitational. Students learn to hypothesize, connect ideas, and think critically. Learning becomes authentic when students struggle to find the answer or solution to a problem.
“The power of questions” does not apply only to the classroom and my role as professor. As a parent, raising children is a fluid, evolving and exciting adventure. Rebellion, challenge, and defiance can erode and disrupt healthy relationships. I have found that questions are powerful tools in helping to work through difficult situations. A knee jerk, visceral reaction is to tell, demand, or coerce, using parental directives “in the child’s best interest.” This strategy often backfires or is resisted, causing further deterioration of the relationship, frustrating the participants.
Asking critical, thoughtful questions and allowing time for reflection, demonstrates care and concern. Examples include: What is your purpose? What are the benefits of your actions? What values are you demonstrating in this decision? What are some other options? Why is this important to you? Dialogue respects and honors the thoughts and ideas of others. This opens the door to resolutions that are creative, synergistic, and most importantly, owned.
As a spouse, parent, teacher, or friend, powerful questions can help build healthy, enduring relationships. Try it out. The next time you find yourself making premature judgments about the motives of others, frustrated by situations out of your control, or worried about issues and events, use open-ended, probing questions. Listen and inquire before responding. You will empower others to think critically, reason, and practice personal responsibility.
Jerry Minsinger served 38 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools; as a principal at various school levels for 25 years. Currently, Jerry serves as an adjunct professor and supervisor of student teachers in the School of Education at Duquesne University.