Start with a Question

As a classroom teacher, I would not be able to count the number of questions asked each day. Sometimes my high school students resembled my niece and nephews – each question followed with “but, why?” Over and over and over.

Having taught courses at the high school and college level, people frequently ask what the difference is between the age levels. My answer is often surprising – and it was a particularly surprising revelation for me, as well. The quality of questions students asked was the biggest difference.   The best student questions were at the high school level – my tenth graders’ questioning ability sticking out particularly well in my memory. The questions in my college courses were never quite on the level with those of my 15 and 16-year-olds.

The reason for this, I would say, goes back to the responses kids are used to receiving from their incessant questions – with each “but why” question, the increasing likelihood of the answer “because I said so!” Teachers can be just as guilty of this. We love that our students are interested in a topic, but if we feel the pressure for content coverage, then these questions put us off course. Over time, discouraging questions will stifle students’ natural curiosities. This made me think of bell hooks, who wrote in Teaching to Transgress about liberally-minded academics who teach conservatively—they are the sage on the stage, bestowing content knowledge, but not being responsive to students as a liberal education requires. In both high school and college-level classes, lectures can be a very efficient way to teach. It’s easier, orderly, and more teacher-controlled. The students who are able to regurgitate the most facts are more valued. Those students will also be really helpful on trivia night. However, they are not given practice in acting or thinking historically.

Questions are a natural part of education.  For scholars in any discipline, good questioning is not only essential, it propels their intellectual endeavors. Writer Nancy Willard said, “Sometimes questions are more important than answers.” If so, perhaps we need to give them a bit more consideration. Using questions in teaching might seem like a given, but there is disconnect between the ways in which scholars ask questions of themselves and of their students.

Think of the questions you ask of your own research endeavors and the questions you ask your students, whether during class or on assignments. In which instance do the questions lead to an “answer” and when do they lead to more questions? More “but whys?” Which questions pique student curiosity? Which questions reflect a worthwhile historical inquiry? And which questions result in students saying they don’t like history?

One of the best student complements I have ever received was when I was told I ask good questions. He did not mean that I ask about the factual minutiae. Instead, he meant that I asked the questions that required more than just recalling information. I asked the type of questions that frustrated the students used to supplying the “correct answer.”

The biggest way I have improved my teaching is by learning how to ask the questions that grab (and perplex) students – inquiry-based pedagogy being a big component of this. Using inquiry in history courses turns the class into an environment that is much more reflective of the disciplinary skills used by experts. The C3 Framework for Social Studies’ inquiry arc begins where scholars begin: with a question. Education scholar and writer of the C3 Framework, S.G. Grant says these questions need to be two things: “intellectually meaty” and “student-friendly.” Most importantly, questions need to sustain student engagement in historical inquiry. Inquiries should start with a compelling question – ones that are intriguing, ones that engage, ones that students want to talk about.

Crafting more compelling questions is a first step, but it can have significant outcomes. The art of questioning is one that history teachers should more conscientiously foster, while also purposefully create space for students to practice asking their own questions, reflective of the discipline. History classrooms should be the frontline of promoting, rather than stifling, this skill.   To be the critical thinkers we need to propel society forward, bring back students’ natural inclination to ask the “but whys.”

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