The Questions We Ask

Kelly Gallagher looked out at the audience at the Long Beach Hyatt and said, “You are the 5%.”

This wasn’t a comparative statement. He was referring to educators who are looking to grow 5% every year. Everyone in attendance at the Cotsen Annual Conference,  alumni, mentors, and fellows were there to grow and learn.  I was fortunate to be among them.

Ellin Keene, Georgia Heard, Dan Feigelson, Matt Glover, Megan Franke and Vicki Jacobs, all stellar educators in their respective fields, were leading sessions. Who among you wouldn’t want to be there? My biggest challenge was choosing only three.

My first choice was Vicki Jacobs, from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her specialty is elementary mathematics but her session titled “Linking Our Questions to Children’s Strategy Details” spoke to the essence of good teaching.  Jacob’s bio states,

At the core of her work is the use of children’s mathematical thinking as a vehicle for helping teachers learn and create more equitable classrooms in which they can better understand, value, and support each child’s thinking.

Teachers hold power in the questions we ask. They determine our effectiveness and potentially student self-worth. While the content of Jacob’s presentation was tied to mathematics, the process and beliefs reached to all subject matter.

Jacob’s shared research that considered the power of approaching students with questions that start inside or outside the child’s thinking. There isn’t a magic formula or ratio of these types of questions, yet in the end, one thing was clear, starting inside a child’s thinking is preferable.

Taking what students are doing and then leaning into the next step requires constant listening as well as a depth of content and process knowledge. It takes knowing where that child is on a continuum of learning and knowing the next itty bitty step to nudge them towards.

We don’t know a child’s thinking process until we ask questions that invite students to explain and describe their process. Questions like – tell me about…, can you explain…, how did you know…, or what were you thinking… tell us where they are and open up a dialogue that could invite the next step. It respects the student as a learner and thinker and is more likely to be taken in as a strategy to try.

Monday morning, these ideas permeated our reader’s workshop. Where are you in your book? Could we read a little bit together? What are you thinking? Where did you notice that? What could you bring to your partner? What might you write?  Inside questions that directed me to where students were in their reading and maybe a few outside nudges that could show allow another step in their thinking.

Writer’s workshop continued the questioning. What are you working on? How did you get this idea? Can you show me something you are proud of? Why? How did you do that?

And of course, our math conversations. How did you know? What did you do? Can you show me?  All valuing student learning all teaching me where they are as learners.

I am fortunate to be able to access opportunities to learn and grow. To learn new ideas that connect to my sensibilities as an educator and to be reminded of things I know, but may not be currently accessing.  And, I am grateful to the Cotsen Foundation for continuing their founder’s mission to support teachers who are looking to learn.