My middle school students have lots of questions in class, which is not a problem. But I’m torn between trying to provide the answers (sometimes I feel like a live version of Wikipedia with lots of empty entries) and telling them to figure it out for themselves (which discourages some students). Do you have some suggestions for helping students to learn to think and find information for themselves? —K., Ohio
Teachers need to walk a fine line between helping students and enabling them. Part of the art of teaching is knowing when to provide a straightforward answer and when and how to encourage students to think and explore on their own.
Some students become dependent on teachers, especially during an investigation or unfamiliar task, constantly asking procedural questions for verification: “Is this correct?” “Is it OK if I…?” If what they’re asking about could lead to a dangerous situation, a straightforward answer is best: “I will show you the correct way to…” or “Yes, you must wear eye protection.”
After you’ve gone over directions for an activity, it’s frustrating when students raise their hands and ask, “What are we supposed to do?” If you repeat the directions, they learn they don’t have to pay attention. If you say, “I already told you. Figure it out,” students may assume other kinds of questions will get the same response, or they may do something potentially dangerous on their own . Model how to review the printed directions, ask a partner, or refer to the rubric and encourage them to do so.
For factual questions, how you could respond depends on the type of question. For example, during a discussion or activity on circulation, a student might ask how many blood vessels are in the body. Even if you have that knowledge, this could be a good question for students to investigate, and the Internet makes this a much easier process. If a student searches on the phrase “blood vessels in the body,” the first hit is from the Franklin Institute and the topic is discussed there. You could verify that this is a reputable source for the answer to a question about the heart and circulation, and students can read more about the topic.
Another strategy is to pose the question to the whole class: “Marco is wondering about the differences between wolves and coyotes. Does anyone have any information that would help him?”
If students pose questions that don’t relate to the current topic or if time is an issue, use a section of a bulletin board or wall space as a “parking lot.” Ask the student to write the question on a sticky note or index card and add it to the parking lot to be addressed at a later time. Periodically, revisit the parking lot to look at the topics and encourage students to investigate them.
If a student asks a question for which you don’t know the answer, it’s OK to say, “That’s an interesting question, but I’m not sure how to answer it. What do you think? Does anyone else have an idea?” If the question is related to the lesson, you could model how you would go about finding information. If it’s not related, add it to the parking lot for later.
I recently joined a Facebook group on bird identification that uses elaboration and questions rather than straightforward answers. People submit photos of birds they’ve seen with the location and other observations, including an idea of what it could be. The rules for responding are enforced—members can’t respond with only the correct answer (the name of the bird). They must ask about or note field characteristics that would help the questioner with identification. For example, “Look at the color of the head and note the presence of wingbars.” If the identification is correct, a possible response could be, “Yes, you can tell it’s a canvasback because of the red head and white body.” So rather than the original questioner getting a short response, the rest of the birders in the group are learning, too.
I’ve learned a lot from the questions of others with this technique—and I now know the differences between Cooper’s and Sharpshin Hawks! Applying this strategy to the wolf/coyote question above, the teacher could ask what the animals have in common and use the observations to guide a search for additional information.