So What? The Importance of Asking the Right Questions for the Common Core

Common Core: Asking the Right QuestionsWhen the Common Core State Standards were first released, our main concern—and panic—was about alignment. We always taught time in __ grade; now we have to teach it in __ grade. We used to teach book X, but now they’re telling us the Lexile rank is too low. These were certainly valid concerns. Alignment had to be done; crosswalks had to be constructed.

But now, a few years into implementation, it’s becoming clear that the heart and soul of the Common Core lies in the questions we ask our students, not the facts or skills we teach at particular grade levels. I would argue that if we could do only one thing in our classrooms to implement the Common Core, changing our questions would be vastly more effective and important than any other thing we could choose.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Asking good questions is an educational art that goes all the way back to Socrates, one of the first Great Teachers on record.  In fact, Socrates was famous for asking particularly annoying and provocative questions—questions that challenged the very foundation of people’s thinking. In his honor, we have a whole theory of teaching—a “method” named after the man. It’s a method praised in theory but practiced all too rarely. Many teachers, even at the college level, find it difficult or assume that their students can’t rise to the challenge. But those who experiment with Socratic teaching come to learn that students don’t need as much lecture, as much information, as we thought. They are not empty vessels waiting to be filled. They can do more of the wrestling and grappling with ideas that define higher-level thinking than we give them credit for.

We spend a lot of time talking about question methodology—things like providing adequate wait-time before providing an answer—but we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about the kinds of questions we ask. Holding up a series of wooden blocks representing three-dimensional, geometric solids, and asking, “What’s this?  And what’s this? And this is a…..?” may be an effective way to assess student knowledge of terminology, but that’s about all it can accomplish. Is there an essential difference between asking those kinds of questions and saying something like, “Who can find an example of a cylinder in this classroom?” Do we talk enough, in teacher education classes or in our PLCs, about the value and use of these different kinds of questions—what each one tells us and when it might be useful to deploy one as opposed to another?

One of my favorite examples of Socratic teaching comes from Rick Garlikov, who wanted to see how little actual information he had to provide to third graders in order to teach the concept of binary arithmetic—the use of zeros and ones to form any number or word, which lies at the heart of computing. He found out that the answer was, “almost none.” He was able to move from, “How many fingers am I holding up?” to a very deep and sophisticated level of understanding, almost entirely through strategic and careful questioning. You can see an example of the results here.

I witnessed a fascinating example of the power of Saying Less a few months ago. In response to something I read or something I saw on a TED talk, I posed a question to my two sons, age 12 and 8. They wanted me to take them to buy a new video game, and I said they’d have to earn it by answering a question. The question was this: how much does it cost to take a shower in this house? That’s all I gave them. I didn’t tell them how to figure it out. I didn’t tell them what they would need. I did tell them that I would provide assistance or materials as needed, so they weren’t entirely on their own. But they had to figure out what the question meant, what it required, and how to get to the solution on their own.

They blinked at me a few times, confounded, and then started talking to each other and making plans. They grabbed a stopwatch, a bucket, some measuring cups, and off they went. Not everything they tried made sense, but the mistakes clarified their thinking. Occasionally they’d come back to me, asking for things like copies of water bills. After about an hour, they had an answer. They were pumped up—winded—excited. And they were incredibly proud of themselves. It had been fun. It wasn’t math, as far as they were concerned; it was just a puzzle. And kids love puzzles.

We need to think about questions at every level of our teaching—from essential questions that frame larger instructional units to daily questions that drive a particular lesson. “How do metaphors and similes compare things in different ways?” is almost certainly going to be more enticing and intriguing to students than, “Students will understand the difference between metaphors and similes.”  Students may meet a learning objective, but they have to answer a question. It makes a difference.

In a wonderful book entitled, Oh, Yeah?!: Putting Argument to Work Both in School and Out, authors Michael Smith, Jeffrey Wilhelm, and James Fredericksen discuss the importance of questions in pushing students to craft strong arguments in their writing. Some of the questions are fairly basic, things I used to ask in my own teaching. “What do you think?” helps students come up with a thesis statement or claim. “What makes you say that?” helps students identify important textual evidence. But then the authors throw in a third question that I rarely deployed: “So what?”

“So what?” It’s an amazing question. It forces students to connect the evidence back to the claim—to explain why the evidence matters and how it supports the claim. It’s where the real, hard work of argument has to happen—and it’s where student papers tend to fall apart.

“So what?” I can’t think of a better all-purpose, high-level, complex question. Think about what it takes to answer a question like that. Think about the content knowledge, the conceptual understanding, and the communication skills you need to explain—in any situation—why something matters.

I’ve said before that we can’t quickly or automatically do everything required for the transition to the Common Core. It’s going to be a process. But these are certainly some things we could do tomorrow, or start doing better: tell less; ask more; and ask why.

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