The English Department's Blog

May 30

Dürer’s ‘Knight, Death and the Devil.’ It has no relevance to this post, but it’s great.

A blog post that has attracted a lot of very positive attention lately is ‘Should we use questions to teach‘, by the very interesting @kris_boulton. He discusses how teachers can use questions more effectively in the classroom. I’ve been experimenting lately with encouraging students to ask better questions, and have come up with a quick list. The intention is to begin with straightforward questions, and move on to more sophisticated levels of thinking.

My approach has been to read a poem and then let the students formulate their own questions, with a view to modelling the sort of language use described by David Didau in his blog post on how teachers use language. The students then pose questions which lead the discussion of the text in hand. In my experience this makes for a much more illuminating exploration of the text than me dictating how we go about reading it.

Questions to ask about writing

  1. What does this word mean?
  2. What does this sentence mean?
  3. Can you explain what happens / is being said here?
  4. Why did the writer use this word / phrase?
  5. Why did the writer use this word and not X?
  6. How should I interpret this word?
  7. This word has several meanings; which one did the writer mean?
  8. Does this word have any other meanings?
  9. Is this a metaphor?
  10. Is this an allusion to something else?
  11. What is the significance of this word / phrase?
  12. Is this typical of this style / genre / form?
  13. How representative is this of the writer’s work?
  14. What have I missed?

2 comments so far

  1. burn.wm
    12:04 pm - 5-31-2013

    Hi Kris
    Thanks for your questions, which deserve a better answer than I’m likely to be able to give. Nevertheless, as Satan said shortly before his fall, here goes.

    You ask what I mean by ‘illuminating’, to which I respond I mean it in its truest sense of casting light upon something. A good reading of a poem is one which brings to light how it works, understands the play of ideas, feelings and sounds within it; moreover, it makes us look again at how we respond to all these things. In this sense, an illuminating discussion is one where these things are brought to light for everyone reading the poem.

    You develop this question by asking if an illuminating discussion ‘necessarily leads to a greater understanding of the text … to more knowledge of the text.’ To this I would again say, yes, although I must wonder if our different subject backgrounds are at play in how we think about such questions. For me, there is no body of knowledge to be mastered about a given poem – although knowledge can help inform our reading of that poem – nor is there a point at which I can say ‘I understand this.’ When I teach a poem, I am teaching a habit of mind, a set of skills which allow my students to read critically and pick apart their own responses.

    I’ve found in adopting this approach (and I don’t do it all the time) that there are two main benefits. Firstly, it functions as a form of assessment – it’s easy to overlook passages which students simply don’t understand – so I can tailor my teaching to different people’s needs. Secondly, it allows me to model the ways of thinking and speaking which I want my class to adopt when they talk and write about poetry. When my class see me thinking, it levels the playing field a bit – my knowledge of the poem is no longer an oracular pronouncement, but a considered critical position which can be challenged and itself interrogated.

    This is not to say that I value all readings as equal. You ask if discussions prompted by student questions would be predominantly better than those crafted a professional teacher”, and I would definitely say that my role is to steer the discussion towards a reading of the poem which is coherent, and which can be useful in the context of an examination.

    The value, I think, in this approach, is twofold. Firstly, by asking questions of a text the students are encouraged to think about it (and I use that verb in its full, Willinghamian sense) and also to treat it as a construction. Young people in my experience often see poems (or any literary text, for that matter) in a way that reminds me of the apes at the beginning of ‘2001, A Space Odyssey.’ For young people a text is something closed, alien, intimidating. If I encourage my students to question it, then they have some means of redressing the imbalance.

    The second benefit lies in cultivating the habits of mind I mentioned earlier. To ask a question is to admit ignorance and to take responsibility for doing something about it. When they ask questions of me, my words have value, because they are prompted by them. Finally, the best questions I get asked are those which challenge something I’ve said. When a student has the courage to take on their teacher, I know that I’ve done my job well.

  2. Kris
    6:16 pm - 5-30-2013

    Hi there. Thank you for the kind words above.

    Students asking questions I think fits into a different category, and a very interesting one that I intend to explore in some detail myself in the months to come. It’ll be a post likely featuring Dan Meyer, so easy to spot once it’s up.

    Poetry is another topic that, surprisingly for a mathsie kind of blog, I’ll also be posting in the coming weeks.

    I was interested to read the above, and one key thought came to mind, inspired by this line:

    “In my experience this makes for a much more illuminating exploration of the text than me dictating how we go about reading it.”

    The pedant in me wants to get stuck into this line, and start unpicking some of the words, if you’re game?

    Particularly it’s the word ‘illuminating.’ For my part, I’d like a definition of what you mean by illuminating. For example, does a discussion that is more illuminating necessarily lead to greater understanding of the text? Does it lead to more knowledge of the text? More illuminating for whom would be my next question – for the teacher of the students? One problem I sometimes run into, and I think I see other teachers face as well, is demarcating between what is boring/interesting for us, and what is boring/interesting for the students.

    My next question would be why it’s more illuminating? While the things students say can sometimes be of interest to us; they can sometimes say things we didn’t think of, I would issue a challenge: shouldn’t we as teachers be better able to determine how to explore a text, in such a way as to elicit more learning, than trusting to the vagaries of teenage whim? This isn’t to say there’s no place for a student-led conversation, not at all; I’m challenging the idea here that such discussions would be predominantly better than those crafted a professional teacher. With this in mind, I think it would be good if you could explain how a discussion ‘led by students’ differs from a discussion ‘led by the teacher;’ is it simply that in the teacher-led discussion all or most of the questions are posed by the teacher?

    Kind regards,

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