One sign of a good story is the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief, to enter the world the writer has created, and—in a particularly successful novel—to respond to that world with passion. It may be fair to suggest that a similar kind of suspension takes place when many students walk through the doors of our schools. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of suspension of disbelief that we want.
The suspension I’m referring to is often articulated, or at least felt, as a split between the world of the school and “real life.” For many students, what goes on in school is not connected to what goes on in “real life,” and for teachers, engaging the student is a challenge.
Another way to describe the split is the presence of enthusiasm and interest in life outside of school as compared to cool, flat affect toward school-based learning experiences. Of course, this dichotomy is not true for all students, but the goal is for it not to be true for any students.
While there may be many reasons for the disconnect between school and “real life,” I can’t help but think that if we adapted our interactions with students in some minor but significant ways, we could effect a noticeable change.
One adaptation may be as simple as rethinking the way we shape the questions we ask.
Asking questions is one of the primary ways we interact with students during class. In fact, little has changed since 1912 when researchers found that teachers spent about 80%of the school day asking questions. (http://cet.usc.edu/resources/teaching_learning/docs/Asking_Better_Questions.pdf)
We ask questions about the characters in a book, about a lesson in a science text, about a passage in a history book. As teachers, we already know the answers to the questions we ask, and our students know that we know. All this knowing makes the process of asking and answering questions more an artifice than a genuine communication or exploration of ideas.
To examine this claim, you need only think about conversations you have with friends and colleagues. If you ask a question, the likely purpose is to learn information that you don’t know, but that the person you’re asking does know. These are authentic questions, in contrast to the “non-questions” we often find ourselves asking students.
To turn a “non-question” into an authentic question all that’s needed are the words “do you think.”
Consider the (rather generic) question, What is the main idea of this passage? Students intuitively understand that the teacher knows the answer, so to their ears, the question feels like a test, one possibly even associated with anxiety and stress.
Now imagine if the question were, What do you think is the main idea of this passage? The added words make all the difference. Now the question is authentic, for in fact, the teacher does not know what the student thinks. Plus, it feels less test-like.
In addition, the extra words empower students, making it clear the teacher is looking for their ideas. The words also make the question itself more interesting, as different students may have different ideas.
The added words, however, do not make the question open-ended. Competent readers usually agree on the main idea of a text. When students’ ideas diverge from those of competent readers, we want to guide them toward more conventional understanding.
Enter the skills that make us artists….and some probing questions: Why do you think this is the main idea? What phrases and sentences in the passage support this idea? Do most of the details in the text back up this idea or only a few of them?
As the discussion continues, we achieve our goal of learning how well students have comprehended the text. We are also able to take advantage of teachable moments to guide students toward better understanding.
All these words about three small words may feel like a big to-do about very little. But when you consider how much time we spend asking questions, and how destructive the school/real life disconnect can be for students, the “very little” may not seem so little at all. What’s more, students spend at least 25% of their waking hours in school. That’s much too long a time for them to suspend disbelief.