Recognizing Questions that Don’t Get Answers

I’ve already written about the need for teaching critical thinking along with English language proficiency. I’ve done a good many workshops based on the idea that writing can do both of these things at once. Explicit writing instruction can go a long way toward helping students organize and express their thoughts clearly. However, in order to organize their thoughts, students first need to have thoughts.

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Many schools in India, in the past, have encouraged students to sit passively absorbing the teacher’s lectures. This is of questionable value even when students are expected to absorb content, but it is absolutely counter-productive when they are expected to learn the skills of using a foreign language. It simply is not possible to learn a foreign language by passively listening to lectures about it, especially when those lectures are, and they often are, in the mother tongue.
Students must have the opportunity to use a language meaningfully in order to acquire that language.
Teachers often discuss a topic in class in an attempt to stimulate thinking before assigning a writing task, but some questions are better designed to stimulate thought and language production than others. Teachers may think they are asking “open-ended” questions, or think that students are thinking in their classes because they “ask their opinion.” But a poorly designed question can actually discourage thinking and speaking. Here are four common question types to avoid.
1) The Yes/No question, the “open-ended” question that isn’t open:
Do you think camels are useful animals? Do you think children view the world differently than adults do? Do you think Amit’s dream is unrealistic?
Some teachers say that they stimulate thinking by having students justify their answer. But use this carefully. If, for example, the reading passage implies that children see the world differently, is there a “right” answer to “Do you think children view the world differently than adults do?” Will you only ask students who don’t choose “rightly” to justify? And what does “justify” mean to you and to your students? Are you helping them to refine their thinking toward universal standards of clarity and logic or are you only challenging them in front of their peers when they answer differently than expected? If you do get students to justify their answers, how many students get to speak? Will other students then believe that the few who spoke have the “right” answer?
Yes/no questions do not automatically stimulate language or thinking.
2) The “stimulate them to think, but only what I want them to think” question:
Do you think that the protagonist was wrong to kill her husband and then lie about it to the police? Do you think the author of the story is trying to tell us that people who commit crimes should be punished for their crimes? Does the writer use poetic language in order to make readers feel as if they are experiencing the situation themselves?
Remember your goal is to produce thinkers. Using polite questioning language to “suggest” to students the “right” way of thinking will not encourage critical thinking.
3) The “state the facts and nothing but the facts” question:
How many questions did the hero ask the wise man? What town did Sandeep travel to? Which line of the poem tells you what the poet did after coming down from the mountain?
Factual “comprehension” questions should not be overemphasized. Beware of questions that can be answered simply by plugging in phrases from the text. They do not actually require any comprehension, just an ability to match the question to the section of text it refers to.
4) The “my students think because I ask their opinion” question:
Do you like living in a village? How do you feel when you read this sad poem? Are you upset when people do not follow the rules in your school?
Asking about feelings and opinions is probably fine in primary grades, but if you want critical thinkers, you don’t want them to think that assertion of an opinion or feeling is critical thinking.
Designing Better Questions for Stimulating Thinking and Language Use
In short, beware of yes/no questions, leading questions, purely factual questions, and questions that may teach students that assertion of an opinion is critical thinking. So, what questions will stimulate critical thinking and language?
Truly open ended questions are those that have NO RIGHT ANSWER.
In an exam-centered culture, the concept of “no right answer” can be a bit intimidating, but thinking adults know there are many situations and problems in life that have no right answer. In fact, the reason we are in such dire need of good critical thinkers is that we need help solving these problems. Even young children are aware that there are problems. The simplest way a teacher can produce thinking in her students is also the easiest way for her to devise interesting assignments.
Critical thinking and interesting writing assignments both begin with real problems. If you have the freedom to choose your own texts, give your students real issues to respond to and half your job is done.
Secondly, never forget that your role is to teach language, not content. Even if you have to use certain texts, whenever possible, focus on the actual text. Use questions that require students to look carefully at the way the writer make meaning rather than questions that require a student to memorize notes about the text.
For instance, for the story “Gift of the Magi” by O.Henry, you could ask factual questions: “In what season does the story take place?” Or questions that could be answered from reading notes ABOUT the text, “In what year was ‘Gift of the Magi’ published?”
You could ask leading (moralistic) questions: “Do you think it is better to give than to receive?” “Is this story about the generosity and love that a person should feel for his spouse?”
You could ask questions that merely require an assertion of opinion or feeling, “What was your favorite part of the story?” “How would you feel if your spouse gave you such a present?”
Or you could use questions that focus on the actual text while stimulating thinking and production of language, preferably questions that have no one right answer:
“Della has only managed to save $1.87 because ‘expenses’ were higher than she planned. From the details given in the story, what was Della probably spending money on each month?”
“Look up the time period that Della and Jim lived in. What might Jim have done for a living to earn his $20 a week?”
“What kind of details was O.Henry able to include by telling the story from Della’s point of view? What details might he have used if he told it from Jim’s point of view?”
These are just a few examples to get you thinking about the types of questions you ask students.
Here’s a sample unit from a textbook with lessons that illustrate the point further, and here’s another unit that has very extensive teacher notes. These are only samples for teacher training purposes. They can NOT be legally distributed or reproduced.
Critical thinking means solving problems, but critical thinking is also self-examined thinking. It means constantly revising your own thinking in order to make it clearer, more precise, and more logical.
The teacher’s job is to give her students information to think about, time and space to do that thinking, and guidance in refining their thinking as they develop their thoughts and their skills at expressing them.
A good source for educating yourself on critical thinking and ways of modeling and stimulating critical thinking is criticalthinking.org. This site does a great job of helping teachers understand exactly what critical thinking is.
One of the best ways, though, for language teachers to learn the skill of questioning in this way and to see it applied to language teaching is to see it modeled and to get a chance to practice it and discuss how they will apply it in their own classrooms. While I’m in India, I’ll be continuing to develop workshops in this area. If your college or school would like to host a workshop training teachers in stimulating critical thinking, courtesy of the English Language Fellow program in India, get in touch.

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