Somewhere along the way, I developed the habit of using an unproductive questioning pattern called “guess what’s in my head.” This is when you ask questions that the students can’t possibly answer because they haven’t yet learned the material required to answer the questions. Once I show you the pattern, you’ll start seeing it everywhere, and you might even catch yourself doing it. It goes something like this:
Teacher: Okay, students. Here is a map of a country in Europe. What can you tell me about this map?
Teacher: I mean, what do you see? What do you notice?
One student: umm… it’s green?
Teacher: Well, yes, it’s green. How about we start with the name. Does anyone know the name of this country?
(More blank stares)
Teacher: I’ll give you a hint. It starts with an S.
One student: San Francisco?
Teacher: No, not San Francisco, silly! This is a country in Europe, remember? Okay, so what country is really close to Africa, but is still in Europe, and starts with an S?
(More blank stares)
Teacher: Nobody? Okay, I’ll give you another hint: They speak Spanish.
One student: Spain?
Teacher: That’s right! Now, who can tell me something that Spain is known for?
Same student: Umm… Spanish?
Teacher: Well, yes, Spanish. Anything else?
Another student: Spicy food?
Teacher: No, not spicy food. You might be thinking of Mexico. I was actually thinking how Spain is well-known for its colonial past. Can anyone tell me what “colonialism” means?
Teacher: Anyone? Anyone?
And so on…
This pattern of questioning is problematic, not least because we shouldn’t assume that students have acquired (new) material if we haven’t taught it. Sure, you might find that one or two students know, or can eventually arrive at, the answer “Spain”, but why waste precious time playing a guessing game that only a lucky few have the knowledge to win? A more efficient (and equitable) route to helping students master the material is to tell students what they need to know, and to ask the question second. Look how much quicker and easier it is to get to the meat of the lesson – the part where colonialism is introduced – when we use a Teach First, Ask Question Second pattern:
Teacher: This week we’re going to be focusing on Spain’s colonial past. Here is a map of Spain. Class, what is the name of this country? 3, 2, 1…
Teacher: That’s right. Now, Spain is well-known for its colonial past. Colonialism is defined in your knowledge organizer as “taking control of another country in order to exploit its resources”. Go ahead and read the definition with me in 3, 2, 1…
Not only is a Teach First, Ask Question Second pattern more efficient compared to the “guess what’s in my head” pattern, it also seems more effective at supporting the construction of knowledge. When the teacher says, “This is Spain. What is this, class?” and the students answer, “Spain!”, she is increasing the likelihood that an association between the image on the map and “Spain” will be formed and embedded in long-term memory. Withholding key information doesn’t aid the construction of knowledge, and neither does allowing incorrect information, such as the random guesses from other students, to outcompete the canonical answer. I’ve also found that teaching before questioning is more engaging than the former method because it secures the success of all students on the subsequent questions. Although it might seem playful to ask students to guess or arrive at the answer on their own, not knowing what the teacher is getting at, or where she’s going with this, can suck the energy right out of a lesson.
The Key to Scaffolding
Teach First, Ask Question Second can be viewed as a scaffolding strategy for teaching challenging material. I’ll give you an example. At the moment, my two-year-old daughter has a book called The Paper Bag Princess in her library that is way above her level of comprehension. In one part of the book, the main character is seen looking angry while standing on a burnt trail:
Without support, my daughter would be unable to understand this part of the story; When I asked her simple questions like, “Why is Elizabeth wearing a paper bag?” or “Why is Elizabeth mad”, she was totally confused. While I could be playful and ask her to make a series of guesses, here’s how I was able to use the Teach First, Ask Question Second technique to build her knowledge base of the story relatively quickly:
Me: The book says that Elizabeth put on a paper bag. She put on a paper bag because the dragon burned her clothes and she needed something to wear. Why did Elizabeth put on a paper bag?
June: Because she needed clothes! (kicks her feet out of excitement)
Me: That’s right! Who burned her real clothes?
June: The dragon!
Me: Yes, and the only clothes that were around were a paper bag. Paper bags aren’t good clothes! Elizabeth is mad because the dragon burned her castle and forced her to wear a paper bag as clothes.
June: And burned her crown!
Me: Yes! The dragon burned her crown, her castle, and her clothes. Elizabeth is mad because the dragon burned at least three of her things. Now your turn. What is one thing the dragon burned?
June: Her clothes!
Me: Yes! And what is another thing the dragon burned?
June: The castle!
Me: Yes, keep it up! And what is a third thing the dragon burned?
June: Her crown!
Me: Good reading! Now we know why Elizabeth is standing there mad while wearing a paper bag. Tell me again: Why is Elizabeth standing there mad while wearing a paper bag?
June: Because the dragon burned her castle and burned her crown. And burned all her clothes! And paper bags aren’t good clothes! (kicks her feet out of excitement)
By scaffolding with Teach First, Ask Question Second – which includes providing a bit of key information at the start (input) followed by a matching recall question (output), and then alternating between inputs and outputs while never withholding information – little June has gone from being completely unimpressed with The Paper Bag Princess to reenacting its scenes with her toys and telling anyone who will listen about the silliness of wearing paper bags in lieu of real clothes. If you’re interested in making a few tweaks to your default questioning pattern, I recommend checking out this TAPPLE poster and experimenting with the Teach First, Ask Question Second technique in your own class. It just makes so much more sense than whatever I was doing for all these years.