The Art of Questioning

2.1 Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques: Most of the teacher’s questions are of high quality. Adequate time is provided for students to respond. Creating high-quality questions requires attention to several instructional practices. Proficient inquiry-based teachers integrate adequate time for questioning into lesson plans. They design open-ended questions that require complex analysis, address multiple cognitive skills, and invite answers grounded in evidence. They allow enough wait time to create high-quality responses, and support deep thinking by instructing students to “think inside your head,” pair share, or write before whole class discussion. And they foster engagement with the course material by focusing on essential questions that “represent a big idea with value beyond the classroom, reside at the heart of the discipline, and require uncoverage” (Wiggins & McTighe, p. 21).

The following evidence derives from a lesson I designed around this objective:  Evaluate how gender affects the theme of defiance in Purple Hibiscus by analyzing multiple characters’ responses to authority in dangerous or oppressive situations. This is the 16th lesson for a unit centered on the contemporary novel Purple Hibiscus. The unit focused on how context impacts reading and interpretation. Over the course of the unit we studied multiple ways of understanding context, including the contextual nature of word meanings, the context provided by literary lenses such as feminism or postcolonialism, religious contexts, and the context of Nigerian political history. Yet a set of essential questions guided all of those contextual approaches:

ss essential questions

The above image is taken from the reading guide that students received on the first day of the unit. Because I wanted rich questions to inform our interpretive reading, I listed the essential questions first. Those questions carried us through the unit, weaving together classwork, poems, theoretical texts, writing assignments and journal work. The questions represent big ideas with enduring value, such as how to practice both empathy and appropriate defiance, yet reside at the heart of literature studies because they are  central to Adichie’s character development and to the novel’s representation of postcolonial Nigeria, embedded use of Igbo language, and responses to Nigerian Catholicism.

The objective for this lesson addresses the second essential question through the lens of gender. After writing in their journals in response to a poem, students were asked to consider the question, “What does this poem tell us about standing up for one’s self?” Please click on the link below to hear an audio clip of my presentation of the question, and of the class’s response.

Audio Clip Question + Pair Share

Since students had already reflected on the poem in writing, they were prepared to discuss the opening question with enthusiasm and depth. Because I wanted every student engaged  and thinking about the questions that would guide us through the day’s lesson, I chose to open with pair share rather than asking for raised hands and calling on a few students. As Goldsmith (2013) reminds us: “Only using the raise-your-hand method creates a two tier system in a classroom–those who know and those who don’t know, widening the achievement gap (p. 50). You can hear from the abundance of voices that every student had a chance to talk, and every student had something to share.

After pair share, I introduced the learning target, and asked students to interact with it by “thinking inside their heads” about two questions, which I projected on the screen:

ss questions- connection between gender & defiance

After allotting 30 seconds of “think inside your head” time, I used “calling cards” to collect initial responses to one of the questions from randomly chosen students. By providing a defined wait time, I allowed students to develop their thoughts, both deepening responses and making sure all students were prepared to answer. By giving a choice of questions, I provided built-in scaffolding. The first question can be answered “yes” or “no,” then followed with an additional teacher question, “Why do you think that is?” The second question involves a more complex initial answer, and moves students toward the interpretive task for the day: analyzing how gender impacts the way characters practice defiance in Purple Hibiscus.

Another way to practice inquiry-based teaching is to involve students in the creation of questions. The bulk of this lesson would be spent on Socratic seminar, a form of discussion that can create complex analysis and strong use of evidence, but that also requires a great deal of listening and silent engagement while individual students share their interpretations of the text and build on each others’ ideas. Since careful inquiry is part of analysis, and knowing which questions to ask an important aspect of interpretation, I chose to have students create discussion questions for the seminar. I instructed students to:

ss socratic seminar questions

As they entered the classroom I had greeted students with an index card with a red letter written on it. These index cards randomized pairs for the question creation activity, assuring that students interacted with multiple peers over the course of the lesson, and benefited from different ways of asking questions. Students spent about five minutes creating their questions, while I circulated and observed their levels of inquiry, and ability to incorporate a focus on either feminism or defiance into the question. I was impressed with the quality of the questions, and interested to see how differently students applied the literary lens of feminism.

But between finding randomly assigned partners, creating questions, then moving into a circle with books and reading journals for Socratic seminar, the question-creating exercise took longer than I had planned, about 12 minutes total. I felt that the pay-off was not worth the time spent on the activity. During the Socratic seminar itself, I also noticed that because students had spent time and energy creating their questions, they tended to move prematurely to a new question rather than allowing adequate wait time for deep thinking or follow-up responses to emerge. In my classroom, students lead Socratic seminar. I intervene  only to ask that they spread the conversation more broadly by “waiting for at least two new people to speak before responding if you have already spoken,” or to remind them to ground responses in textual evidence.

One change I would make in this lesson would be to direct students at the start of Socratic Seminar to “wait for at least ten seconds of silence before moving on to a new question.” But because the question creation activity took more class time than expected, I decided to skip it when I taught the lesson the second time. Instead, I began Socratic seminar by having students contribute to a group summary  of “who has practiced defiance in Purple Hibiscus so far.” I then posed the opening question, “Do you think that gender impacted those characters’ defiance, and if so, how?” Students led the rest of the seminar, and though only one or two new questions were introduced, the discussion demonstrated insightful reading, complex analysis, and frequent references to specific examples from the text.

Because this lesson was heavily inquiry based, I wanted the students to leave with a sense of closure, knowing that they had come to some answers as well as struggled with important questions. So my final query asked them to identify one new connection between gender and how characters defy authority in the text. I posted instructions for a brief reflection on the screen:

Student Voice reflection question for journal

This final question brought the round of inquiry full circle, asking students to identify one distinct way in which gender impacts defiance in the novel. Though the activity took only a minute, because students responded to the question in writing, every student ended the class fully engaged with a response that inherently involved both evaluation (did I make a clear connection?) and application (how does that essential question about defiance apply to a character in this story?).

References:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. (2012). Purple Hibiscus. Chapel Hill: Alonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Goldsmith, W. (2013). “Enhancing Classroom Conversation for All Students.” Kappan, April 2013, pp. 48-52

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision of Curriculum Development

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