Yet in all this fun, I started to come back to a current bugbear of mine and that is, could it be possible (or more likely, probable) that our classrooms actually for the most part inhibit, dare I say kill student inquiry?
I remember being told at Teachers' College one especially valuable nugget of gold. This priceless bit of guidance/advice was that you can easily judge the level of understanding and engagement of your students purely by 1) the quantity of learning or thinking questions put forward by your students and 2) the quality and reflective nature of these questions. 16 years on, this idea resonates even stronger with me today than it did when I first heard it. This then raises a really uncomfortable reality for teachers and one that many may choose to ignore at their peril, and ultimately to their and their students' academic stagnation or indeed academic withdrawal. One must ask "if my students aren't asking questions, how engaged are they really? How much learning 1) is being taken on board and 2) is of relevance and cared about by my students?"
When I was in secondary school, I rarely if ever, asked questions. If you asked questions of the teacher, you were simply seen as a "try-hard". It was cooler to not know but also to make sure that others did not know that you did not know! When I look back now, I look back with more than a tinge of regret that my failure to front up and question also led to to a distinct failure to front up to the learning opportunities availed to me. In defence of the non-questioning state of my student classrooms, it should be pointed out that many (not all) of the teachers lived no further than two feet away at most from the blackboard (that's right, I am that old) and asked the whole class at once, the classic question in the classic manner when maybe you're actually not hoping for a response "Is there anyone who does not understand?" Now I may have been a teenager at the time and somewhat rather immature, but even now I'm not sure that's the most safe way to ask a question pertaining to academic understanding or lack of. Well on the other hand, maybe if you're the teacher and you really don't want a query, maybe it is the most safe and effective way. Sadly I don't think this questioning style is completely removed from our learning spaces of today but I am more happy to be proved wrong but please put your hand up first!
It was therefore a massive shock for me when I returned to university for Masters' study. Most of the lecture content was pre-published in advance digitally and the vast majority of post-graduate in-person lectures were nothing but questions and more questions. What's more, the lecturer moved (yes you have not read wrong) and consistently asked of individuals, their level of understanding firmly but safely one-on-one. Once I recovered from the shock and awe of the occasion, I could not help myself. That's right I started asking questions, then more and then nothing but. What was even more amazing was not just that the lecturers encouraged it but that they derived great satisfaction from the level of inquisitiveness and depth of the student questioning. This was incredible, not only was I (once the "non-questioner) asking questions but they were increasingly learning and reflective questions and pretty good ones at that. In all seriousness, it took me until this level of study that I learnt that 1)the smartest people in the room sit at the front and 2) the smartest people in the room ask the most and best questions!
If we apply the above to the traditional secondary school/high school classroom, where are all the questions and why have they ceased to be visible or heard? My gut instinct is that in many cases, completing curriculum coverage has unfortunately taken precedence over student confirmation or questioning of understanding. It may also be (just maybe) that teachers have not established the right physcial or emotional set-up in their respective spaces of learning. Many classrooms still have the front of the classroom (whiteboard, teacher's desk) and lined forward-facing rows of student desks. Such a construct virtually guarantees a lower quantity of questions from the rear if any. Furthermore if the teacher is not or does not prefer being mobile in the classroom, the difficulty of the teacher getting to these back students in a strange way ensures a safety of "never-the-twain" shall meet. I also wonder if teachers allow, really allow sufficient time for students to actually think "do I understand this? What does this mean to me?" What is really interesting to me is just how much research has gone into validating the need for sufficient wait-time for students to think about their level of comprehension and then ask questions or have questions asked of them. Otherwise speed merely leads to silence. Research has also highlighted that just as powerful is the construct of the question. A "Do you understand this?" is so powerfully teacher-slanted that the students questioned have little escape but to say "Yes" whether true or otherwise. A question of this ilk is basically the teacher asking the students "Do you rate my teaching... or else?" However if the question is changed to "Can you please show me your understanding?" and asked individually of a student, he or she is more likely to be honest in their response as it is not an all-or-nothing question and they are not answering to the hearing of the masses. It may well be that that he or she understands some but maybe not all of the content concerned. If time and fair questioning exists, it is far more likely to engender and empower students not only in terms of their questioning but also with respect to their academic prowess simultaneously.
Teachers and students need to value questions and such presence as part of a wider, collegial, collaborative learning partnership. If students are asking questions, it shows an decided interest and a intense desire to advance their learning. If teachers are enablers in terms of pedagogy, space, time and questioning of student questioning requirements, the lack of clarity in terms of student academic strengths and weaknesses ceases to exist in my opinion to the benefit if all.
Right any questions? Just joking! Can you please show me your understanding? That's better, way better for student and teacher. Nice work team!