Education Books

The Skill of Questioning

This past summer, per a recommendation of Moss Pike, I read A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger.

The book describes the importance and value of questioning and how inquiry can lead to innovation and breakthrough. In a sense, Berger argues that we need less of skill ideology and more of good questioning. His book is replete of examples from the business world of how questioning can make a huge difference 21st century companies.

As I read the book, it was painfully clear that questioning would have to be essential for my future growth as a teacher. I have tried many times to have good class discussions, usually with little or no success. I had heard that having students come up with discussion questions would increase student engagement. This did work–with some success–but I found that the students’ questions did not meet my level of expectations. Berger deals with this very issue, because he enumerates a step-by-step process on how to get students to create and develop good questions. Essentially, students create questions, choose the best ones, and improve them.

I started using this process with class discussions and driving questions in Project-Based-Learning. It has already been very successful. The process has led to much better focus during project time and higher engagements during discussions. The students have done two things: take ownership of the learning process and create really good questions. One question the class developed for the novel Johnny Tremain was, “Do you think Johnny [who is an orphan adopted by a silversmith family] longs to have a real family?” I would have never created this on my own, nor would I have been inspired by it. However, this question led to a great discussion, which wouldn’t have happened with a question I had created.

I can’t do this book justice. Get it. Buy it. Read it.

My Story

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Twelve years ago, I decided to become a history teacher. I felt the call to inspire students with a sense of the importance and joy of learning history and how the subject can be relevant to their lives. My dream was to teach with passion and instill that passion in students where they would demonstrate their strong feelings toward the subject.

Then I started teaching. As you can imagine, the idea did not quite match up with the reality. I did love teaching, and I loved the content of what I was teaching, but I didn’t feel like I was instilling passion into my students. As time dragged on, I lost some of my initial enthusiasm for presenting material. The Reformation, which was fun to present at age 25, didn’t seem as exciting at age 32. I also felt that I was being too lenient on the grading, so I turned to more objective types of assessment, which meant that I was assigning fewer essays and more fill in the blank tests. I had been doing fewer and fewer collaborative projects and activities.

Several years later, I noticed that contrary to my expectations, it was not getting any easier. The students were not very compliant about doing work (notes, questionnaires, etc.) I found that I, myself, was losing complete and total interest in what I was teaching. Showing the class the excitement and relevance of history became reading notes that were typed on my screen, presentations became time when the kids did one thing after another, and grading became merely entering numbers into a website. I felt very distant from that time when I had wanted to become a teacher.

Desperate for help, I read books about teaching and classroom management. By luck (or as I prefer to see it, the grace of God), I remembered when I had seen a book in my then-fiance’s apartment eight years earlier by Robert Fried entitled The Passionate Teacher. I decided to give it a read. I’d give it a go and see if it had anything to offer.

Words cannot express the difference it made.

I suddenly realized that I had been leading my students and me down a rabbit hole of boredom and disengagement. I needed to show students why the material was important and challenge them to think critically. It reasserted what I had known but had slowly forgotten: it’s okay not to hit every standard or cover everything in the book. I felt reinvigorated and renewed.

I also knew that it was not going to be all fun and games. I was going to have to get rid of fill-in-the-blank assignments and tests and return to in-depth writing assignments. I was going to have to redo notes and Prezis I had created. I was going to have to change the entire way I had taught. It was not going to be easy, and to this day, it is still not easy.

One thing that is hard to communicate to people who aren’t full-time teachers is the sheer quantity of work we have to do. In an ideal world, I would spend days and weeks designing and creating the best units, but like millions of teachers out there, I am pressed for time. The challenge I face is to not rely on this fact as an excuse for mediocrity, but to somehow find the time and the energy to be the best teacher I can be. I also have to accept the fact that many of my newer units will be far from perfect, and some elements of the “old way” are still in my teaching. This will be a long–perhaps a lifelong–process for me.

Wish me the best of luck.