How every teacher can transform their under-performing classroom tomorrow
The headline of this month’s Harvard Education Letter is seductively simple: “Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions.” The advice is undeniably practical. But will asking questions alone suffice to create engaging classroom dialogues?
The article highlights the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), a technique for encouraging students to direct inquiry in the classroom, engage with each other and develop critical thinking skills. A teacher whose students are under-engaged in the classroom would do well by her students to study the QFT technique and begin testing elements of it. If nothing else, QFT shows that “Any questions?” following a lecture will not provoke many questions. To engage students, questions must be engaging, too.
Though effective, QFT is only half the equation. Students need to ask questions, yes. But they need to answer them, too. The teacher plays the role of guide, facilitator, and provocateur.
Most teachers I had operated under the transactional method of teaching, which is similar to a bank transaction between teller and customer. The teller (teacher) holds the money (knowledge), while the customer (student) is in demand of it. A one-way transaction occurs to process the knowledge from teacher to student.
The transactional method can be characterized as organized and linear. An ideal classroom operating under this method of teaching may look something like this:
More often, though, the transactional method classroom looks something like this:
That’s me in the front (left), teaching English to a group of 20-something students in the jungles of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Students obediently scribbled information as I imparted my knowledge, them craned to see my notes on the board. My original plan was to lecture on different conceptualizations of courage, sourcing JFK’s Profiles in Courage. That was until I arrived, asked “how are you?” and was met by largely blank stares.
One of the problems of the transactional method is that it is highly assumptive. I assumed that my “English” class was closer to “English Literature” than “English 101,” and that the 16-22 year-olds would be able to speak at an advanced level in English.
I was wrong on both fronts. Even if I had delivered a magnificent lecture (I didn’t), I was clearly way off the mark in terms of content. In the transactional method of teaching, the teacher must make a series of educated guesses daily as to the level of preparation of his students.
An alternative method of teaching is to empower students to drive their education forward by teaching them to ask questions and to respond insightfully. This organic method can be unpredictable, and highly effectively.
In spite of my JFK gaffe, my students gave me another opportunity to mold their minds and returned every other day over the next two weeks for Mr. Kevin’s class. With the honor of teaching again afforded to me, I decided to turn the teacher-focused classroom into a learning circle. Literally.
I pinpointed the most advanced English-language learners and goaded them to help lead activities and discussion. I provided a framework for learning, and students reinforced the material by asking questions and interacting with me and, even more importantly, with each other.
To teach effectively, I learned to be a student and encouraged my students to teach, too. I learned a lot, including a very effective method for teaching English to students who speak a language like Khmer, in which verbs do not inflect (more on this in a future blog post). I learned the power of non-transactional teaching.
And my students taught me a lot about courage, even if they were just learning the words to express it.