Rigor and asking good questions

I’ve been thinking about rigor these past few weeks, as I’ve had the chance to be in schools and classrooms – always a treat. Just what constitutes rigor in the classroom? What does it mean for students to step up and undertake rigorous work? And what do effective teachers do to push rigor?

A lot has to do with the kinds of questions that teachers ask – or do not ask. I heard a teacher say a few weeks ago, “Don’t interrupt their struggle” – well put, huh? Step aside, right? Be quiet and let your students work. I always got weird looks from my 9th graders when I waited quietly between their or my questions or comments, ultimately allowing them to fill that space with their thinking. At least I got weird looks when I began this practice in the fall, sharing with them the concept of wait-time and why I was doing it; in just a few weeks, someone in my class would always end up saying something like, “Well, I’m going to speak since Mr. Oakes is doing his ‘wait-time thing’,” and off we’d go. (Two pieces on wait time: Using “Think-Time” and “Wait-Time” Skillfully in the Classroom and Wait-Time and Rewards as Instructional Variables: Their Influence on Language, Logic, and Fate Control.)

Paired with wait time, effective questioning can further spur kids to deeper thinking. I know, I know: Not earth-shattering, but then how come in classrooms I so often hear many, many questions that elicit knowledge or relatively low-level thinking? “So, when did the Civil War end?” “How does a lenticular cloud get formed?” “Who was the antagonist in that Faulkner short story?” Sure, students need this knowledge base before they move on to more difficult concepts. I hear that all the time from teachers, and they’re so right on. However – and this is a big “however” – are teachers carefully planning, carefully scaffolding their questions for their charges so that those questions move from the remembering and understanding levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy to the levels of applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating? (See helpful graphics here for Bloom’s.)

It ain’t easy, I know. It ain’t easy to plan to move questions in this path and then step into the classroom, where things can (ideally) go in any number of directions. Effective teachers work hard to balance their careful planning with a readiness to exploit teachable moments. In fact, for the most effective teachers, those that are highly attuned to their classroom, to their subject matter, and to their kids, their development of questions takes these detours into account and will encourage new discourse, new paths.

I know too that effective teachers redirect questions: they pose one question to more than one student. I also like when a teacher queries her kids, gets an answer, and then turns to another student and says, “So, Kyle, what’s your opinion of Jamie’s answer? How does her answer square with your thinking about that story’s end?”

I put this idea of rigor and effective questioning out to a few teacher friends, to see what they had to say. Danielle Lei, a former student of mine and now a teacher at this Denver school, wrote that these kinds of questions “can be the hook that draws students into a lesson or a text.” Friend and neighbor Bob Scribner, who teaches English at this Rockville, MD middle school, feels that “an aspect of this [question-asking] is asking open-ended ones that require synthesis of different texts/concepts/ideas to come up with an answer. There’s supposed to be more than one answer. One good way to use it is to introduce the question to groups so that students can then work together and flesh out what’s being sought after.” I like Bob’s strategy a lot – and then imagine having those groups present out and reflect on the different paths that they took with that one question. Cool.

Lastly, Kathryn Bremner, a friend, former middle school teacher, and former colleague at Modern Red SchoolHouse, wrote that “I don’t believe teachers plan appropriately when it comes to the questions they will ask in their classrooms. Honestly, I think many are so focused on mastery of content for testing purposes, they forget the value of higher level thinking. But one way teachers can be certain they are checking for mastery as well as for high level thinking is to use exit passes on a daily basis. Exit passes give every student in the classroom a voice as well as an opportunity for the teacher to check for understanding. In my opinion, teachers with rigor are using quick, ungraded, reflective opportunities on a daily basis in their classroom.” Yes, yes – a great way to assess their learning.

My last comment: It takes time to create this kind of investigative culture in the classroom. Effective teachers model for and practice with their students; they look to March and April for true success, not next week, and they ultimately want to give over the act of question-asking to their charges. A teacher’s done her job when her students are the ones asking thoughtful, invigorating, even risky questions. As this piece states near its end, when students pose or initiate good questions, “they have more ownership in the learning process and become active participants, responsible for their own growth.” They also learn something that they will carry forward outside of school: Connecting with others through respectful curiosity.

A few pieces on effective questioning: Using Questioning to Stimulate Mathematical Thinking, Are Teachers Asking the Right Questions?, Assessing the Relationship Between Questioning and Understanding to Improve Learning and Thinking (QUILT) and Student Achievement in Mathematics, and Inviting Student Engagement with Questioning.

The above apple image came from here.

I don’t believe teachers plan appropriately when it comes to the questions they will ask in their classrooms.  Honestly, I think many are so focused on mastery of content for testing purposes, they forget the value of higher level thinking.  But, one way teachers can be certain they are checking for mastery as well as high level thinking is to use exit passes on a daily basis.  Exit passes give every student in the classroom a voice as well as an opportunity for the teacher to check for understanding.  In my opinion, teachers with rigor are using quick, ungraded, reflective opportunities on a daily basis in their classroom.
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