Dispatches from the Learning Lab: Why I Don’t Always Ask My Question

One of the many reasons I put myself in a math PhD program is that it is an intense full-time laboratory in which for me to examine my own learning process, and my experience as a participant in math classrooms from the student side. I hope to record many lessons from this laboratory on this blog. Here is one.

As a teacher I have always strongly encouraged people to pipe up when they’re confused, whether working in groups or (especially) at the level of whole-class discussion. To encourage this, I do things like:

* I leave lots of wait time.
* I respond to questions (especially those expressing confusion) with enthusiasm when they are asked, and after they are discussed I point out concrete, specific ways in which the questions advanced the conversation.
* I give (very deeply felt) pep talks about the value of these questions.
* Sometimes I directly solicit questions from people whose faces make it seem like they have one.

I am behind all of these practices. However, in every class that I have taught, whether for students or teachers, including all those of an extended enough length so that the practices would have time to shape the culture, it has always seemed to me that participants are often not asking their questions. This has puzzled me a bit. I’ve generally responded by trying harder: leaving longer wait-time, making more of a point to highlight the value of questions when they happen, giving more strident and frequent pep talks. This hasn’t resolved the matter.

Now I am not about to pronounce a new solution. But I have what for me is a very new insight. I imagine some readers of this blog will read it and be like, “Ben, I could have told you that.” I’m sure you could have, but this wouldn’t have helped me: retrospectively, students have told me it many, many times. But I didn’t get it till I felt it. This is the value of putting yourself in their position.

What I’ve realized since beginning graduate school is that I had an incomplete understanding of why students don’t ask questions. I believed that the only reason not to ask a question is the fear of looking dumb. My approach has been entirely aimed at ameliorating this fear and replacing it with the sense that questions are honored and their contribution is valued.

Now one of the great advantages of going to grad school as an adult, rather than going fresh out of college, is that I have very, very little fear of looking dumb. (In the immortal words of my friend Kiku Polk, you get your “f*ck you” at 30.) To all my early-20’s people: your 20’s will be wonderful but if you make sure you keep growing, your 30’s will be better.

And one of the great advantages of going to grad school after over a decade as a teacher, is that I have a strong commitment to asking my questions, stemming from the value that I know they have both for myself and the class.

Perhaps as a consequence, I found that in all four of my classes last semester, I asked more questions than anyone else in the room.

Be that as it may, I frequently didn’t ask my questions.

What’s up?

As it turns out (and now, okay, maybe this is Captain Obvious talking, but a propos of all of the above, somehow I’ve been overlooking it for a decade), not wanting to hold up class is its own reason not to ask questions! Maybe it’s a basic piece of our social programming. If things are going one way in a room of 20 or 30 people, it feels sort of painful to contemplate forcing them in another direction on your account. Especially if you’ve already done it once or twice, but even if not. And more so the further your question seems to be from what the people around you (esp. the teacher) look like they want to talk about. All this is intensified if you’re not sure your question is going to come out perfectly articulate – not (necessarily or only) because of how this will make you look, but because you know that your interruption is going to take up more mental and social space if it has to start with a whole period of everybody just getting clear on what you’re even asking.

There is an added layer that it is often perceptible that the teacher desires for everyone to understand and appreciate what was just said as clearly as she or he understands and appreciates it. Last night I was in a lecture in which I was hyperaware of not always asking my questions, and part of the dynamic in that case was actually the professor’s enthusiasm about what he was saying! I did ask a number of questions, but one reason I didn’t ask more is that I sort of felt like I was crashing his party! My warm feelings toward this professor actually heightened this effect: messing up someone else’s flow is worse when it’s someone you like.

As I mentioned above, students have been trying to tell me this for years. I never got it, because on some level I always believed that the real problem was that they were afraid to look dumb. I remember a conversation with a particular student who was my advisee as well as my math student. When I pressed her on asking more questions in class, she said something to the effect of, “you know, you’re doing your thing up there, and I don’t want to get in the way.” I literally remember the voice in my head reinterpreting this as a lack of belief in herself. Now I think that that was part of it as well; but my response was all aimed at that, and so didn’t address the whole issue.

Now my process of figuring out how to operationalize this new insight in terms of teaching practice has only just begun, and one reason I am writing about this here is to invite you into this process. I am certainly NOT telling you to withhold your enthusiasm on the grounds that it might make kids not want to interrupt you with questions. Furthermore, evidently when I describe experiences from my graduate classes, I am describing a situation in which the measures you and I have been taking for years to encourage question-asking are mostly absent. I doubt most of my professors have even heard of wait time. Nonetheless, I am sure that this new point of view is fruitful in terms of actual practice. Below are my preliminary thoughts. Please comment.

If I want to really encourage question asking, what I have been doing (aimed at building a culture of question-asking) is necessary, but insufficient. It is also necessary to think about lesson structure with an eye to: how do I design the flow of this lesson so that (at least during significant parts where questions are likely to arise in students’ minds) asking their questions does not feel like an interruption? One model, which is valuable in other ways as well, is to have students’ questions be the desired product of a certain segment of class. For example, when the lesson arrives at a key idea, definition, or conclusion, ask students to turn to their neighbors and discuss the key idea and try to produce a question about it. Then have the pairs or groups report their questions. This way, the questions cannot be interruptions because they are explicitly the very thing that is supposed to be going on right then.

I like this idea but it has limited scope because it requires the point in the lesson at which the questions arise to be planned, and of course this can never contain all the questions I would want to have asked. Another thing to think about is the matter of momentum. I think my discussion of enthusiasm above really revolves around momentum. Enthusiasm generates momentum, but momentum is actually the thing that it hurts to get in the way of. Therefore I submit a second idea: the question of managing my/your own and the class’s momentum. Having forward momentum is obviously a big part of class being engaging, but perhaps it also suppresses spontaneous questions? Or under certain conditions it does?

(In a way this reminds me of the tension – one I am much more confident is an essential one of our profession – between storytelling and avoidance of theft – I discussed a particular case of this tension in the fourth paragraph here. Momentum is aligned with storytelling: a good story generates momentum. Avoiding theft is aligned with inviting questions.)

A last thought is that in a class of 20 or 30, having the class engage every question that pops into any student’s head at any time is obviously not a desirable situation. You might think I thought it was desirable based on the above. But the question is how to empower students to ask questions when we want them. I know that I for one have often known I wanted some questions so I could be responsive to them, and they weren’t forthcoming. The question is about how to change this. Part of the answer is about the culture, valuing the questions, encouraging the risks, and making everyone feel safe; but it’s the other part – how to structurally support the questions – that’s the new inquiry for me. As I said above, please comment.

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12 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Learning Lab: Why I Don’t Always Ask My Question

  1. Ben
    It occurs to me that another potent reason for our kids in high school not to ask their question is that often they don’t yet know how to articulate their question. They know that there is something missing in their ability to follow a conversation or to watch a solution, but they cannot put their finger on it in an intelligible way. One of the first questions I ask when a kid comes for extra help is to point to a problem and identify the first step where they feel they lost the thread of the solution. This doesn’t fix the problem entirely but it has given (some of) my students the feeling that they can raise their hand and just wave a white flag (metaphorically speaking) to say that I need to stop and address something in the problem.

    Jim D

  2. I think that sometimes, as teachers, we have certain specific questions in mind because we have an idealized image of what the conversation should look like (e.g. to bring up this point because I have this nifty demo/lecture/activity lined up). This implicit message can be easily communicated to students and they learn that the point of the class really isn’t about their questions.

  3. I never ask if anyone has any questions. I instead ask the class as a whole if they understand a particular thing, and to rate their understanding from 1 to 5. Then I get the 4s and 5s (if any) to clarify what’s wrong and run things from there..

  4. @ Jim – Yes, not having the question articulate makes it much harder to ask. I think for numerous reasons: obv. self-consciousness about how you look, also the feeling that your interruption is going to be a lot of work to settle, also just the fact that it’s very hard to decide to chime in with something when you’re not even sure what you’re going to say. By a strained analogy, like it’s much harder to walk up to somebody you want to get a date with if you don’t know what your opening line is. This is making me think about another useful move: “raise your hand if something’s bugging you.” If I’m understanding you right, what’s working about your technique is that you’re providing those students with a concrete model of how to interject a confusion that’s not an articulate question, yes? Very cool. The natural next question is how to scale that: how could we give that model to the whole class rather than depending on them coming for extra help first?

  5. @ Sue – Totally. Groups are key, because it dampens all the issues I discussed to be working in a small group in which you’re an equal participant. But they’re not the end of the conversation because all the reasons not to ask a question are still present, if dampened. (a) How do we empower students to ask questions in their group? (b) Since it sometimes serves us to conduct some kind of discussion at the level of the whole class, how do we empower students to ask questions at those times?

    @ Matty – Word.

    @ Jason – Yeah, I would go so far as to say that “Any questions?” is almost always a bad move, because of the implied (or sometimes explicit) corollary “No? Good.” which is the worst possible message in terms of what I’m going for here. A move I’ve used a lot is “I need a question.” Or even, “I need a question from this table.” (Like, class won’t move on till you ask something.) I’m interested in your idea of having the people who rate their understanding the strongest as the ones who try to put their finger on the issue that needs to be discussed. Kind of like they’re mediating between the students who aren’t even oriented enough to get started in putting their finger on it, and the teacher who’s so distant from learning the content that they can’t remember what the problem could even be. In practice, what might the conversation look like?

    1. Er, actually, 1 means stronger. They usually give a thumbs-up. Once they’ve revealed a 4 or a 5 the weaker ones are usually willing to speak up, if nothing else to give me affirmatives or negatives on understanding as I break the problem into parts.

      But now that you mention it, hmm. Worth a try!

  6. I am late to comment, because at first I didn’t think I had anything to add, but I’ve been thinking and thinking about it. This post has been haunting me for days, so nice work!

    I think you are really on to something when you say “to have students’ questions be the desired product of a certain segment of class.” But then I think you are too dismissive of that idea. You can set up your instruction time so that students don’t need to worry about interrupting or cramping your momentum, by planning in a way that requires kids’ participation all the time. “Discuss this with your neighbor and come up with a question” is just one way to enact the idea. You could also ask things like “Come up with an example that makes this equation/statement true, and an example that makes it not true.” “Explain to your partner how you know this graph goes with this equation.” “I just wrote something on the board that is wrong. Discuss with your partner why it’s wrong and how you could fix it.”

    Then it’s key to hold them accountable. I don’t ask for volunteers to share what they discussed, I just pick randomly or pseudo-randomly, so everyone knows they need to be on their toes. But I don’t think cold-calling on a student is bad when it’s something they’ve been given enough time to think about before you call on someone.

    Not to say that I plan my instruction this way perfectly all the time… I have plenty of moments where I realize I’ve been “waah waah waaaahing” Charlie Brown style for the past ten minutes. But I think it’s a worthy goal.

  7. As a teacher of acting/theatre, I’m very interested in focusing on questions as a certain kind of important result in the classroom, but not the only one. There are times when I ask for questions, very much treating them as the only way to get at what’s important in the room, since what’s important is the room is the engagement between the people in it and the material we’re working on. But many times I discourage or disallow questions precisely in order to develop what you are calling “momentum.” I usually use “rhythm” as the broader term that includes momentum, accelerations, slowing-downs, pauses, suspensions, breaks, gatherings, separations, etc.

    I find that teaching is hugely about organizing the rhythm of the classroom. In fact I think of that as being one of my two primary responsibilities as a teacher, the other one being to engage with the material. Leading the rhythm of the class is both planned (as in lesson planning) and improvised. There’s great value in a teacher taking strong leadership of class rhythm, and this can include times when no questions are to be asked precisely because of what you said about questions breaking momentum. Having students ask questions is a way to have them take a small amount of leadership in the rhythm of the class, within a framework still led by the teacher. It can break open the rhythm of “storytelling” and let another kind of rhythm emerge. How much this happens depends on how the teacher responds to the question. Does the teacher grab the question and tell another story? Or does the atmosphere shift to one of open conversation? All these pathways are valid, I think. It’s a question of orchestration and deeply part of the learning process because every person engages the material in a different way, with their own rhythms.

    One other small note, a bit more tangential: When I moderate artistic feedback sessions, I often begin by having a moment in which the following rules structure the conversation: 1) Audience members can only ask questions about what they have seen, not make statements. And 2) The artist who presented is not allowed to respond. This can go on for 5 or 20 minutes. What it does is force the audience to put their response into a provocative form, while preventing the artistic from responding to that provocation in words and discussion. The artist is left with a ton of questions they want to answer but is relieved of having to answer them right then and there or through discursive means at all. The implication is that these questions can energetically provoke the next version of the artwork.

    I also do this with my students, asking them questions about their performances or having them ask each other questions. They get so frustrated that they cannot answer them by *explaining* what they did and why. I tell them to take that desire to explain and put it into the next version of the performance. Anyway, the relevance here is just that it’s interesting to talk about questions as both method and result, and how they can function as much more than just “Q&A.”

    1. Wow, I love this, Ben (Spatz)! I’m going to print it, I think. I’ve thought about taking a theater class to improve my teaching (and did it once years ago, but that class didn’t help, really). You are saying things I feel deeply but don’t articulate well. I love it when I conduct well, and would love to discuss that further.

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