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I Don't Want to Think About That (and other Answers)
Good Answers are Hard To Come By: The Second Skill
In a classroom, there are two types of question: Teacher Questions and Kid Questions. Jamie Mckenzie and others have made excellent arguments for the necessity of purposeful Teacher Questions (I point you to McKenzie's From Now On article Framing Essential Questions). Framing good questions is hard work for a teacher, probably the hardest task faced by the technology integrator. On the other hand, questions come easily to children. There has been extensive research into the nature of good Questions and we cover this in our essay called Questioning: The First Skill. Yet what is the use of questions if answers go unheeded?
Answers are almost as important as Questions. They are the Second Skill. The teacher who guides students through the creation, location and communication of meaningful Answers is teaching them an invaluable life skill.
Answering Skills have not been the focus of research lately, perhaps because teachers attend to answers with an aniticipated "answer set." Anything close gets by in a teacher-centered classroom; answers are less important in themselves than as steps toward the next Question or the next Fact. Suprisingly, this is recorded on video at training sites( such as InTime) and recorded by educators (see Candy's Project). However, this doesn't mean that Answers are not important. An experienced teacher recognizes that:
Answers are hard work.
The collaboration process and the individual learning process can by stymied by poor answers. Let's take a look at some Poor Answers.
Poor Answers - The poorest answer is, of course, no answer; but here are some categories to which the teacher should be alert:
- Passive Avoidance : I don't know; I didn't do it; I don't want to think about that; I don't understand the question; You didn't teach us that yet; I don't see any pattern; I only know two of them.
- Irrelevant Avoidance: (laughter); a rude comment; a noise; an unrelated fact or observation.
- Lateral Arabesque : I agree with Robert; It's just what you said; It's the same as last time; Why don't you ask Robert?
- Ask Back Guesses : The red one? 10?
- Hesitant Guesses : I think maybe...; It could be...
- Question Confusion : Which angle do you mean?
- Knowledge Confusion : What's an adjective again? How do I know if it's a growing pattern?
- Attack : That's a dumb question; So what?; You don't know anything, What difference does it make? Why should I care?
Good Answers are risky business. It is important that teachers learn to recognize them as well:
- Review and Extend : If angle B is obtuse then segment AC must be the longest one; If it's a growing pattern then the next unit must be...; If the Mayor thought the Chinese were good merchants then...
- Agree/DisAgree with Reason : I agree with Robert because; Robert said that....but I think that...because.
- If...then 1-1 : If the pH is 7 then the water must be...; If the cloud has that shape then...
- Conclude Many-to-1: Based upon the evidence, I would say that...; All of these examples are the same in that they...; Betty's actions show that she is feeling...
- Extrapolate 1-to-Many : If this rock is limestone then the rocks at X are limestone; If the crayfish died because of the water temperature then lobsters die when the ocean temperature goes up; If more boys in our class wear sneakers then...
- Factual : The formula is...; The capital of Iran is...; The three types of Greek column are...
- Self-Directing Search : I don't know, but I can find the answer in...; I don't know but if I do X I can find out; I don't know but I will ask...
- Critical : I think we should be asking...; It would be better to ask...; That question is not relevant, how about this...
The Teacher Task
Both adults and children discern the difference between Good and Poor Answers. However, students at all grade levels display a tolerance for Poor Answers. This has as much to do with the social fabric of the classroom (pecking order, peer pressure) as with the quality and engagement of the academic experience. Thus, it is a Teacher Task to guide students toward the Good Answers. This is one reason for a clear set of Permissions that will discourage Poor Answers and encourage the risk-taking required of Good Answers. It is important that the teacher does not correct the answer or redirect the question to another student. Instead, the teacher should:
- Wait after asking question and before calling on a student
- Restate the question for the student or, better still, have a student from another area of the learning space restate it
- Review or guide students to necessary knowledge, even if this seems a side track (rarely is only one student confused or lacking knowledge)
- Prompt - Say, Try it again; That doesn't answer the question, try again; There are many good answers - try again; There is no one right answer to this one - give it a try
- Reinforce Good Answers by asking students to summarize or build upon them (not to restate)
With a watchful eye and ear tuned to Answers, the teacher can feel confident that her students will be guided toward a powerful learning product. The students will do the rest.
The Problem With Answers
Wait a second. A teacher can't be everywhere all the time, reading everything, hearing everything. There are going to be moments missed. Good questions will go unanswered. Good answers will be spurned, ignored or reduced to platitiudes. There will be plagiarism. Ask -› Answer. Students, especially students with poor answering skills, have learned that this is a successful learning process. They ask -> the teacher, a librarian, a book, a website, another student answers. This is not a process that encourages inquiry; it is an expectation that often results in the Information Trap. That is where Collaboration comes in. Teachers tend to think of collaboration in terms of shared input (answers) and shared ouput (products); it is more. A successful collaborative group is by nature a critical, attentive group. In a working collaboration, the process is this: Ask -› Many Answers. The question-answer process is complicated by the need to apply higher order thinking skills - filtering and assessment skills - to Many Answers before the product-building process can continue.
The success of a collaboration depends not only upon good questions and answers, but upon good attention to answers.
So the Teacher/Guide needs to model not only good Questioning and Answering, but also good Attending. All of which brings us to the third essential learning skill in the Filtering toolkit: Attending: I know what you mean but...(and other attentive comments).
E. Sky-McIlvain 5/22/04