One of the most valuable things that your students may contribute to the classroom and to their own education, are questions. While education is often thought of as the pursuit of knowledge and “knowing” something, it is really the questions that students must ask in order to gain their knowledge that make up the most rewarding part of the education process. Questions are sparked from your students’ curiosity and encourage them to imagine and think. If you think about it, pondering a question and the possibility of what the answer could be is like trying to solve a puzzle. While puzzles are satisfying to complete, it is really the journey of putting the pieces together that make it fun. You can think of questions in the classroom in the same way you would think of putting together a puzzle; arriving at the answer is satisfying, but exploring the question that leads to the answer is where the fun happens.
Why ask why?
Questions are how we learn. It is strange that sometimes, learning is often thought of as how we memorize facts, or how students receive information from their teachers by way of simply being told the answer. Educators often feel pressured to be able to answer all questions and to simply tell students answers. However, there are plenty of questions where the answers are complicated, obscure, or not straightforward at all. Furthermore, telling your students the answer instead of encouraging them to explore possible answers by using the tools that you can help provide can actually be a disservice to your students. Here are some ideas for how to handle questions in the classroom and how to help your students get the most out of indulging their curiosity as they learn.
Students can often feel pressure to understand a lesson or know the answer to something before they have all the information necessary. It takes courage to ask questions, because no one wants to seem as though they don’t understand something when maybe everyone else is also not asking questions, presumably because they already know the answer. What is often happening in this situation, is that the students are afraid of being embarrassed by not knowing something that perhaps everyone else already knows.
Set a standard at the beginning of class – tell your students that questions are not only okay, but they are encouraged. Put their minds at ease, so that you can create an environment where everyone is comfortable enough to ask. Let them know that everyone, from Da Vinci to Einstein and everyone in between, also started their pursuit of knowledge with a question. Let them know that asking questions does not mean you are not smart; as a matter of fact, asking questions is what smart people do.
Make time for questions
Set aside time during the course of the day to encourage questions. Make a list of the questions from each student on the board and turn it into a discussion that the whole class can participate in. This allows students to brainstorm ideas, explore each other’s questions, and to let the process of learning become something that the whole classroom can participate in. This will create an environment where asking questions feels safe, normal, and even fun.
There are no stupid questions
Questions always link to other questions, which get to the heart of larger matters. It’s important that students remember that even if a question seems obvious, or everyone else seems to have the answer, that the question is still always relevant to the conversation.
Allow time for face to face questions from students
Even if you make time for students to ask questions during class and cultivated an environment where asking questions is encouraged and normal, take the different personalities of your students into account. Some students may be too shy to ask questions in front of a classroom, no matter how you try to get them to. Let your students know that you are available for them if they want to chat either face to face before or after class, or even via email. It is important that shier students are not at a disadvantage when it comes to letting their questions be heard and addressed. You can even bring up the question that a particular student asked one on one during a lesson, without naming names. This can make for an excellent starting point for class conversation. The student who initially asked the question might even appreciate that their question seems to be of use in this way, even if they cannot ask in front of the entire classroom. It will help them feel heard and like a valid member of the group.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions yourself
As an educator, you may feel like you need to have all the answers. Just as your students are always learning, and also need to ask questions to learn, you too need to be willing to ask questions. You also need to be able to admit that with questions, you don’t necessarily have answers. Not having answers is okay. Not knowing how to answer your students’ questions, is also okay. Your students need not see you as the keeper of answers. Allow yourself to admit that even you don’t necessarily know everything, and that you can help explore possibilities with your students. They will feel more inclined to listen to you when you say that having questions is okay, and all a part of the learning process. After all, even as an educator, your personal education never stops – you should always be pushing yourself to learn, no matter how long you teach or how old you are. Sometimes answers to questions change when we come across new information or perspectives. Sometimes those new perspectives can even come from your students.
It is very human to want to know answers. Questions can be just as treasured as any answer or conclusion, though, if you approach the idea that questions are the most necessary part of the learning process. Your students will also appreciate this perspective, as they grow and learn. Just as the four sons ask the four questions each year at Pesach in the Haggadah, we also explore the same questions anew each year that we sit around the seder table. The reason that we have been doing this over and over again, year after year over generations, is because questions are wonderful things to have, and exploring possible answers is a worthwhile endeavor. Never be afraid to ask, and your students won’t be either.