The Problem with Q&A
When I was a new teacher, my professors and mentors emphasized the importance of questioning as a teaching technique. We were taught to track the number and frequency of questions we asked, as well as the type of questions. We were taught to track how many and which students we were questioning, and how many students were doing the asking. The messages were clear: Questions are super important. The more questions the better.
Let me start by saying, I agree. Sort of. QUESTIONS ARE INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. Open-ended inquiry, student-led discussions, time to think and explore are all integral to deep understanding. The problem is not whether or not questions in general are valuable and important teaching tools. The problem is that there is a time and place for the teacher to pose questions, and there’s a time and place for demonstration and coaching.
And that brings me to minilessons.
A minilesson is generally meant to be a brief, explicit demonstration and coaching of a transferable skill or strategy that is going to help the majority of your students move forward in their writing. It’s whole class teaching, so it needs to be quick, efficient, and direct so that kids can get to the most important part of writing workshop: the writing! A strong minilesson is:
The problem with using question and answer where the teacher asks a question, and one student at a time answers, is that Q&A, even at its best, is not very effective for meeting any of the four aforementioned qualities.
STRONG TEACHING IS ENGAGING.
Questioning the class and then calling on one student at a time tends to leave the rest of the class simply waiting for their turn. Young people, generally speaking, are not as engaged when they are not the person being called on. Instead of using Q&A, if there is a question you believe is worth discussing as a class, then by all means, plan to have a whole class conversation. Pose the question. But then engage ALL the students by asking them all to turn and talk with a partner. This ensures that every student is engaged. If the question doesn’t seem important enough to have the whole class turn and talk… well.. I think you know the answer.
STRONG TEACHING IS MEMORABLE.
There are many things you can do to make your minilessons more memorable. Using turn and talk (instead of calling on kids one at a time) to engage more kids in the discussion is just one of things you can do. Providing visual support through anchor charts, gestures, drama, and using picture clues can also make your teaching more memorable. Humor, tapping into emotional responses, and even the voice you use, or the lines you choose to repeat can help kids remember and hang on to what you’ve taught.
Question and answer with one student at a time probably is not an effective way to create a memorable experience with the entire class, as they are waiting for their turn to be called on, instead of being actively engaged with the strategy you’re teaching. Instead of Q&A, try having the whole class try something — open up their notebooks and point to a place where they could do the work, or ask kids to say aloud what they plan to write (“writing in the air”) to rehearse their writing before they leave the meeting area when the minilesson is done.
STRONG TEACHING IS INTENTIONAL.
Question and answer is just plain not a great way to make an explicit point. There is a time for conversation and discovery, and there is a time for being very clear in your demonstration and coaching. Most minilessons are meant to be a short and sweet, very direct demonstration. Diverting from your demonstration to ask the class a question and then waiting for one student to answer dilutes the power of your demonstration; it makes your teaching less explicit. Here’s a scenario:
You’re teaching kids to add dialogue to bring their characters to life. You could ask “Who knows a way to bring their characters to life?” or “Who remembers what we did yesterday?. . . Anyone?. . . ” Or you could just explicitly state, “Today I’m going to teach you how to use dialogue to bring your characters to life.”
This is not to say that there isn’t a time and place for discussion and inquiry. You might intentionally pose a carefully designed question to help kids make a connection to previous teaching. “We’ve been writing essays all week. Turn and talk with your partner and discuss: What strategies do you already know for making your essay interesting for others to read?”
Or you might intentionally pose a carefully designed question in the link of your minilesson: “Now you know this one new strategy to try out… but what else could you be working on today during writing time. Turn and tell your partner.”
There are times when the right question can prompt kids to think for themselves to brainstorm and problem solve, using what they already know. Then there are times when strong teaching means being very explicit and clearly stating the teaching point.
STRONG TEACHING IS JOYFUL.
Sometimes I find myself slipping into my old Q&A habits as a management tool. I might redirect an undesirable behavior by asking a student a question, or I might use a question to get the class’s attention when their focus seems to be drifting. When I find myself doing this I almost always feel the mood of the class changing, the power dynamics shift. I start to feel like that teacher in Ferris Bueller’s day off. “Anyone?… Anyone?…” Ick. I’ve tried to tackle this bad habit by remembering each time I ask a question:
- Is this an authentic question that I actually want to take time to discuss with kids?
- Am I engaging the whole class right now, or is this between me and one student?
- If I’m not engaging the whole class right now, why not? If the question is important, could I engage more students by inviting them to think and talk with a partner?
- Could I turn this around into a more engaging, more memorable, or more explicit statement instead of trying pull the answers out of kids with questions?
Admitting that you might have a Q&A problem isn’t easy. It takes a brave teacher to reflect honestly on their practice and make changes that might feel uncomfortable at first. I once heard someone say that if you can successfully make one small change in some aspect of your life that it almost always leads to other changes. If you’re trying to eat a healthier diet, for example, start by simply drinking more water. The same could be said of your teaching. Making one small change (avoiding unnecessary Q&A) could lead to many more discoveries and growth in your practice.