When we were analyzing the structure a foreign language must have, back in university, in the class of teaching methodology, we understood the importance of having a warm-up session at the beginning; work stage (usually split in controlled practice and free practice); and a wrap-up session at the end, preparing students for the next session. Moreover, we understood that each of these 3 components did not have a defined structure nor did any follow a particular sequence if mini tasks that could guarantee its success. We conclusively understood that as teachers we must always be observant of the classroom atmosphere, of the information students are producing and the new opportunities generated as a result.
Personally, I have always believed that learning to ask the right questions is a skill students must develop in order to be able to use various nuances of communication that will normally not occur by asking simple, book-based questions. In other words, students must become aware of how some the questions they ask will provide them with new information that will allow them to continue to inquire or to explore different aspects of the topic being discussed.
In foreign language classes we tend to teach students yes/no and information questions, but I do not know if some teachers have explored the power of helping students see the different purposes of questions (hypothetical, analytical, planning, divergent, etc.) in order to sensitize them on the course of the conversation they are taking part in.
When I was working at ITESM, I learned about questioning techniques from one of my colleagues, and since then I have used questions as a tool that allows me to check what students have understood, to see how ready students are to move to the next stage in our lesson, to differentiate instructions by asking higher thinking questions to those students who have mastered the skills we are working on, and to get students to express themselves critically. I even think that questions can help me place students according to their understanding of the language and according to their abilities to respond. Nonetheless, what I like the most about questions is the way they help me create the mood of the class, as they add a sense of unexpected and surprise.
Below is the clip my colleague at ITESM used in her workshop on questioning techniques.
We are moving away from the dominant use of books in the classroom and have started taking advantage of the resources on the web and started integrating authentic materials, I believe it is important not to underestimate the power of questions for they will always allow us to explore content and concepts in a way we possibly didn’t think of when planning, and will help us explore students’ ideas, which should be the aim in all subjects.
As an example of my my desire to engage students in the inquiry process, as we were discussing Un Mundo Perfecto (Brave new world) in my Spanish A class, and were clearly enjoying looking at aspects of ethics, research and humanity in it, I divided my class in 10 groups (each representing an attribute of the learner profile) , and gave them a few minutes to think of questions they could ask from that perspective. Once their questions were ready, I asked them to look back at all the points we had share and ask questions about them form the point of view of the learner profile attribute they were assigned. Below is a brief summary of some of the questions.
What this simple modification in my plan allowed me to see is that we do not ask questions just because we need to employ a question mark. We ask questions in order to explore the magnitude of our learning experience, to figure out how it will expand, to understand how we will interact with the outcome of our exploration, and to be a part of a series of moments through which understandings are being built.
Sometimes I think that a class should be untitled until its end, for naming the learning experience could be somewhat limiting considering the powerful experience and reflection we could generate, and we are seldom aware of the impact the processes we put in place will have.