Thursday, April 7, 2016

Question-Driven Learning

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"Some questions might be easy for you, and others might be hard.  It is important that you do the best you can." I can almost recite those words in my sleep.

We recently wrapped up ACCESS testing season in North Carolina. For eight weeks, I administered two to three tests daily, and the phrase cited above was the opening line of every test administration script.  For those unfamiliar with ESL Testing, ACCESS for ELLs is an annual language assessment given to students in WIDA states who have been identified as Limited English Proficient. In North Carolina, ACCESS test results determine the level of ESL service and exit status. As with any standardized testing administration, I am required to circulate around the room, carefully observing students as they quietly take their tests. Except for the speaking tests, there is a deafening silence during the testing sessions, giving me plenty of time to ponder and reflect.

From preschoolers to seniors, our role as 21st-century educators is to lay a strong foundation for subsequent learning. Developing young people who are truly "future-ready" means that we need to equip them to take ownership of their learning and growth, and most notably, master the art of asking questions.  Indeed, some questions may be easy, and some questions may be hard, but it is important that students do the best they can and never stop asking questions.

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In a traditional classroom setting, students take on the role of consumers rather than producers. However, thriving in today's global marketplace necessitates a shift in mindset and roles.  We are no longer merely imparting knowledge.  Instead, we are facilitating it. When questions drive learning, students are piloting their destinies and are no longer passengers along for the ride.

In a language classroom, questions are an integral part of the curriculum.  From basic social language to higher level academic discourse, questions drive conversations and affect outcomes. I teach my students how to state their questions so they can be understood, but I also work to instill their confidence to use questions as a form of self-advocacy.  This confidence will empower them to take risks and create opportunities for themselves.  Students who routinely struggle academically are generally not inclined to think outside the box, therefore, developing an inquisitive mind can be a game changer.

Here are some strategies I have been implementing to foster question-driven learning:

Students write questions after reading a passage or chapter.
Instead of responding to questions, I have students write them. Developing questions requires students to ponder more deeply than searching for responses. Furthermore, it helps me gauge the depth of their understanding more than answers ever will.  For ELLs, stating or writing questions properly is an essential language skill, but it's also an effective reading strategy as it promotes deep thinking and increases comprehension. Also, generating multiple choice answer selections can sharpen their study skills. I even encourage students to write questions they are not able to answer themselves. While I would suggest this as a collaborative activity, it can also be done individually.

State feedback as a question.
This is especially effective when assessing writing if the syntax or semantic errors are blurring the message or if the writing needs elaboration. Instead of assuming what they meant, ask students to explain their thinking as they wrote. This provides an opportunity to check for understanding and/or provide remediation.

Questions as peer review. 
During student presentations, I expect the audience to engage by asking questions of their peers because it makes them listen more intently. But most importantly, it sparks curiosity and keeps them asking for more than what is presented. For those not comfortable verbalizing their questions, they have the option to use a backchannel tool. And for peer editing and review, I have students pose questions as they critique each other's work, rather than simply making corrections.
Student developed review games.
Review games such as Kahoot have become a staple in my classes.  At first, I created the review questions, but I soon realized that by having students create the Kahoots, I was not only checking for understanding, but I was also helping them review the material while practicing their writing skills.

Inarguably, discovery and innovation result from sparks of curiosity - from questions.  Whereas answers are an ending, questions symbolize a beginning. The more we ask, the more questions we will have. I have found that using questions as a learning tool develops proactive, forward-thinking mindsets. While it’s not easy to break old habits - and we are still a work in progress - I believe we are moving in the right direction.  Again, some questions might be easy, and others might be hard, but it is important that we do the best we can to continue asking questions and seeking knowledge.