As part of our series of posts on English for Academic Purposes, Jennifer Bixby, a teacher and author in the U.S., examines a question-based approach to teaching English and developing critical thinking skills.
Let’s start by changing the topic to “why are thought-provoking questions a good way to stimulate language learners?”
English Language Learners are bombarded with questions in the classroom, but most of the questions are predictable. They are questions that either the teacher or the student already knows the answer to. “Where are you from? What’s happening in this photo? What’s the main idea of this paragraph?”
These types of questions are the building blocks for language learning, especially at the lower levels, but let’s admit it – they can be a bit tiresome for all involved. Why? Because they don’t push us to think very deeply.
Thought-provoking questions are an entirely different matter, and these are the questions that intrigue me. What can I ask that will make my students pause and think before answering? Is it a question that would also make me stop and think? Is it a question that doesn’t have an easy, yes or no answer?
Take, for example, the question “Is it ever OK to lie?” Now that is a question that we might initially answer with “No,” but think about it again. It’s not so simple, right? It begs for deeper thinking, and it can lead students to think more carefully. So this question passes my stop-and-think test.
But I also want an interesting question, a question that I don’t know the answer to. I’m not actually sure of my answer to the question about lying. I also can’t predict how my students will answer it. In addition, it’s a question that carries a bit of an emotional charge. It’s a question I’ve faced in my own life as a parent and as a daughter. That’s the kind of question I am looking for. A good thought-provoking question is interesting.
The value of a thought-provoking question is multi-faceted. Because the question connects with students at a very personal level, they will be more motivated to communicate their ideas. They know that others will listen carefully and perhaps challenge them on their answers. Such a question will naturally lead students to think of ways to support their opinions, perhaps with examples from their own lives.
This is key: thought-provoking questions push students to think critically – they will naturally analyze, apply their ideas, and compare.
Another value of this sort of question is that it can be revisited as students read related materials, listen to experts discuss it, or as they develop their ideas through classroom discussion. I want a question that will lead students on a sort of journey, challenging them to refine and develop their answers.
What are your criteria for a good question? How do you use thought-provoking questions in your classroom? What tips or advice do you have for students who are not comfortable answering questions in class? How do you push your students to think critically about their answers and to participate more actively in class?