Teach First, Ask Questions Later

How to get teaching completely backwards.

As with many areas in life, often the things that seem most obvious, most instinctual, are in fact not right, and when we pause to look a little closer, we realise that the counterintuitive alternative is actually better.

For example, people spend excessive energy trying to avoid making mistakes for the embarrassment or sense of failure that they bring, when in fact mistakes are opportunities to learn and to identify flaws and areas of improvement. For years, it was believed that eating fatty foods was the primary cause of increasing obesity throughout the world, but studies went on to show that in fact the way sugar interacts with our bodies actually has a much greater say in how we process the fats we consume. Parents often obsess over keeping their children in sterile environments, avoiding dirt and other contaminants at any cost, but allowing young children to be more hands on with the world gives them invaluable chances to develop antibodies and prevent much worse illnesses in the future. People have been known to grow up with quite severe vision and hearing impairments because without any frame of reference they naturally assumed that their experience of the world was just the same as everybody else’s.

The fact is, intuition is often not a good thing to rely on when it comes to what is good and bad for people. No where is this truer than in the field of teaching. Many of the classroom practices that are common around the world and indeed have been cemented as tradition in the majority of education systems are based on nothing more than what seems right at first glance. One example of this is the supposed value of cramming as many facts and details into students’ heads as possible — the more things they know, the smarter they are, right? Another is the assumption that all students should aspire to a college degree upon graduating from school if they want to achieve anything worthwhile in life. Yet another is the globally pervasive idea that standardised testing is the best, or even a good way of measuring student learning.

On this occasion though, the intuition that I’m most interested in is the one that the best way to teach is for more knowledgeable or experienced teachers to impart their knowledge or experience upon the students and to then have them complete exercises to prove that they understood and thus have learned. I call this the Teach First, Ask Questions Later approach, and I believe it to be exactly the opposite of how good teaching works.

Getting it Backwards

It seems obvious to many, indeed most that the teach first approach is the sensible way to proceed. After all, it is the teacher who knows that which the students do not. It certainly seems to make sense then to start by transferring all of that knowledge from the teacher to the learner, since it clearly cannot go the other way.

Of course, if we do this, we need to make sure that it’s actually being received and understood. To this end, there needs to be some kind of a test to show what has been learned and retained and what might need to be retaught. So, teach something and then test to see how well it was taught. All seems good, you might think. And if you do, you are far from alone; this is how curricula the world over are structured.

However, there are some major flaws here that become quite apparent with even just a casual appraisal. For starters, the entire medium is just not that effective for a lot of students. We cannot reasonably expect all of our students to pay full attention to us just telling them what we think they need to know. It gets boring, students can get confused, or they might just get distracted.

The idea of following up teacher-driven presentations or lectures with exercises and quizzes is another misstep. Asking somebody to regurgitate what they have just heard proves very little beyond the fact that they did indeed hear it. So these exercises might give us an idea of who was paying attention, but it does very little to measure the quality of the learning that has taken place. The reason for this is because we’re dealing exclusively with short term memory and are operating out of context. For learning to be considered learning at all, it must be retained in long term memory, and for it to have any value it must be applied in context.

A more subtle problem with this approach is the phenomenon referred to as the Curse of Knowledge. This is the idea that the better a person understands something, the worse they become at teaching it, because it is difficult to remember how much effort was required to learn it and what steps and processes they went through. Essentially, we just assume that others will be able to understand and learn easily the things we already understand simply because they seem so clear and well grounded in our own minds. As a result, people presenting this phenomenon tend to be very bad at explaining, perhaps skipping steps in the learning process, not bothering to define specialist terms or over-simplifying complex ideas.

Reversing the Norm

Contrary to what intuition might present us with, it is a far more effective approach to teaching and learning to entirely reverse the process. Teachers should start by asking questions before anything else. If this idea is new to you, you might want to ask, “how can we expect somebody to answer a question if they haven’t been taught yet?”. Of course, my response to you would be, “how do you think that might work?”

And there is the fundamental mechanism of this approach. It’s all about making the students think. It is always surprising how well students respond to elicitation, the term we use for asking questions to see what students already know or are able to work out. Even without any prior learning or pre-existing knowledge, students are often able to reach very close approximations of the right answers given the opportunity and the time to do so.

How is this possible without them having first been taught? (How do you think it’s possible..?) It works because the vast majority of concepts that we encounter in the world proceed by logical means. Given the time and a rational mind, people can often work out what is going on in front of them even if it’s a completely new experience. We are actually rather good at assessing our surroundings and drawing conclusions as to the scenario we’re facing.

Of course, our conclusions might not always be right — as we’ve seen in the first section of this article, our intuition is not always the most reliable resource. But that is exactly why it is so essential that we as teachers train our students better to make use of these faculties. The more we encourage our students to think for themselves, the better they will become at doing so.

Start by Asking

With all of this in mind, the general format of a lesson should not be to explain the topic then ask questions, but rather questions should always come first. There are two main reasons for this: first it allows us to see what our students already know and thus to avoid wasting their time with a lesson they’ve already mastered or something that is way beyond their level of ability; secondly, as outlined above, it encourages students to think for themselves and reach conclusion without being told the answers up front.

Of course, the teacher will not always be around. Whether it’s outside of school hours or after graduation, your students are going to experience much of their lives without a teacher at their sides. If they are not able to think for themselves, they will struggle at every turn.

So we start by asking our students what they already know about a topic, and what they think about it. We can ask them things like what they think terms or samples language mean, what they expect to happen in a given situation, what they understand from a piece of text or what they think is an appropriate solution to a presented problem. There are many other types of questions we can start a lesson with, but this is a decent foundation to begin with.

The next thing to bear in mind is the importance of giving your students time. It can feel uncomfortable for teachers new to this approach to ask the students a question and not get an immediate answer. The natural reflex for many teachers is to jump in and offer up an answer to help the students out, but often teachers are too quick to do this. This is perhaps the Curse of Knowledge at play again. The teacher might be thinking, if they knew they’d have answered by now, so they must not know it. Often, however, he reality is that students need time to even process the question first and then to think about the possibilities before formulating their response and finally giving the answer. If you don’t give sufficient time for students to go through this cognitive sequence, you might be cutting them off when they’re actually keen to have a go. Eventually, if this happens too frequently, they will just stop bothering altogether.

Who says you can’t answer a question with another question?

After the first round of questions, the next phase of the lesson should be even more questions.

When you start your lesson by eliciting, you’re likely to get some wrong answers, or some students asking you questions about what the right answer it. Again, the natural instinct is to feed in the correct answers immediately, but again, this urge should be suppressed. It is far more valuable for the students to continue along this path of self-driven discovery. Instead of giving them the answers that you want them to reach, try giving them more materials to explore or asking them more questions to guide their thought processes in the right direction.

If somebody suggests an answer that is wrong, try asking questions such as, “are you sure about that?” or “do you think that sounds correct?” or perhaps, “why do you think that is right?”. If a students asks you to tell them the answer, you can either prompt and encourage them to keep trying or ask their peers to help out, “can anybody else help? What do the rest of you think?”

Unless it becomes clear to you that students are proceeding further and further along an incorrect line of reasoning or enquiry, the longer you allow them to think for themselves the better. But why is it so valuable, you might ask?

First of all, as discussed above, telling somebody something is no guarantee that they will actually absorb, understand and retain the information. But when somebody reaches a conclusion themselves, it is clear that they have done the work and have understood it. If they didn’t understand, they wouldn’t have got there by themselves. As soon as a student can explain their reasons for thinking what they think, we can be sure they understand. Just because they have heard me explain my reasons for thinking what I think, there is no good reason to believe they have understood anything.

Secondly, when we work things out for ourselves, we are far more likely to retain the lessons in our long term memory. Even if your students do accept and understand your explanation of a topic, they are likely to forget it quite quickly, but if they do the leg work and discover things through their own enquiry and exploration, they are much more likely to remember. One of the reasons posited for this is that when there is more effort involved in the learning process, more neuronal connections are formed, which basically means that the learning has anchors in more parts of the brain and also that there are more triggers for remembering it in future.

Things to remember if you’re going to try this out:

  • This approach requires careful lesson planning and well selected materials. It is your main responsibility to present your students with a solid context for the learning so that they can encounter new information and situations in the classroom as similarly as possible as they would encounter them outside. For example, when teaching new vocabulary in an English lesson, I bring in materials where those words are actually used in the real world rather than textbooks or specially written paragraphs.
  • Long awkward silences are never as long and awkward as they feel to you. Give your students plenty of time to think about what they re being asked, how they’re going to deal with the question or problem and then how best they should present their response. As a rule of thumb, when you’re beginning to feel like you’ve waiting long enough, wait at least that long again. And then, when you really think that they’ve had enough time, try asking the question again before answering it yourself.
  • Encourage students to look to their peers for support before they look to you. Peer teaching and learning is an extremely valuable resource. Everybody benefits from it. It gives the students who do understand an opportunity to a) feel proud about their progress and b) reformulate their own thoughts into simple and clear terms that they can share with others, thus reinforcing their own understanding; meanwhile, it gives the students who are struggling a chance to hear an explanation from somebody they can relate to more and who will probably speak on their own level in terms they are likely to respond to better than the teacher.
  • Ask, ask, and ask some more. If in doubt, ask a question. If you’re not sure what your students know already, elicit. If you’re not sure that your students have understood a material, don’t explain it to them, ask if they can explain it to you. If you’re students have offered an answer, whether it’s correct or incorrect, ask them why they think that. If they ask you a question, ask them first what they think the answer might be, even if they’re not completely sure about it.
  • Short term recall is not proof of understanding. Just because your student can repeat something you have told them, you shouldn’t equate this to understanding or learning. I’ll write more about short and long term memory in one of my next posts, but for now suffice it to say that the more your students have to work to get an answer, the more likely that answer is to stick with them, so don’t give anything away!

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