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Questioning: Assessing how students think. (An interview with John Yeo)
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Questioning: Assessing how students think. (An interview with John Yeo)

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  • 1. 1 DRAFT.| Curriculum Policy Office, CPDD, MOE (Nov 2013) Questioning: Assessing How Students Think In the interview below, John Yeo explains in greater depth the importance of teaching our students to learn beyond the correct answers. He explains how asking good questions can not only enhance students’ thinking, but also help teachers assess their students’ learning. John Yeo is currently a Teaching Fellow at the National Institute of Education (Singapore). He holds a Master of Science degree in Creative Studies and Change Leadership by the University of New York, USA (2008). He teaches the Master’s programme for Curriculum and Teaching in courses such as curriculum design, teachers and professional learning, authentic assessment as well as conduct school based workshops on Creativity, Questioning for Thinking, Project work as well as Lesson Study. He has conducted training for educators in Philippines, Japan, China, India and Russia. Besides sitting on several MOE Curriculum and Assessment taskforces, he is also the consultant for the Innovation Programme curriculum review by the Gifted Education Branch, CPDD. In 2013, has nominated for the Excellence in Teaching, Nanyang Education Award. 1. How can teachers use questions to help their students probe and enhance thinking? We use questions because we are curious. Through questioning, we learn by making new connections and in effect, think better. Questioning in the classroom can be used to surface and assess students’ thinking. However, there are two issues with questioning for better thinking in my opinion. First, we assume all teachers can ask effective questions. While asking questions is important, the way questions are posed is often problematic. Besides that, some teachers are too reliant on taxonomies and frameworks that may distract them from the very reasons why we use questioning to assess if students have learnt. Take for example, Bloom’s Taxonomy and Socratic Questioning. Bloom’s Taxonomy for the cognitive domain is something which many teachers are very familiar with. It gives us a language to say “ah, now student A shows comprehension or student B is analyzing well because….”. While these forms of analysis help teachers to assess how much students’ know, the questions cannot be randomly posed without an explicit ordering of the logic to scaffold students’ thinking. Cognitive development needs to be sequenced to make logical connections. For instance, if the teacher aims to ask more questions for assessing students’ level of comprehension, then it needs to be preceded with some basic understanding that students have sufficient knowledge of the content. Often in practice, teachers feel a need to ask more ‘higher-order questions’ but until students are able to grasp the conceptual understanding of the content, the logical connections to help students make better analysis, synthesis or evaluation will not be easy for students. Socratic questioning is useful as it gives teachers a tool to frame systematic inquiry such as clarifying assumptions or checking for alternative viewpoints. The issue here is with designing for an engaging Socratic dialogue. Some teachers think that we are teaching critical thinking but if we are so fixated with the different types of questions to ask, the teaching moments may be lost. 2. What are some ways teachers can develop their questioning technique to encourage deep understanding rather than surface learning? Sometimes, in the interest of time, we ask one representative from each group of students to
  • 2. 2 DRAFT.| Curriculum Policy Office, CPDD, MOE (Nov 2013) present their answers. But can’t we also get the students to write out their answers individually, in their own words? For me, some expert teachers use questions skilfully by controlling these details to ensure that every child learns, even in a class of 40. They can model the inquiry process and scaffold students’ thinking with a little more effort yet not lose the authentic nature of focused thinking. What is more important is to foster sense-making that is grounded in the students’ situated understanding. Really, I can’t say enough about why we need to better design tasks that encourages group inquiry. And these tasks need not always be long exercises. What we want is for students to develop and extend their understanding through social negotiation. How the teacher scaffolds, manages expectations, and provide more of such opportunities for facilitated discussions to take place, will make a lot of difference. Questions do help to trigger thoughts and generate new learning, but at the same time, good learning needs sound closure too. That is where teachers need to converge with appropriate summaries and conclusions and not leave questions that are posed “dangling”. “Dangling” questions with no clear resolution may frustrate learners. The next time you want them to think with your questions, they may choose to “switch off”. In terms of good closure, I have used the word appropriate because a skilful teacher needs to consider what students’ earlier responses are. If you had asked many questions and students had spent time deliberating on your questions, be careful that you do not end up “feeding” them the “model” answers. If you do so, you are implicitly creating a dependency for students to expect you to “spoon- feed” them and I doubt many students will bother to try hard the next time. As teachers, we really need to honour our students’ thinking. One of the things I emphasize when we use questioning as an instructional technique is that the teacher does need to anticipate students’ responses. If we care enough about how students are thinking, then anticipating what students may think and say will help teachers to plan the possible interactions related to particular students’ difficulties. For example, I once observed a teacher conducting a biology lesson on Sexual Reproduction and showed an article of Nadya Suleman the octomom, the American who shot to fame because she implanted 6 embryos in herself and when 2 of them split, she gave birth to a total of 8 babies. While it did arouse students’ curiosity with her intended question of “Do you know how in-vitro fertilization (IVF) made this possible?”, many ‘off-track’ responses and questions were volunteered. Clearly, the teacher looked exasperated after awhile with questions such as “Is she a rich ‘tai-tai’?”, “Is that legally permissible?”, “How can her body take it?”, etc. Understandably the questions were spoken from the students’ point of view and while she tried hard to keep them on track, the IVF issue was really never addressed. Now, if she had anticipated how students will respond, she might have skilfully addressed the ethical issues by asking students to “park” those thoughts for a moment. Interestingly, I recall a student asking this question “Don’t you think it’s not good for her heart? Like the heart has to beat very fast to cope to feed the many babies inside her body?” I thought this was an excellent learning moment for the teacher to “catch” for clarification and lead into the main topic on the biological implications of IVF, she unfortunately laughed it off and chided the student with “They are not babies yet until they are born.” This to me, was a great pity. By anticipation, she might have pre-empted the ‘messy’ interactions and have greater control on how to steer the thinking towards a more focused discussion. She could also have introduced discipline-specific vocabulary and asked some leading questions to get students to use their knowledge to reason more thoughtfully. And personally, I think the student was not exactly
  • 3. 3 DRAFT.| Curriculum Policy Office, CPDD, MOE (Nov 2013) wrong in using the term ‘babies’ since it is colloquial knowledge to students that IVF allows ’test tube babies’ to be conceived outside the body! At the pedagogical level, the imagined exchange with students help teachers to probe more sensitively about how students learn. It may help teachers to understand how students can or cannot derive the solution either in their reasoning process or the choice of words to explain their thinking. In terms of helping students acquire this formal language, the teacher may then offer discipline-specific vocabulary needed to communicate the concept taught. This close attention to students’ thinking in terms of their explicit reasoning and the language they use cannot be separated from the content in question. Hence, it is specific to the way in which students will learn the content. Going back to the earlier example, if the teacher reached a point of desperation and scolded the boy instead, what effect might it have on the student? If I were the boy, I might think that the teacher assumed that I was misbehaving and choose not to participate in future discussions. . If teachers are serious about using questions to help students think better, then the extra effort to anticipate students’ responses signifies a commitment to accept different ways in which students will build their understanding. In my workshops, I like to invite teachers to think about and describe three different types of students in their classroom. With these students in mind, I get them to anticipate what these students will say and how the teacher will respond accordingly. 3. What are some effective assessment practices that teachers can use to assess their students’ critical and creative thinking? I would say, use questions purposefully. Couple that with creating a context around the topic on hand and harness group learning to deepen inquiry. This is where the earlier questioning taxonomies become very handy. Let’s just call this two-step process of Connection and Distinction. With effective questioning, these two steps pave a way for students to reconstruct knowledge. First, I would even dare claim, if you are the type of teacher who is structural and prefers to teach didactically, this Connection and Distinction questioning method may make a lot of difference in how students learn. You can still teach the concept and explain in the way you normally do but be careful not to dish out extended explanations. Students can read for themselves so your role is primarily to direct their attention to the relevant sections of the text or notes and get students to explore it on their own. Note too that these sections should not be too long. You don’t need to ask difficult questions at this stage. The intention is to get them to make those critical connections themselves. Ask it simply with the familiar 5W1H but this is where I suggest added to add a twist. For each of the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ or ‘why’ questions, pick one or two most important questions that the students volunteer, ask them to select the most important question that they had generated and offer three different answers. You are essentially getting students to reach deeper and go beyond the surface or the initial response. Second, make the experience concrete by ensuring that the concept is made more distinctive. That’s where you can ask students to explore alternatives, applications, or make links to other topics. This second Distinction phase corresponds to how conceptual knowledge is broadened. You are essentially adding texture to the meaning they acquire. The crux of this Connection-Distinction process is that, your content knowledge needs to be strong for it to work. You need to know what the key ideas or essential questions are and
  • 4. 4 DRAFT.| Curriculum Policy Office, CPDD, MOE (Nov 2013) select important concepts in that unit for students to go through with this two-step process. Because you cannot tell them the solution, you need to craft questions to help students identify the distinguishing features so that the learning becomes socially constructed as students learn to clarify their understanding by keeping the content in focus. With making the connections and distinctions themselves, you are really enculturating a thinking classroom. Most importantly, you are assessing their understanding as they need to make explicit their tacit knowledge on what they have learnt. 4. How can students be guided to effectively self-assess and assess one another? As a child learns, he is making some new connections in the process. From a cognitive perspective, he should also be able to identify his own learning gaps and do something about it. So when we are talking specifically about Assessment for Learning, it is not only about assessing what the students can say or write. While the child’s performance does matter, it is not as simple as a right or wrong response but understanding the whole learning process. While we hope the child is able to assess how much they know or understood, we need to first find out how he or she receives the question and interprets it before we can decide when or how a child can self-assess. In addition, while individual cognition may differ from learning activities that occur in group-based experiences, a child’s proficiency to know if they have learnt, or not depends on how he or she analyses the information structure in terms of the specific task assigned. If self-assessment involves a form of quantitative analysis of how much “transfer” of learning has taken place for the individual, then research has shown that the child needs to be taught specific ways to represent the information that he or she has acquired in the specific learning activity. This is what I mean when I talk about the efficacies of making connection earlier. The child needs to connect what is taught in the class to their internal mental schema and make sense of how these learning are useful. Unfortunately, giving a child a grade such as A or C may sadly mean “I am good enough” or “I am stupid” respectively to a child. So we ask, where is the learning that is meaningful? Likewise, praising a child with “Good child” or “You need to put in more effort” means little in acquiring the information of how the child has performed in terms of the specific learning task. Learning is only useful if the child himself can confirm what they have learnt. This refers not only to the learning content that is taught but extends to how a child goes about learning new concepts, engaging in problem solving, reasoning or any other forms of inquiry. Rather than focusing on THE correct answer, how might it change the way students learn- both individually as well as collectively, if we pause and ask some students to explain it differently or to guess why the earlier student responded in that particular way. If we want students to know what a learning gap is, they need to first learn how to derive that before they understand if they have arrived at the correct answer. The reasoning is metacognitive and this is something we are really lacking in our classrooms. This way, we help students themselves to reason and relate their learning gaps to other responses. There is a metacognitive awareness where all questions require a student to consciously first make sense, rationalize and comprehend what was asked. At a group level, students learn from each other by clarifying, synthesizing and making collective decisions together. Research often shows that collaborative problem solving approach tends to bring out each students’ point of view in a more focused manner. In such a setting, questions can be interpreted differently and collaboratively may deepen students’ conceptual inquiry. Questions used at a group level may serve as a stronger hook since each student may not
  • 5. 5 DRAFT.| Curriculum Policy Office, CPDD, MOE (Nov 2013) really know what they do not know until they get a chance to hear a perspective that is different from theirs. Hence building upon the earlier point, for effective self- and peer- assessment to take place in the classroom, they must be provided with an understanding about how their individual ways of thinking builds towards knowledge being structured as the teacher unfolds the learning. These structures of knowledge must be accessible to all students to support their task performance in order for them to transfer to new situations. Hence, a teacher’s role is to design a learning environment to attend to these social interactions to promote diverse ways of thinking and taking time to help students ascertain the structures of knowledge and skills in terms of what they have learnt and how they have learnt. 5. How can teachers use questions to make our students’ thinking visible? Teachers can use questions effectively to help students think better. Based on my work with teachers, I think teachers who are able to see relationships between the subject matter, students and how they learn, and how the teachers themselves can personalise the questions to speak to individual’s learning needs are highly effective. Such teachers would hope that their students learn the content well and at the same time, make deliberate efforts to understand how students are learning. More importantly, the teachers need to trust that every child has great capacity to think independently and hence constantly use different types of questions to help students themselves probe and reflect. They would inspire students to ask questions, to seek answers and to learn to gain a flexibility of thinking themselves. Furthermore, research has shown that effective questioning allows students learn to think more deeply, not only within the lesson but even after the class has ended. As teachers, I am sure we don’t want our students to just memorise and regurgitate facts. Wouldn’t questions be great to help students acquire better mathematical reasoning skills or to develop better ways to inquire scientifically? Take time to allow students to ask questions as it is not in the answers that get them hooked on the learning but the questions themselves can serve to motivate and stimulate deeper learning. At the end of the day, questions can do more than just connect and extend students’ thinking. I think if the culture of using questions to learn is evident in the classroom, students will embrace questioning as a way of thinking. Teachers could explore how questions can be used not only to assess for understanding but allow students themselves to raise their own questions. It may sound like a big risk as students’ questions can at times challenge the teacher’s own thinking. Yet, this is exactly how teachers can facilitate and model their own roles as part of the learning community. I would be excited if my students can one day ask “What else do I want to learn and what new things can I learn?” Questions play a magical role to inspire every child to construct their own knowledge as they experience meaningful learning that will “stick” for life.