Creating A Climate For Questioning in Your Classroom

Climate for questioning

We have all experienced the dreaded silence. You give them permission to talk to one another and they all blankly stare. You ask them to collaborate as a whole group–and crickets. Why aren’t they jumping to share their ideas? Its unlikely that they don’t know what to say and more likely due to “old habits dying hard”. 

The idea of collaboration amongst students is a relatively new concept. For a long time, as many of us remember, school was largely about the lecture–the teacher talked, the kids listened. There was a test. You got it–or you didn’t. More and more, educators are bucking this old approach in favor of having kids investigate concepts with one another. This highlights strength and weaknesses in classrooms, helps build confidence, and allows for a deeper understanding of the material. 

But, this magic won’t just happen. It takes a long time to unlearn what we have been taught about being a student. Being willing to make mistakes publicly, to talk to peers openly, and to openly admit you aren’t sure, takes risks. In order to take risks, we have to feel safe. Feeling safe starts with the teacher. Here are five ways you can foster an environment of questioning in your classroom:

1. Student-Developed Norms

This worked wonders for me as a classroom teacher. Allow your students to actively participate in developing the rules and norms you will enforce in your classroom. This gives them an active buy-in, so when during group collaboration they find that their teammate is off task, they feel a sense of ownership in saying “You aren’t following our rules”.

2. Foster and Monitor Social Relationships

With the rigidity of today’s standards, it’s so hard to take the time in the beginning to get to know one another–but it is so important. It goes beyond “share three things about yourself” on the first day. Spend time that first week really building relationships through activities that allow students to interact with everyone in the room and then work together to solve tasks that are low-stakes. You don’t want the first collaboration to be over a group project for a test grade. The trust has to be there first. No one will feel safe asking questions if they don’t know the people listening.

3. Model What Matters

Greet your students. Float the classroom and take interest in what they’re exploring. Never chastize a student for being way off base if their effort is sincere. Do not tolerate any negative responses to students who ask questions or get things wrong. This can be difficult when you’re in a hurry or have other thigns to do but being present during their conversations means they’re less likely to drift into a hostile social situation.

4. Develop Activities Without A Right Answer

Of course, you have to test your students. We are all well aware of the basic course requirements for what we teach. But I would encourage you to use the rest of the time you have to allow students to explore the material through investigative learning. Group projects with student-written objectives, self-guided learning via webquests or socratic seminars are a great way to get started with this.

5. Teach Students How to Ask (and answer) Questions

Good conversation is an art form. Students are often slightly more advanced in social conversation than they are in academic conversation. Teach them to use fact-based reasoning, to cite sources and to take time to reflect on what others present.

You will have to practice the concept of collaboration and questioning relentlessly in the beginning. Then, reinforce it when it is done well and likely, re-teach this throughout the year as social dynamics change and school breaks interrupt good habits. Stick with it! It is totally worth it when your students are having class discussions about big topics and you see them learning before your eyes!

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I am a Southern gal, mama to two kids (8 years and 6 months) and I have been teaching middle school for over 7 years. I love to go hiking or read a book in my free time. My favorite part of teaching is connecting with kids over things beyond just academics--teenagers are awesome!

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