A long lecture is winding down, as students stifle yawns and try to stay awake in the warm classroom. “Are there any questions?” the teacher asks. Students shift uncomfortably in their chairs, averting their eyes. They wait out the silence until the teacher moves on, or until the resident know-it-all shoots their hand into the air. This was a common scene for many of us growing up, and one that we hoped to avoid as we became educators. As much as we all have good intentions of an exciting classroom, it sometimes eludes us. Behavior issues, scheduling conflicts, and a high-pressured pacing calendar get in the way of truly student-centered learning. We find ourselves trying to push through the curriculum so that we can cover everything our kids need to know. We often feel like a frazzled tour guide, just trying to get from point A to point B. So, what can we do instead?

Ask your students to write down a question.

Children are naturally curious. They want to learn, and people learn by asking questions. Still, if you ask your class “Are there any questions?” You’re setting yourself up for awkward silence. Rarely do students want to be singled out – especially if they feel unsure about something. Instead, make a slight adjustment, and ask students to “Write down a question.”

Here’s how it’ll change your classroom for the best:

1. Now, students know that questions are expected.

When students know that everyone is required to have a question, they will naturally be listening carefully in order to be prepared.

2. Asking students to write down a question naturally enhances their engagement.

It is expected and assumed that they have questions about the content because the content is interesting and important.

3. Classroom culture improves.

There’s a sense that everyone is “in this together.” Asking questions and discussing them is the norm.

4. The required questions lead to discussion, which leads to more questions!

If students are asking higher-order questions and talking them over with their peers, they’re learning!

It may seem like a minor adjustment, but the simple semantic shift of asking your students to “write down a question,” will make a world of difference!

Interested in more ways to boost engagement? Here are 4 more tips to cultivate an environment of inquiry.

1. Build a safe and supportive classroom culture.

Take the time to do silly ice breakers. Have fun! Find common ground with your students and bond with them. Cater to their interests and show them that you care about them as people first. When they feel valued, they will be more willing to share their thoughts on academic topics.

2. Scaffold and Support

Not all kids come to us with excellent speaking or listening skills. In the era of smartphones and social media, it’s becoming increasingly rare to have quality face-to-face conversations. Throw in a pandemic, and we’ve got our work cut out for us! Providing sentence stems is helpful, not just for your ELL kiddos, but for your shy kids whose minds go blank when the spotlight is on them. Once they’re comfortable with academic conversations, they’ll be able to move away from the supports. In the meantime, put stems on the wall and require their use by everyone. It takes the pressure off.

3. Model it

Many of us need a demonstration before we’ll try something new. Academic conversation is no different. Grab a colleague or a student that’s conversationally gifted, and model how you want conversations to go.

4. Practice

Before you dive into important content, practice with a fun topic. If the students are interested in what they’re talking about, they’re more likely to participate. Once they have a trial run under their belts, they’ll feel more comfortable when the time comes to talk to each other about the curriculum and content.

Conversation is what it’s really all about. With a little work, you can make this the norm in your classroom. Soon, you’ll have students that thoughtfully discuss their questions and ideas with their peers. Their conversations will create even more questions and new ideas. Suddenly, we’re not doing all the work, they are. Students are at the center and teachers become a guide, a facilitator. Boring classrooms and quiet kids will take a backseat to somewhat noisy, but happily engaged learners who take ownership of their education.

Come join the conversation in the #teacherlife community!

Why You Should Switch From “Are There Any Questions?” to “Write Down a Question.”