Raising Rigor #3 – Questioning: Doing Less and Getting More

With the implementation of the Common Core, our students are expected to think at a much higher level.  In Texas, the Common Core hasn’t been adopted, but at YES we’ve made sure our curriculum is as rigorous as the Common Core, and are trying to push our students to the highest levels, as well.  In order to do this, our role as teacher may need to shift.  Many of us spend the bulk of class time in front of the room explaining concepts or processes, asking questions along the way to ensure students are keeping up with us, and maybe squeeze in a few minutes of practice at the end of class.  This is hard work for teachers and might be easy street for your kiddos.  If the goal is rigorous thinking,  the more we teach, the less they’re learning.  The shift that needs to happen is that all of our hard work needs to happen on the planning side so that the students are the ones engaged in the rigorous work during class.  One key to making this happen is by designing rigorous questions.  Now, we are talking about rigor, so getting started isn’t easy, but it can quickly become easier as you are able to transfer more and more of the rigorous thinking to your students.

Struggle through it.  Being a great teacher can’t be about always having the right answer any more.  It has to be about understanding the struggle to get to the right answer.  And the only way we can do that is by engaging in the struggle; by being learners ourselves.  If you already have the ‘right answer’ in front of you while you’re planning, it’s almost impossible to come up with the rigorous questions to help students get there because you don’t know how to get there yourself.  Next time you’re planning rigorous questions or problems, go through the process of struggling through the material on your own or with some colleagues.  As you struggle through the process, reflect on how you get there.  The steps you take to get there determine the questions you might ask the students in order to help them get there.  Those steps go from least rigorous and build up to most rigorous.  You can also think about it as casting a wide net and then narrowing in.  Here are some examples:

  ELA Math Social Studies
Goal question What was the author’s purpose for including this passage? Solve for x.
(This is only rigorous if it’s a new situation they haven’t seen before.)
Should the US get involved in x conflict?
Scaffolded questions to get there:

More rigorous

Least rigorous

Does that connect to one of the novel’s themes?
Why would the author want us to feel that way?
How does the comparison make us feel as readers? Why?
Why might the author choose to compare it to this instead of that?
What is being compared in the metaphor?
What figurative language does the author use in this passage?
Explain your solution.
Why didn’t it work when you tried that?
Is there a different way to approach the problem?
What might we do first? Why?
How is this problem different from that one?
Have we done problems similar to this before?
What else do we know?
What is x? What are we trying to find?
What should the criteria be for deciding whether or not to get involved? Why?
What are the risks and benefits of getting involved? 
How is this situation similar to that one? How is it different?
What was the result?
Why did the US enter that conflict?
What other conflicts has the US been involved in recently?

Don’t overcomplicate things.  Once you’ve planned several lessons with scaffolded questions that build in rigor, you’ll probably see a trend in the kinds of questions you’re asking.  Turn these into more general scaffolded questions or question stems that can be applied to many situations in your class.  Once you have these, crafting new questions will become a more efficient process.  And if you post them, as your students get more comfortable, they can craft questions to guide their own and their classmates’ thinking.  

But don’t always plan it all out.   In the beginning when you and your students are new to pushing yourselves on rigorous questions, it’s good to have all the questions planned out to help guide your students to deep thinking.  That way everyone can get used to what the struggle feels like and get comfortable with it.  But if you always know how you want them to get there, the students will start struggling to figure out what you want them to say versus trying to determine a quality solution or answer.  So once you and your students are ready, it’s time for you to step aside a bit and let them struggle with less support.  Pose the high-level problem or question and let them determine the path to getting there.  Some of my best discussions were around questions that I posed because I didn’t have an answer for them and so honestly wanted to hear what they came up with.  Another option is having them come up with the questions, if they’re ready and/or old enough to do it well.  Want ideas for managing discussion like this?  See our previous post on making discussion a routine.  

What now?  E-mail your team to dig into some meaty content together!

This article was previously published on January 17, 2014.

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