Learning Deeply through Questioning

July 16, 2015

(Photo: Bria Stephens/Center for Inspired Teaching)

Written by Aleta Margolis, Inspired Teaching’s Founder and Executive Director, this piece first appeared in Inspired Teaching’s July 2015 newsletter

I have the great pleasure of spending most of this month at the Inspired Teaching Institutes, getting to know the outstanding new and experienced teachers who have begun the joyful, challenging work of deepening their practice as Inspired Teachers over the coming year. We teach our teachers to transform their role in the classroom, from deliverers of knowledge to Instigators of Thought®.

An Instigator of Thought asks more questions than she answers. She supports her students as they undergo a productive struggle more than she solves problems for them. An Instigator of Thought creates a safe learning environment and then encourages his students to take risks and move out of their comfort zone. He expects his students to continue their quest for discovery beyond a single lesson.

Over the intensive four weeks of training that kicks off our time together, we act as Instigators of Thought ourselves, modeling our expectations for teachers. Questioning is our primary strategy to provoke deep learning. We guide teachers through the Inspired Teaching 5 Step Process:

Step 1. Analyze and deepen my understanding of the ways I learn.

Step 2. Articulate and defend my philosophy of teaching and learning.

Step 3. Make the connection to classroom practice – develop new strategies to make sure my philosophy of teaching and learning matches what I do in the classroom.

Step 4. Build the skills of effective teachers, including listening, asking thoughtful questions, observing, and communicating effectively.

Step 5. Practice!

We open the Institute with a series of exercises that challenge teachers to become learners again. We calculate math problems silently in our heads and report back as a group. We write down a true statement and its opposite – and then find a way to change the context in order to make both statements true at the same time. We engage in cognition and metacognition, thinking about the skills required to learn any subject: concentration, creative thinking, experimentation, persistence.

Then we reflect: how do I learn best? What do I learn when I memorize and follow a procedure that the teacher lays out? What do I learn when, instead, the teacher prompts me as I experiment, focusing me on my goal and asking me questions that will help me figure out how to achieve it? What are the most lasting positive memories I have from my own schooling experience – and what are the negative ones? How do I create an environment where students feel safe to explore and learn deeply?

After 20 years of research and practice at Inspired Teaching, we feel confident in our answers to many of these questions. But we also know that, to achieve a shift in mindset, it is not enough to deliver a packet of information and expect teachers to understand and embrace it. Much like our teachers, we have to make way for each learner to interrogate the material, see the connection to their own lives, and pursue the questions it generates – and provide them thorough, thoughtful support all along the way.

Teaching through questions – and refusing to provide the answers – demands a lot from any learner. It also empowers that learner to take charge of his or her own journey to discovery. I have every confidence in our teachers as they move forward, continuing to question their own practice and grow as Instigators of Thought.

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