Engage Students in Discussion With the Right Questions

Asking questions happens to be one of my favorite things to do. I used to run a discussion club in Kazakhstan where students could just come and chat about some topic or another. It was my favorite thing to do, to get students up and talking. I know some teachers struggle with that. I see teachers on social media all the time asking about how to get students to speak in class, and engage in discussions. To me, asking the right questions is key.

So I thought I would share two things here: What DOES NOT work to get students thinking and talking. And then what DOES work.

Avoid the Obvious

Questions with obvious answers do not get students to talk. Sometimes our materials have alleged discussion questions. But the answers are often pretty universally agreed-upon or well-known. I once did a unit on being healthy. There were questions like “Why should we exercise? and “Is it important to be healthy?” I know there are people who pride themselves on being contrary, but it’s hard to imagine a good argument that we should want to have chronic health conditions. Or to find a new reason why people exercise. 

Furthermore, if someone did have a controversial opinion, would they be able to articulate it with the language they have? There are issues that I have nuanced positions on, outside of the mainstream. However, I probably couldn’t explain those positions in a foreign language!

So avoid questions where the answers are too clear, if you want to encourage discussion. These may vary from culture to culture and place to place but questions that tend to have obvious answers include, “Should we have rules?”, “Should we learn English?” “Is being poor uncomfortable?” or “Why is nature good?” So I don’t think asking these kinds of questions helps students think critically.

Questions that Challenge Culture

It is an ongoing debate in ESL and EFL whether we should discuss taboo or controversial topics in class. Debate centers on what constitutes a controversial topic, exactly what discussing a topic means, and what to do when students bring them up themselves. I am not going to answer those questions for you and your class. However, if you are looking to get students speaking freely and engaging in good discussion, there are ways of bringing up controversial topics that work.

From the outside point of view, certain behaviors or beliefs of our students may seem unusual. They may even seem clearly wrong (and when it comes to issues such as women’s rights, other human rights, and the treatment of certain social or ethnic groups, it may seem immoral). As an outsider, it might seem important to raise these issues. More than once, I’ve thought I could start a great discussion AND also teach them some values! I had a small class of young adults once that consisted of 6 Saudi Arabian men and two Chinese women who had worked as managers in China. When it came up in a reading, I suggested we talk about why women can’t work in some countries. 

The problem wasn’t that it started an argument, because it didn’t. The problem is the Saudis had little to say about it. You might think would generate a lot of language as they defended their position. In fact, the answer was so obvious to them, they didn’t have much to say.  How much language would I get out of you if I asked you, “Why are women treated equally to men in the US?” (at least, in theory) It’s not something we question or believe should be questioned so the question is the answer. Women are treated equally because we believe that women are equal. That’s not much language practice, is it? Interestingly, in the case of women and work in Saudi Arabia, students wanted t0 cite the Qur’an, but that was language that was above their level! Qur’anic language is not always easy!

Second, putting out a challenge to someone’s deeply held beliefs can put them on the defensive. Now, I’ve had times I’ve had to set rules that challenge a students’ culture. I’ve had students say hurtful things about homosexuality in classes with (unknown to them) homosexual students. So you may need to challenge your students, in the name of classroom community. However, if you want to start a dialogue and practice English and critical thinking, putting students on the defensive will cause them to talk less, not more!

That’s not to say that with the right group of students at the right level on the right day, you can’t have a wonderful discussion on women’s rights in Islam or political freedom in Belarus or female circumcision in Somalia. But the assumption that challenging the students’ culture will automatically lead to lots of productive discussion is a big one. It’s also unlikely you will convert them to your point of view.

Scaffolding to get Students Talking

So enough about how NOT to engage students in discussion. How do you get students talking?

My favorite strategy is to scaffold your questions. This doesn’t mean dumbing down the questions until you get an answer. That is usually the opposite of encouraging critical thinking. Instead, bring it down to their level. Here’s an example of a class discussion I had once while discussing a reading. The reading was about doctors who witness an emergency may not jump in and help people. It went more or less like this:

Me: So why do you think the doctor didn’t want to stop and help the people?
Student A: *after a long pause* the Doctor must help, because it is his job.
Me: It’s his job to help people in general, but is it his job to help THIS guy?
Student A: No.
Student B: Why not?
Student A: He is just driving by.
Student B: No, a doctor must help all people.
Student C: Teacher, in the US do you have this saying that doctors must say it, to help everyone.
Me: The Hippocratic Oath? Yes. They swear to help everyone and not harm anyone. Do they do this in your country.
Student C: Yes.
Me: How about in China, Student D?
Student D: I think so, I think yes. I don’t know.
Student E: Yes. My mother is a doctor, yes.
Me: So your mother is a doctor. Has she been in this situation?
Student E: What situation?
Student A: She sees an accident and has to help?
Student E: No. I don’t think so. Maybe. I ask her.
Me: Ok, awesome. So doctors have to promise not to hurt people. And to help people. So it’s weird that this guy doesn’t help. Isn’t it?
Students: Yes.
Me: Did we read anything about this before?
Student A: Yesterday, about bystanders. They are not involved.
Me: So is it his job to help this guy in this accident?
Students: Yes, No, maybe….
Me: Why is it hard to tell?
Student A: Because of the oath.
Student B: Because he is a bystander.
Student C: What does it mean, residency?
Me: Why do you ask?
Student C: In the story it says he is doing a residency. Is it the same as doctor?
Me: Good! No. That’s important.

I then briefly explained the medical education system in the US, and the fact that this guy wasn’t licensed yet. That, of course, helped them to clarify a huge problem and then we went on to discuss the nuances.

What I tried to do here, even when scaffolding was to ask open questions that didn’t have Yes/No answers. But I also tried to involve weaker students by asking a smattering of easier questions. Obviously, this was an advanced class so weak is a relative term here. Shy students also need easy Yes/No or short answer questions to warm up and loosen their jaws a bit. But in general scaffolding should involve open questions and bringing in more resources.

Don’t Make Them Read Your Mind

I also think an important principle here is balancing guiding students to a right answer and having no idea what they are going to say. I’ve talked about how sometimes we pretend we’re asking an open question, but we really want students to read our minds and give the answer we are thinking of. It can really stifle discussion if we are constantly steering them to our point of view.

On the other hand, if there’s no “right” answer in your mind, then the discussion will go on forever. I wanted students to notice that the person in guy wasn’t legally a doctor yet and therefore he could be sued if he practiced medicine. That point was complicated but it was implied strongly in the reading so it wasn’t terribly difficult to get to.  So I had a point I wanted them to get to, not necessarily the end point, but a point I thought they should hit. It also gave me a point of view, which is authentic. Usually when we discuss issues with friends, we have an opinion and we try to convince people of it. If I have a right answer in my head, I have an opinion and we can have a more authentic discussion than if I was just asking question after question.

However, I hadn’t expected the Hippocratic Oath to come up. And later students mentioned issues of consent (the victim was unconscious) and also religious and moral issues. By letting students guide the discussion and bring up new things, I’m also letting them have an authentic discussion. And express themselves. Critical thinking does mean breaking down walls. Asking open-ended questions means you don’t know what answer you are going to get.

So those are my thoughts on how to get students talking with questions. As always, I love feedback, comments, suggestions, critiques.

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