This post comes from a chapter in a book by Penny Ur or Tessa Woodward about asking questions in the classroom. It’s been a while since I read it, but the essence was that too often when teachers pose a question, they are asking students to read their minds. That is, we ask a closed question to students and we already know the answer that we want to hear. We will refuse to accept any answer besides the one in our head.
When we are asking students about a grammar point or a vocabulary word, a question that has only one correct answer, this makes a great deal of sense and used sparingly, they can be quite useful. These kinds of questions are also good for comprehension checks. I think they also help with guiding students to a correct answer and modeling thought processes.
However, if we are trying to start a discussion or encourage critical thinking, then asking an open-ended question that we believe has only one right answer is encouraging the opposite of critical thinking. Instead of reading the source and coming up with their own opinion which they will then defend, such questions ask students to read the teacher and give the kind of answer the teacher agrees with.
Modeling Thought Processes Instead of Feeding Thoughts
For example, I once taught the story, Just a Lather, That’s All, about (spoiler alert) a government general who goes to get a shave from a barber who secretly sympathizes with anti-government rebels. As the general recounts his brutal actions, the barber debates internally whether to slit his throat or not. In the end, he does not. The general gets up and says, “I knew you wanted to kill me and I wanted you to know that it isn’t easy to kill someone.”
In such a story where the two characters have a number of conflicting and complicated emotions, questions like the following have no right answer:
- How does the barber feel at the end?
- What does the general mean by, “…But killing isn’t easy. You can take my word for it.”?
- Does the general enjoy killing rebels?
- Why does the barber decide not to kill the general?
Each reader has to interpret the text as he or she sees fit. Asking these questions and then guiding (forcing) students into a correct answer is destructive to their enjoyment of literature, which they will learn is about reading to find the one true interpretation. And it’s destructive to their critical thinking facilities as they learn to interpret the teacher’s world view, not the author’s.
What we can do is ask guided questions that have varying degrees of right answers to help students come up with their own answers to the above questions such as:
- What was the general doing before the story began?
- Is the barber a rebel or pro-government? How do you know?
- What does the barber think about doing to the general?
- What does he mean in paragraph 7 when he says, “My destiny depends on the edge of this blade.”
We can draw their attention to the way the author talks about the razor-blade and how sharp it is, the fact that the barber is a skilled barber, to show how the author is saying how easy it would be to kill the general but at the same time how proud the barber is of his profession. We can guide them to talk about the different ways honor and doing your job are portrayed in the story. But in the end, what the story is really about, the significance of different symbols or actions, how the characters, let alone the author, feel…all these are open-ended questions and we do our students a disservice to restrict their analytical abilities.
Beyond reading comprehension,
It may not be controversial to say that literary criticism has no one right answer. However, I think we sometimes squash alternative readings of individual sentences in grammar books or on tests. Often that’s because a student has discovered a loophole in an example sentence and we feel that if we acknowledge it, we will get completely off-course. And we’ve all had the student who loves to pick holes at everything we put on the board in class (out of creativity or out of spite).
On the other hand, when we quash student creativity, we are also quashing their intuitive grasp of grammar and language. Too much, “OK look yeah, you’re right but common sense says that probably what’s going on in this sentence is X.” leads students to again rely on what teacher thinks is common sense rather than their own senses. And in some cases we may lead them to believe certain things are impossible to express in language.
One of the loveliest things about teaching the conditional is how subjective it often is. What’s the difference between starting a sentence with “If I were elected President…” and “If I am elected President…” ? Most of the textbooks on my shelf use this example or one very similar to it. And they all explain that the latter would be spoken by a candidate actively running for President because the first conditional is used only for factual or non-hypothetical situations. When a student begins a sentence with, “If I win the lottery…” or “If I earn a million dollars…” or “If I become President…” who are we to tell them that they are incorrect because they have no chances of achieving those goals?
It’s important to tread carefully when teaching students “correct grammar” or we might be limiting their aspirations, or their understanding of what they can do with words.