Guess What’s in the Teacher’s Brain: Asking Better Questions in the Classroom

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 question to students that may have many answers. But we already know the answer that we want to hear. We will refuse to accept any answer besides the one in our head. And there’s no way for students to know that “right” answer, since other answers are equally valid. So asking questions in the classroom becomes an exercise in reading the teacher’s mind, not a chance to engage with the material.

I fell down?

There’s actually a great example at the beginning of the Pixar movie Monsters, Inc. The movie opens with a job training for monsters who are going to jump out of closets and scare kids (but not hurt them-this is a Disney movie, after all). The first monster in the kid’s room simulator, Mr. Bile, trips over the toys and hilarity ensues:

A monster writhing in obvious comic  pain is bouncing on his head, dragging himself on his butt and so on.

Obviously this would not scare a child. Afterward, the instructor asks the trainee monsters, “What was Mr. Bile’s mistake?”

Mr. Bile says, “I fell down?” This turns out to be the wrong answer. In fact, the mistake was not closing the door. This would lead to a child entering the monster world which would create chaos! OK, the instructor has a valid point. But surely it’s natural for the class to be focused on the part where Mr. Bile fell down, then bounced around in comedic pain! The question wasn’t really a question at all. It was a way to tell the trainees to always close the door. “What was Mr. Bile’s mistake?” has many valid answers, but the teacher wanted only ONE correct answer! So asking questions in the classroom can be tricky!

Sometimes There is Only One Right Answer

When we are asking students questions about a grammar point or a vocabulary word, there may be only one correct answer. Used sparingly, asking questions with only one answer can be useful for comprehension checks. They aid with memory. And I think they also help with guiding students to a correct answer and modeling thought processes as we help students come to the right answer. For example, we can imagine an exchange such as:

T:  Do you remember what slumber means?
S: Uhm….something to do with snow?
T: Well, yes, the bear in the reading was slumbering in the winter.
S: Bears hibernate in the winter.
T: Exactly. And when you hibernate what do you do with your time?
S: Sleep.
T: Good. To slumber means to sleep!

The teacher leads the student back to the text. So the series of questions is asking the student to follow the teacher’s train of thought. However, the teacher is modeling how to remember the meaning of a word. It’s not that the student has to remember these details and follow this path next time! And there is only one right answer, after all. To slumber does mean to sleep!

Critical Thinking Means Asking Better Questions

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. These questions do not get students reading a text and coming up with their own opinion. It actually encourages them not to defend their opinion. We are teaching our students not to read texts, but to read the teacher and give the kind of answer the teacher agrees with. A class with this kind of teacher will learn a broad-range of cues that they said the wrong thing. They know their teachers’ head tilts and various ways of saying “hmm” and “really” and “Yes, but…” Unfortunately, that’s not usually what we want them to learn!  

Modeling Thought Processes Instead of Feeding Thoughts


 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 antigovernmental 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.” It turns out the general came to that barber shop deliberately!

In such a story where the two characters have a number of conflicting and complicated emotions, questions like the following have no one right answer:

  1. How does the barber feel at the end?
  2. What does the general mean by, “…But killing isn’t easy. You can take my word for it.”?
  3. Does the general enjoy killing rebels?
  4. Why does the barber decide not to kill the general?
  5. Why does the general go to that barber?

Each reader has to interpret the text as he or she sees fit. Asking these questions and then forcing students into the answer you, the teacher, personally agree with is destructive to their enjoyment of literature. They will learn reading is about trying 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.

So how can we go about asking better questions in the classroom? 

Guiding, Not Forcing with Our Questions

What we can do is ask guided questions to help students come up with their own answers to the above questions. We can look at some facts of the story that are undisputed and how we know they are true:

  1. What was the general doing before the story began?
  2. Is the barber a rebel or pro-government? How do you know?
  3. What does the barber think about doing to the general? Why?

We can ask students to think about what they might do in the situation. We certainly need them to look for clues for what the author thinks. They should do that by reading the text deeply and carefully. We can draw their attention to quotes like, “My destiny depends on the edge of this blade.” And show appreciation for  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. The focus should be on the skills, not the answers!

So the simplest thing we must do is to accept a multitude of answers as correct. And not to tell students they are wrong outright, within limitations of reason, of course! We should model how to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. 

Beyond reading comprehension,

grammar definition

It’s not very controversial to say that literary criticism has no one right answer. However,  we sometimes assume grammar questions only have one answer! Grammar is like math, right? So there’s only one real answer. Well, that isn’t always the case at all!

Sometimes a student will discover an alternative interpretation of an example sentence. We may 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.

Who Are We to Judge?

One of the loveliest things about teaching the conditional is how subjective it often is. Many of my grammar books use the examples “If I were elected President…” versus “If I am elected President…” to discuss the conditional. 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. The former is used by the majority of people because we have no chance of becoming President.

But I push back on this notion! Who are we to tell our students what is realistic and what is not realistic? When a student begins a sentence with, “If I become a millionaire…” do we really want to tell them that they are incorrect? That they have no chance of achieving that goal? It seems a little harsh to me! And there’s nothing wrong with being aspirational, right? No one knows what will really happen to this student. They have every right to express the opinion that they will be successful!

So 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.

Being Mindful to Ask Better Questions

So remember to think before asking questions in the classroom. What is the purpose of this question? Do I have an answer in mind? If so, why? And can I just give students the information directly, instead of pretending to be asking them something? How will I model critical thinking skills and value the process over the product?

Read all our classroom management posts on the blog and as always leave your comments here!

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