We must not fool ourselves, as for years I fooled myself, into thinking that guiding children to answers by carefully chosen leading questions is in any important respect different from just telling them the answers in the first place. Children who have been led up to answers by teachers’ questions are later helpless unless they can remember the questions, or ask themselves similar questions, and this is exactly what they cannot do. The only answer that really sticks in a child’s mind is the answer to a question that he asked or might ask of himself (199).
-John Holt, How Children Fail
I had a long stage of teaching where I avoided, as much as possible, answering student questions. I came across the article “Never Say Anything a Kid Can Say”, and it became a dogma for me. When a student asked a question, I would either ask them some clever leading questions to lead them to the answer, or (more often) tell them to “use their resources” or “figure it out”.
This didn’t work particularly well. Some kids were able to figure things out, but I left many more floundering, and created classroom management problems in the process. And it was the kids who were already struggling who benefited the least from this strategy, falling even further behind.
At some point I realized that this wasn’t working particularly well, but I still didn’t want to answer every question a student asked. My criteria became arbitrary; I met some student questions with my own questions, but I might answer a question if I was frustrated or the lesson wasn’t going as well as I wanted. I built up some intuition over time for what questions I thought I should answer and what questions I shouldn’t, but it was haphazard and I’m skeptical my questioning was particularly effective.
I recently read Peter Liljedahl’s “Building Thinking Classrooms”, in which he presents an alternate approach to answering questions:
Students only ask three types of questions: (1) proximity questions–asked when the teacher is close; (2) stop-thinking questions–most often of the form ‘is this right’l and (3) keep-thinking questions–questions that students ask so they can get back to work. Only the third of these types should be answered. The first two types need to be acknowledged but not answered (382).
I’m still sorting through what Liljedahl means by (1) and (2), but I want to focus on (3).
The idea of a “keep-thinking” question seems like a useful and practical criterion for answering questions. Will the answer to the question allow the student to keep doing mathematical thinking, or is the valuable mathematical thinking between the student and the answer they’re looking for?
When a student asks a question because they are stuck, and the answer to that question will allow them to keep thinking, that seems like a particularly useful moment for learning, and a moment where being helpful may be the best strategy.