4 Questions That Set The Stage For Vital Teaching

December 21, 2016

Why should teaching the processes of learning be on the front burner this year in your classroom? I think this familiar proverb answers that question best, “If a man is hungry and you give him a fish, he will eat for a day; teach man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. These words (articulated pre climate change when people had no concept of disappearing water and wild life and pre women’s liberation when we lived in a one gender world) take on added significance now that any bit of information is one click away from our students. Do we really want to devote precious class time and home study to “fishing” for answers that will be forgotten in days or weeks? The paramount goal of education today is to make students lifetime nimble, confident learners, capable of acquiring the knowledge they need when they collaborate, problem solve and create.


This is a perspective we need to share with students of all ages. Before I made a practice of combining teaching both content and process, I found that students expected lessons to move them through text or topics. They felt they were not really “learning” when lesson, such as the following, turned to learning itself: How to answer questions when the information is not stated; How to avoid careless mistakes; How to infer an author’s point of view; How to differentiate relevant from irrelevant information when solving a problem; How to monitor and regulate the product of your efforts; How to help yourself understand and remember what you read when the text is challenging; How to be flexible when your stumped.


When students are asked the open-ended questions below (preferably at the start of the school year) they connect to these lessons on learning and have the opportunity to expand a schema about which they have, most likely, learned very little, “How I Learn”.  As cognitive researchers have told us, we attend to incoming information on the basis of novelty, contrast, and, most relevant here, importance to us.  When questions we pose and the discussions they generate raise students’ awareness of themselves as learners who have control over how and when they learn, we engage our students and start them on the path to achieving a sense of self-efficacy.


Here are 4 questions I recommend for that purpose:

1. What do you think it means to be intelligent or smart? Why do you think that?

Ask students to journal or map their answers. While most students will think intelligence is knowing the answers, getting their work done quickly or getting high marks,  during the group discussion give examples of people working out of different disciplines and fields of endeavor who have accomplished something extraordinary as a result of long, hard work, someone who did not know the answer he or she was seeking. Ask students to revisit their ideas about intelligent people and share their thinking.


2. What are the thinking habits (Habits of Mind) of intelligent people?

Referring to the people who, students agree, are famous for their excellence and intelligence, help students label the behaviors or habits these people had to have to accomplish what they did. A list that includes the words accuracy, flexibility, persistence, curiosity and thoroughness will apply to everyone from Baseball Hall of Famers to Nobel Prize winning scientists. (Costa and Kallick are the seminal authors on Habits of Mind.)


3. How does behaving intelligently affect your life? How does other people behaving intelligently affect you?

After students have had time to think-pair-share, mine the group conversation for demonstrations of understanding. Are your students interpreting and applying this new concept of intelligence? Coach students to identify the intelligent behaviors they use at home, on the field and at school. Provide plenty of examples of how the Habits of Mind of others are crucial to our well being. Ask:

•  Would you want to go to doctor who is not persistent in finding out what is making you sick? Why?

•  Would you want to fly in an airplane with a pilot who does not strive for accuracy? Why?

•   Do you want the person who repairs your family car to be thorough? Why?


4. How do you think a person gets to be intelligent?

This question gives you access to your students’ world view on being smart and gives you the opportunity to dispel the notion that it’s a closed club. They need to know that while each of us is born with particular talents, special abilities and different kinds of intelligence, the neat thing is we can increase our intelligence. Using a ball of clay for a concrete demonstration (metaphors are best used with intermediate grades and up), you can say, “Researchers find that our intelligence is modifiable.”  They have found that our learning experiences grow our brains cells. See the below Google Images for “diagrams of dendrite impoverished and enriched neurons” to illustrate the brain’s capacity for growth. 


This conversation also sets the stage for differentiated instruction. Students develop a more enlightened attitude towards the differences in their classmates learning styles and the variations in their assignments. This is not magical thinking.  A classroom that is rich in explicit strategy instruction develops a language around learning and consequently engages in metacognitive dialogue. It is a more conscious, empathetic and yes, intelligent classroom.


The stage for vital teaching is not set until we put this conversation back into the context of the classroom experience the students have come to know. Tell your class: While we will be learning all kinds of fascinating things this year, doing projects and sharing our findings about our world, we are also going to be growing your intelligence. I will show you ways to do that when we are reading, writing and solving problems. Just think, you will be learning the habits of intelligent thinking so that you will be the kind of person who knows what to do when you don’t know. You will know how to be in charge of your own learning!


For a guide to teaching reading, writing and thinking behaviors explicitly see my book Learning For Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners (ASCD, 2010).

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