Teacher behavior and patterns play a crucial role in the attitude students have, and what kind of environment exists in the classroom. Teachers need to provide a safe, stimulating, accepting environment; have high expectations of self and students; be a model of active inquiry; get students to question; get students to apply knowledge; view the world as a classroom; be flexible; put in extra time; and make a difference (Pennick and Bonnstetter, 1993). What a teacher does in the classroom is the difference between students passively sitting in class, and students who are actively trying to make meaning from what they learn in a class.
A classroom where a teacher is promoting the learning environment described above would have students actively engaged in conversation about content. Students would perceive to have control of the classroom discussion in that their ideas would help the teacher decide where to go next. Learning would be guided rather than forced. Students would take initiative to look for information in appropriate resources. All ideas would be accepted and looked at equally by students and teachers. Discussions would be based on information available or ways to get support for ideas. Students and teacher would appear to be equals in the learning process, but the teacher has the difficult task of facilitating student learning and providing bits of information where necessary and appropriate.
The classroom environment described above is considered a student-centered classroom. This varies from the traditional teacher-centered classroom because the teacher is not the all knowing answer bank/lecturer. Instead, the teacher acts as facilitator for students to come to a deeper understanding through evaluation of various ideas and evidence. According to Penick and Shymansky (1981), classes that are student-centered showed greater than 90% on-task time even though students are given much freedom in contrast to purely teacher-centered classrooms in which teacher dependency developed in students. Without the teacher holding students hands, the students were unable to stay on task. (We are always teaching kids something – sometimes we teach them to rely on us too much)
The question arises as to how a teacher can encourage the previously mentioned student-centered environment? First off, to stimulate an intellectual environment the teacher should have resources available for students such as articles, journals, texts, equipment, online access, etc (Penick and Bonnstetter, 1993). Also, teachers should ask questions that require student thought. Yes/no questions should be avoided as well as simple short-answer questions. These types of question require little thought on the part of students and do not lead to further discussion by the class. Too many times I hear teachers ask students “questions” that are really just fill in the blank sentences. This promotes no higher level of thinking than the simple “hunt and find the bold word” worksheets teachers handout for homework. Instead of simple one word questions, thought provoking questions or questions that need extended answers should be asked. If students do try to respond briefly, the teacher should ask the student to clarify or elaborate (Schlitt and Abraham). Teachers should ask questions such as: “how does a scientist know they have come to the right answer?” A student may respond by saying, “he convinces other scientists”. While this response is on the right track, the teacher can elicit more information by asking a follow-up question such as: “how does he convince other scientists?” This question should be posed to the class so that one student is not singled out, and multiple ideas are shared.
Use of questioning strategies helps the teacher guide the student from just a typical response to a more in depth answer that relates the response to previous experience, helps the student apply the concepts, make predictions, and explain their reasoning. Students should be made aware of this strategy as it can help them develop more logical thought processes explicitly, without the aid of the teacher. By asking better questions, students are able to make better connections, and deepen their understanding of the material. Teachers also gain a deeper insight into student understanding. Yes/no questions give students a 50% chance at the right answer regardless of their understanding, whereas extended answer questions get students explaining their ideas completely. From these explanations, teachers can see what pieces of knowledge students are missing or misusing; providing valuable information to help with teacher decision-making.
In my next post, I will address what else (besides effective questions) is necessary to achieve the learning and student-centered environment described above. Importantly, just asking a good question is NOT enough to get your students fully engaged.