Monday, November 12, 2012

Mail Call Monday- Tim Holt

I love the ability to be connected with some amazing people through plurk, twitter and facebook.  My PLN offers a wealth of knowledge and ideas.  I have had the chance to meet Tim Holt several times (and I LOVE following his twitter feed @timholt2007)  Tim has recently released a book about making professional development relevant for administrators and educators.  I am SO excited that he his my guest blogger today! I will have another follow up blog soon of my review of the book (which I have LOVED so far!)

When the Conversation Stops Start Asking Questions!
Tim Holt
"180 Questions: Daily Reflections For Educators and Their Professional Learning Communities" ©2012
Available in the iTunes bookstore exclusively for the iPad 

Socrates might have been proud. We educators are great at asking questions. We love to ask our students something, anything. Probably, if you think about the last class period you taught, you could make the case that the entire class period was based on questioning. We question for a variety of reasons including increasing understanding of a concept, improving retention and encouraging participation in class. We are great questioners. Heck, if you think about it, we often start the entire school year with a question “What did you do this summer?” and end it with a question “What are you going to do this summer?”  Then, when we are finish asking questions in class, we assign more as homework. Take a guess on how many questions you ask in a day. 50? 75? 100? One study found that teachers ask between 300-400 questions each day (Leven and Long, 1981)! We love questions. We love Socrates!

Of course, there are many other benefits to questioning: keeping students actively involved, allowing students the opportunity to express their ideas, enabling students to hear different explanations, allows us to help pace lessons and of course. After we ask questions, we can adjust our lessons to meet classroom needs. Ask away!
I suppose if we were to actually make a graph of our questions, most of them would fall under the lowest level of Bloom’s: “What is photosynthesis?” or “What is 9x9?” “Name 10 prepositions.”   These are the easiest to check for correctness, so they are of course the easiest  and most often asked. The more probing questions that might have messy answers are not asked as often; the “Was Truman right to drop the nuclear bomb on Japan?” and “Why would we want to even know about photosynthesis?”-type questions. We love to question so much that probably any teacher that has been in education for any amount of time has taken some sort of professional development session on questioning. Entire books have been written on how to question our students. We love the questions! 

Questions rock!


We don’t seem to love questions so much when the technique is turned around and WE are asked to answer questions. How many of us have lowered our heads pretending we are not sitting in the audience, or started counting ceiling tiles, or secretly said “Please don’t call on me, please don’t call on me...” whenever a principal or presenter starts to ask US questions? If I don’t make eye contact with the speaker, he can’t see me and he won’t call on me. Suddenly, those same reasons that we actively use on a daily basis  as a matter of course are considered unfriendly and intrusive. I have even been in sessions where people sitting next to me would say “I swear, if he calls on me I am walking out the door!”  Of course, there is always ONE person that loves to answer questions in the group. That one person that ruins it for the rest of us...We even might gently chide that person as a “teacher’s pet.” “That Jerry, always answering the questions.” What a suck up!
We love questions. We really do.

Just please don’t ask us any. For the love of all that is holy, don’t ask us. Suddenly, we become students when the questions are asked of us. We don’t want to appear to be uninformed. We don’t want to look bad in front of our peers. Please, when is this session over? In some situations, presenters and audience even have an unwritten agreement: “Don’t ask any questions, and we will let you off easy. Heck, we might even buy whatever it is your selling in the lobby. Put us on the spot however, and all bets are off.”

But questions do have their place even when we are the ones being questioned. Those exact same reasons that we use when we are asking our students questions work in professional development settings as well. How well do we understand a concept? Do we have an opinion about this topic? How can we learn more about this?  I have noticed this phenomenon a lot in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that I have been a part of. In many situations, the conversation dries up, especially if the PLC meets on a regular basis and the person in charge (even though everyone is supposed to be in charge) has run out of ideas to talk about. many PLCs across the country are nothing more than meetings where teachers look at student data. What do you do once all of the data has been analyzed? 

How do you get the conversation going again? How do you engage your PLC (or staff, or curricular department)  while at the same time not appearing to be confrontational? I think the best method is one where a question is presented that does not have a right or wrong answer. A “messy question” if you will. Messy questions provide a non-threatening conversation starter that anyone can contribute to. There are no right or wrong answers, just answers. The answers are the basis for the conversation, not the question. In my book “180 Questions” I try to present exactly these types of questions: “How do we reach out to parents that have never been to our campus?” “Are we using technology to it’s full potential? If not, why not?” and so on. The point of the question is not to be used as a “gotcha” kind of thing, but rather an ice breaker to get the conversation about teaching and learning back into professional development. When was the last time we actually discussed the profession of education in a PLC? When did we do something to improve ourselves as educators, instead of just trying to improve a test score? Those are the types of things that happen when we actually start asking ourselves meaningful questions. When we ask the questions that colleagues and ourselves can really bite into, then, as educators, real learning can take place. Just like when we ask our students meaningful questions.
Socrates would be proud.