One of the things I focus on when teaching teachers is the role of questions in teaching. To raise the expected level of thinking, the kinds of questions we ask matter. When I ask, “Does anyone know …?”, students can honestly answer that question with “I don’t”. If I ask, “Is this the reason…?”, students have a 50/50 chance with this yes/no question. So, I try very hard to not ask yes/no or dichotomous questions and encourage my students to do the same. Yet, yes/no questions are part of our daily exchanges and breaking this habit is difficult.
When I was a first year teacher, I told my 9th graders that I would buy them pizza if they caught me asking yes/no questions 50 times. We kept track with tallies and eventually one class got pizza. Then a colleague of mine accused me of “bribing my students to behave” (people suck). After a few weeks of having students try to catch me in the act of asking yes/no questions, I had to stop as the students started paying more attention to the kind of question and less attention to the content of the question. Yet, I made a lot of progress very quickly in eliminating my use of yes/no questions in my teaching.
Below are some strategies I’ve used to move my questions away from yes/no and toward more thought-provoking questions:
1) Start every question with “What”, “How”, or “Why“. I cannot think of a way to ask a yes/no questions if the question starts with one of these three words. While I can certainly ask low-level questions with these words, at the very least, these questions are likely to be open-ended. Of course, this means I have to actually want to hear multiple responses instead of just a very specific response.
2) Ask the better question first. Some people claim we have to ask the yes/no question first so we can ask the follow up thought-provoking questions. This is not true. One example of asking the yes/no question first is, “Do you think the phases of the moon are caused by the Earth’s shadow?” (Student response). “Why?” The first question is unnecessary. Instead, we could ask, “How do you think the Earth relates to the phases of the moon?” Or “Why can’t the moon phases be explained by the Earth’s shadow?” In the latter question, I am giving the students some information, but am asking them to explain. Even if we asked the yes/no question first, the students could simply be guessing.
3) Increase wait time. Most teachers only allow for less than a second of silence between utterances. If we are asking better questions, this is not enough time for students to process. Not only are we robbing our students of processing time, but also ourselves. Raising our wait time to 3-4 seconds (after our questions and after students’ responses) will increase student participation and gives us time to think more carefully about how to phrase the next question.
4) Record my teaching and watch it regularly. When I first started recording myself I was shocked at how bad I was at doing the things I thought I was doing. I learned in my preservice education that extended teacher talk and yes/no questions are not best practice. Yet after weeks of student teaching, I was still doing most of the talking and asking way too many yes/no questions. Watching my teaching was a tremendous wake up call. I still record myself regularly to help guard against slipping back into old patterns.
Is there ever a time to ask yes/no questions? Yes (See what I did there). If a kid looks like they are going to vomit, I don’t need them to explain, I just need to know if they need to go to the bathroom. I once had a mute student who would only communicate with nods and head shakes during verbal exchanges. I certainly expected that student to explain their thinking in writing, but when talking with them verbally, it made no sense to ask them “why” questions. Yet, I think we should tread lightly when looking for reasons to not ask better questions. Perhaps, instead of asking, “Is there ever a time to ask yes/no questions?”, we should ask, “Why should we work harder to avoid yes/no questions?”