The Power of Open-ended Questions

By Peter Brunn | Categories: Writing

I modeled some writing lessons (from Being a Writer) in Louisville, KY. I loved being in the classroom-the students were amazing. I spent the day working with teacher leaders and district literacy resource teachers. As I reflect on the day, one comment from the group still stands out to me. In our debrief of the lesson one of the teachers said, I was struck by how calm you were. Usually I am so frenetic and ‘on’ in the moment. But you were doing something different. In the lesson you taught, the students were doing all of the work, not you-the teacher. They were doing the talking and thinking.

As I think about this, I think the teacher captured the essence of what we are trying to do in our teaching. So often we inadvertently do a great deal of thinking for our students. The success and failure of our lessons in that case depends on our ability to push, cajole, and guide students to the thinking or answers we are looking for. What this teacher noticed was that at Developmental Studies Center we try to teach in a different way. At DSC we try to teach in a way that shifts the thinking and behavior to the students’ shoulders. We try to facilitate lessons in such a way that students grapple with the hard content and issues. Having them do this allows us to better focus on what is actually happening in our students’ minds. We can then ask ourselves the question, “What does their thinking tell us about what students know about writing (or reading, or math, etc.)?”

This is a powerful thing to learn. It is one I wish I understood earlier in my teaching career. Our teaching stance-one that allows us to listen and respond to student thinking and puts that thinking at the heart of our lessons-makes all of the difference.

(Originally posted February 2011.)