Why I don’t advise emphasizing open-ended questions, and what I advise instead.
I got my first job teaching in 1998 and, with the exception of two different 1-year gaps, have been a professional teacher ever since. With experience and attention comes increased awareness, and it is some of this awareness I wish to write about today.
When I was learning to teach, I was told that open-ended questions were good, that they’d result in more thought and more discussion than yes-no questions. But I don’t really believe that advice.
If I want students to reflect on some question and feel comfortable sharing their reflections, I generally have to prepare three things to achieve that end.
First, I have to prepare them to reflect meaningfully. Meaningful reflection most commonly follows when two different compelling but incompatible thoughts are competing for your attention. Two is important: with one there’s nothing to ponder and with three or more most students simply pick one, but with two they often go back and forth and generally either discuss the way they are picking or generate a third option on their own. Compelling is important: if neither is compelling then there’s nothing to jump-start thought and if only one is then thought and conversation ends with trivial consensus. Incompatible is important: new thought is generated as the mind deals with that incompatibility.
Preparing to help the students reflect thus begins by picking the two thoughts, which can be small or large. For example, when preparing a lesson on Section 102 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a mostly procedural section describing the formation and operating procedures of a church court known as the High Council, a small pair might be “verses 6–7 says the council fills its own vacancies” and “verse 8 says vacancies in the council are filled by appointment by someone outside the council”; a larger pair might be the court of law process of having prosecutors and advocates vs the high council’s process of randomly selected speakers with assigned positions. Once a pair is selected, there is additional preparation needed to design what you’ll present to the students to help them understand that both thoughts are compelling and that they are incompatible. Sometimes that can be done in the question itself, like “why did person you respect do unexpected thing instead of sensible-seeming thing”, but usually it requires some form of instruction prior to the question.
Second, I have to motivate their reflection. There are many ways to do this, but one that often works is to ask a closed-ended question asking them if one of the two thoughts is correct. “Should our judicial system switch to the high council model?” If they simply answer “yes” or “no”, asking “why?” gets back into open-ended sharing, but having a target question to answer helps keep their reflecting focused.
It is important to remember that motivating correctness is not the same as motivating reflection. Competition and rewards for good answers—whether “good” is defined as “agrees with teacher” or “thoughtful”—moves student focus to the reward instead of the question. “What will the teacher think is insightful?” is a different, and in most cases less-valuable, question to ponder than “what do I think?”
Third, I have to make the environment welcoming to their thoughts. There are three parts to this. First, they need time to think; some students do this while you are talking, but most start after the question is posed. Second, they need time to formulate an answer: knowing what you think and knowing how to express what you think are distinct and best developed separately. Third, they need to feel wanted, valued, heard, and not judged.
There are many ways to achieve the three parts of a welcoming environment. Sometimes you can lead them through the thinking and just give a few seconds for them to formulate answers. For bigger questions I like to use Think-Pair-Share: first I give them 60 seconds to think on their own, then I have them pair up and discuss for a few minutes, and then I ask a few of them to share, listening carefully to and affirming what they say.
The above pattern is not the only technique that works to prompt student reflection and sharing, nor is it complete in itself. But it is a pattern I use in more classes than not, in church and school and sometimes even in smalltalk.
This pattern is also what I measure classroom questions against, not the “open-ended question” criterion. Lacking a standard name for this pattern, I think of them as “dichotomous questions” because they involve two fundamentally-separated ideas and prompt thought and discussion by prompting a choice between them.
In this paragraph, how many of the questions are dichotomous? How many are open-ended? Would more open-ended questions have been better? Why?