Questions, Invitations, and Classroom Languages

by Harmony Button

My last two posts have been about using questions in the classroom.  Sometimes, the best kind of question isn’t a question at all, but rather, an invitation – to think, to explore, or to raise your own questions. Here are a few ideas on how your phrasing and language in the classroom can really influence student perception of their learning experience.

The Thinking:

An invitation needs to meet a student where they currently stand, and then illuminate the path towards another place, stance, or state of being. In this way, the questions we ask students in the classroom are implied invitations, requiring students to reflect on their knowledge, apply their skills, and synthesize a response. But some students might perceive direct questions as more of an “invitation” to scale a hot brick wall than wander a lush path of leisurely learning – and so, they see a barrier, instead of a path forward.

Inquiry-based learning and Question Formulation Technique are both teaching models that are driven by student explorations and inquiries, but sometimes, teachers feel like they don’t have time for what sometimes feels to them like the kind of wandering and floundering that results from misdirected or ill-formed student inquiries, and so they lean heavily on their own use of leading questions to guide students toward the most efficient paths of learning. Many teachers respond to this dilemma by trying to scaffold up the questions, starting with simple, fact-based questions and then stretching student thinking from there. This strategy can be effective in the same way a trail of breadcrumbs is effective – it is a scavenger hunt that builds towards higher thinking. But this strategy can imply that students should really know the answers along the way, and if they don’t, that they’ve been ejected from the trail of learning and are now lost in the woods, in the dark, without the “right” answer, and little hope of discovering the path again.

An alternative to asking leading questions as a way of building common ground is to help students assess what they know, what they wonder, and what their avenues for exploration might be.

The Practice:

Consider how the language of your introductions set your students up to anticipate the actions they are expected to engage in through the lesson. Take these two lessons, for example:

A) In one lesson, a teacher introduces a new lesson by saying, “Today you’re going to learn about inverse functions and I’ll show you how to find them algebraically.”

B) In another section of the same course, the same teacher frames the discussion by saying, “Today we’ll explore what it means to be an inverse function. First, we’ll think about what it means to be inverse, then, we’ll going to figure out how to represent these situations mathematically, and what kind of steps you might take to find the inverse of an equation. By the end of class, we’ll be able to describe why those steps work. Let’s start by listing examples of inverted things in the world around you. What might an inverse relationship look like?”

The content of these two lessons is basically the same, but the framing language is quite different in the ways that it accesses student initiative. Take a look at how the two lessons compare, based on types of language. (For more reading on classroom languages, check out Ron Ritchhart’s Classroom Languages and Project Zero through Harvard Ed, or the Community of Learners model).

Classroom Language

Lesson A

Lesson B

Absolute vs. Conditional Language:

I’ll show you how – suggests that the teacher is the source of information and solutions.

What might…? – many different responses are appropriate under the umbrella of “might,” and students are responsible for generating these possibilities.

Language of Initiative:

If a student successfully completes this lesson, they will know what steps to take to a solve a particular problem. Their greatest task is to memorize processes provided for them. They have very little agency inside this description.

If a student successfully completes this lesson, they will be able to see inverse relationships in the world, describe them mathematically, and justify the processes necessary to find solutions. This task asks students to take agency: they will need to make choices and apply problem-solving skills.

Language of Action (verbs):

Learn about: suggests that students will be passive recipients of knowledge. Students will be learning about something, instead of actually doing it.

Solve them algebraically – defines the process students should use to solve the problems.

Explore / Think about / Figure out / Describe – these are verbs that students can successfully engage in, even if their processes don’t result in the correct answers.

The process here is based in the actions students will take: think, figure out, describe.

Language of Community (pronouns):

You: treats each student as an individual and makes solution the end goal of the lesson.

I’ll: makes the teacher the center of the action. Students are observers.

We / Let’s: treats the class as a community that involves the teacher and values participation from all members.

Language of Pacing:

Today – no pacing language present, so the students see the lesson plan as focused on this one end goal.

Today: First, Then, By the end of class – this language creates a three step path the students can expect to follow in their thinking.

The Habit:

Think about the language you use to frame lessons or build a foundation for the day’s work. Try to avoid using leading questions to create a common ground, but be equally wary of teacher-centric statements. Experiment with signals of inclusion (community), possibility (conditional language), and engagement (active verbs). Invite your students to participate by describe the pace of the process, as well as the kinds of thinking that they will be engaging in throughout the lesson. For more ideas on how to tinker with your lesson plans to meet students where they are, check out this article. For more discussion about the languages of learning in the classroom, here’s a new teacher’s blog I’ve found that grapples with these concepts.

And if you’re just feeling a little bit overwhelmed by everything at this point in the year – treat yourself to this reminder about coping with stress and developing healthy habits.

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