Extending Lessons with the Right Questions

Not all students being the same, no lesson fits them all.  General or Universal principles of teaching are needed to ensure that all learning at all ages, and toward all student abilities is occurring.  I have recently posted John Milton Gregory’s 7 Laws of Teaching as I think they are helpful.  Adler’s 3 Columns is another helpful set of principles.  But my purpose here is discuss how to move around in the ability pool of any given class to make sure everyone is learning and being challenged.

The simplest way to describe a challenging course is one with high expectations.  Many teachers try to teach to the middle or bottom of a class, but high expectations have us teaching toward the top.  This means that even then, some will need more, and others will need help to keep up.  I believe Socratic questioning is the key to handling this spectrum.

First, I have tried to be clear in my writing that questions are the most powerful tool a teacher has.  There is certainly a hierarchy of questions, the highest of which cause the student to think for themselves, not simply spit out information they have been given.  So the good teacher is already keeping every mind active in their class by asking questions that generate thought in all students, not just a few.

But when this condition is present, it means that the struggling student knows both what questions are causing them difficulty and that the teacher is not there to “do it for them” but rather to help them think their way to the answer.  But at the very same moment, a good question has the ability to press the student is “always out in front” to go farther up, further in.  This student is able to go farther with the same question.  It is not that there are two lessons to be taught, one for the average and the other for the gifted, but rather that all teaching being connected to infinite Truth means that no lesson is ever fully taught.

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So what are the best questions for this quest of the differentiated learning experience?  Aristotle believed it was questions of cause.  If you know his theory of causation, you know his four causes:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools. (Source)

Working with these causes, a great teacher will make sure his student is increasing in knowledge of all four causes in relation to whatever is being studied.  So the questions in the room have to do with what “this” (subject being studied) is made of, is meant to do or be, who is active in doing/being “it” and why “it” even exists.  These how, why, what for kind of questions are basic to both remediation and extension of any lesson.  A struggling student is led back to the most fundamental questions of the lesson; one needing more is sent to the next level of questioning.  There are no end of questions in any field of study.  Thus questions build a continuum of instruction.

So “lesson planning” is much more question creation than it is content churning.

John Milton Gregory’s 7 Laws of Teaching

I was recently surprised to find that although I have mentioned these laws, I have never listed or blogged on them here.  These laws, stated in a book originally written to make sure Sunday School teachers knew the basics of teaching, are quite valuable in helping a teacher contemplate the basics of teaching.  Below is the outline I prepared for these laws some twelve or so years ago.  No updating necessary…

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The Seven Laws of Teaching

John Milton Gregory – 1884 – written for Sunday school teachers

  1. 1. The teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth or art to be taught.
  • Guidelines:
    • We must know our subject well – prepare fresh every year.
    • While planning, ask yourself, “What am I teaching and why?”
    • Use several resources for teaching.
  • Violation:  Teachers who don’t study the material well enough.  You should know the material deeply enough that you never have enough time to teach everything you know about it.

 

  1. The Learner is one who attends with interest to the lesson.
  • Guidelines:
    • Never begin without the full attention of the class.
    • Adapt lesson time and style to the age of the students.
    • Prepare thought provoking questions.
    • Make your enthusiasm contagious.
  • Violation:  Teachers who start or continue to teach without the attention of the students or who exceed student interest.

 

  1. The language used as a medium between teacher and learner must be common to both.
  • Guidelines:
    • Study how your students are using what you have taught them when they use the language.
    • Require full and complete answers – not one word answers – written and verbally.
  • Violations – Using slang. Not insuring that they can rephrase the lesson in their own words.  Using clichés they don’t understand.

 

  1. The lesson to be mastered must be explicable in the terms of the truth already known by the learner; the unknown must be explained by the means of the known.
  • Guidelines:
    • Plan to compare to what they already know.
    • First, find out what they already know so that you know where to start.
    • Arrange your lesson in logical steps from known to unknown; simple to complex.
  • Violations – Asking for what you haven’t taught, pushing along too rapidly.

 

  1. Teaching is arousing and using the pupil’s mind to grasp the desired thought or to master the desired art.
  • Guidelines:
    • Tell the student nothing he could learn for himself. 
    • The students are the ones who do the work.
    • Your work is planning and guiding.
    • Keep asking yourself: “How can I make these kids understand?”
    • Realize that mental digestion is as individual as physical digestion.
  • Violations – forgetting that telling is not teaching, thought by the student is necessary.

 

  1. Learning is thinking into one’s own understanding a new idea or truth or working into habit a new art or skill.
  • Guidelines:
    • They can do all the work and it just goes by them.
    • Don’t let the test be the end-all, be-all.
    • Help them to have a clear idea of what is going to be done.
    • They should be able to tell you what they’re doing.
    • Don’t settle for incomplete thoughts-make them articulate.
  • Violations – the pupil has an imperfect mastery, the student merely believes what the book says without reasons or practical applications given.

 

  1. The test and proof of teaching done – the finishing and fastening process – must be a reviewing, rethinking, reproducing , and applying of the material that has been taught, the knowledge and ideals and arts that have been communicated.
  • Guidelines:
    • Completion, test and work of confirmation of the work of teaching must be made by application.  Not tests alone – find out what they know in other ways.
    • Show me, do it, give me a quote, tell me why this is important, make a timeline.
    • Reviews are always in order and are never a waste of time.  Make students apply what they do.  Begin and end the lesson in review.
  • Violations:  Not doing it because you think you don’t have time.

 

Thoughts on How Best to Read Literature with the Modern High School Student

The following are my own meditations on reading literature in our modern setting with high school students.  I have struggled with this idea for some time.  I find very few who truly love reading.  Some view it as a means toward the education they believe will lead to big paycheck.  Others view reading as an antiquated form of entertainment that has been long since been replaced by other more engaging screens and images.  So if my job is to engage students in a study of literature, it would seem I must convince them of its being worthwhile, then leading them toward a delight in and felicity with great literature.  This would include heightening their taste, training their abilities, and directing them toward self-motivated reading.

Why are we even doing this?  Literature is a part of the Humanities.  It is how we prepare young people to pursue the moral maturity that adult humans must have to be happy.  Fictional stories cultivate a moral imagination in young people.  Poetry brings them to feel sublime.  Truth is posited, Goodness exemplified, and Beauty is loved in the great works of literature.

So my first task is to present to their minds an apologetic for reading, and for reading great literature so as to develop a moral imagination.  Hence my first “lesson” must be the construction of the idea of a moral imagination, using mimetic teaching to birth this notion in their own hearts.  Vigen Guroian has written most helpfully on this subject in many places, including here.

I believe that the experience of a good literature class will do more than a single lecture to convince students of their need for a moral imagination, but that is where is should start.  Moving beyond simply saying they should pursue a moral imagination through great literature, the class should delight itself in that literature.  I currently teach two literature classes:  American and British.  Delighting in these things includes a good understanding of the context of these works, having some knowledge of the authors, but mostly would include the following key components:  having the time to delight (no break neck speed or firehose velocity here), allowing students to find what they like rather than telling them what to like, and open discussion that hears the students more than the teacher.

So how does one teach a student to read with delight?  I think there are three levels to this delight:  simple apprehension, connections, and reflections.  In simple apprehension, the student skims over the story looking for hints as to the characters, places, and such.  In short, finding the nouns.  It amuses me that for many literature classes, this is all that is expected, is converted to objective questions on a test, and every one claps their hands.  But that is only very surface enjoyment.  Going deeper, the student seeks to find the connections, how the plot is developed by the characters, places, “things” of the story.  Here he is in essence seeking the verbs.  What led to what?  What are the causes and effects?  But the best is kept for a final reading of the text, this time with the heart.  Given my knowledge of the text, having skimmed it over twice now, what passages move me?  What do I like about this text?  What is meaningful to me and why?

An easy way to teach this reading, and it can be done independently in this manner, is teach the student to mark the text in each reading with a differing color.  Having the student mark the important nouns in pink, the connecting verbs in green, and the really good stuff in blue allows them to return with the teacher to the text in class and discuss it well.  Yes this means they have to own the books, but this is a small price to pay for truly great reading and discussion.  If highlighter is not your thing, give them alternative ways to mark these three layers of reading.

This leads to a pedagogy something like the following for most texts (any form of text):

  1. Preparation – saying just enough about the text to gain the student’s interest, give them a context for the book, and guide their mind toward the one or two great ideas of the work. The key here is brevity with engagement.  Wow, I really want to read this book now.
  2. Direct Interaction with the text – whether alone or in the classroom, the student should read the text twice quickly and then a third time slowly, following the pursuits and markings mentioned above.
  3. Discussion – the great texts are above everyone’s head. This is why we read them.  Thus they are best when discussed with others.  Students have to be taught dialectic to do this well.  Some success can come from a teacher presenting them with key passages to be discussed, but often a simple “playing the blues” or discussion of those things they have highlighted in blue will suffice.  The key is to focus on the moral aspects of the story.  What was true, good, and beautiful?
  4. Fastening – I don’t like the term assessment in relation to good reading. Schooling demands feedback, but this is much more mentoring, discipleship, and apprenticeship than mastering a discreet set of information.  The content, skills, and understanding can be assessed, but one should always remember this is much more a start than an end.  The best form of assessing one’s interaction with great literature is writing.    While the essay or paper is certainly good and legit, more is gained by guided journaling.  Here is a great blog on that issue.

All this to say that great literature classes are an art form.  At the heart of it is the teacher’s own passion and enjoyment of great literature.  Beyond that, we are trying to see ice to Eskimos, but when we really passionately love the ice, it sells itself.

And if any of this needs more, I have written on these things before: here, here, and here are some that come readily to mind.