Pocketful of Questions

Way back when I was in college, I attended a “mingling” workshop held by the university’s Panehellenic Association. The workshop was designed to prepare college students better interact when placed in social settings with new people. I know this may sound really weird, but the workshop taught really basic things like how to shake hands and how to remember people’s names. The presenters would introduce a strategy and then have each of us practice that strategy with other people in the room. I remember awkwardly walking around, shaking other college students’ hands, and working to learn their names. Even after nearly thirty years, I still think that “mingling” workshop was seminal in helping me successfully navigate the numerous social settings where I need to meet new people.

One of the strategies introduced in the workshop was questioning. The person facilitating the workshop explained that most people like to talk about themselves and when we meet a new person, we should try to get them talking about that topic. She offered some “back pocket questions” to guide us. She explained that “back pocket questions” were ones that we could pull out at a moment’s notice and spark a conversation. She suggested that we avoid using questions like “Where are you from?” or “What do you do for a living?” when we met someone new. Since these questions are asked so frequently, they don’t often lead to in-depth conversations with strangers. Instead, she prompted us to ask questions like “Where did you go to school?” or “What’s your story?” to spark greater dialogue and offer the opportunity for follow-up questions. In the workshop, the facilitator stressed the importance of asking follow-up questions to keep the conversation going. In-depth conversations, she explained, are the way you meet new people.

I’ve been thinking about those “back pocket questions” lately. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been observing some teacher candidates who are leading their first lessons in classrooms. In most of the situations, the teacher candidate will ask a question to the class, call on the first student who raises their hand, and then offer praise or a correction depending on the student’s response. It’s a typical discourse pattern that I wrote about last year called initiate/response/evaluation (IRE). When I wrote that post last year, I discussed how I was struggling with falling back into IRE discussions after being thrown into Zoom classrooms with unwilling participants. The challenge with IRE discussions is that they don’t often lead to in-depth, meaning making discussions. It’s just simple call and response. And since my own struggles last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we as teachers use questioning in our classrooms to promote sustained dialogue.

And that’s how I came to my memories of the workshop and the back pocket questions. In one of my post-observation meetings with a teacher candidate, I suggested that she ask more open-ended questions and then identify some back pocket questions that she could ask in response. Rather than say something like “Good job” when a student responded to a question, she should try to ask a follow-up question that extends the dialogue. I offered a few suggestions. Instead of simply evaluating the response, a teacher could ask “What do you mean by that?” or “Tell me more about that.” to get students to expand on their answer. A teacher could even bring another student into the discussion by asking them “What do you think about what their response?” Just like the “mingling” workshop, I offered that her follow-up questions should work to extend the conversation but should also dig further into students’ understanding of the topics being discussed.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that teachers navigating a classroom environment is similar to strangers mingling at a cocktail party or anything. Instead, I’m offering that questioning can be a powerful strategy that can be used in lots of social environments to get to know people. Or to support their learning.

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