Questions About Questions (with Matt Courtois & Karin Xie)

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We spend a lot of our time asking questions, either to our students, our trainees or ourselves. What makes an effective question? We discuss different models of asking questions to students, typical mistakes trainers make in asking questions and the most powerful questions we can ask ourselves to reflect with Matt Courtois and Karin Xie.

Transcription - Questions About Questions (With Matt Courtois and Karin Xie)

Hello, everybody. Welcome to our podcast. Today, we've got two guests. Matt, our regular guest...

Matt Courtois:  Hey, how's it going?

Tracy:  Hey, Matt! And we have Karin.

Karin Xie:  Hello.

Tracy:  Karin Xie!

Ross Thorburn:  What do you do, Karin? What's your job now? It's changed since last time.

Karin:  Yeah. I am now the Academic Manager for Trinity China. My job is helping teachers preparing their students for Trinity GESE exams, and also expanding Trinity TESOL courses to teachers in Mainland China.

Tracy:  Great, OK. Welcome.

Ross:  Today, I thought we could talk about questions. I thought it would be interesting today to look at different aspects of questions, or different ways that we can look at questions using Bloom's taxonomy, open and closed, and a whole lot of other things.

Tracy:  We've got three questions about questions. The first one is questions teachers can ask, and the second?

Matt:  The second one is questions trainers ask.

Tracy:  And the third one?

Karin:  The questions we can ask ourselves to reflect.


Questions teachers ask

Tracy:  You know, we all are teachers, we were teachers, and we've trained teachers. What do you think teachers really feel struggle with asking questions in the classroom?

Karin:  I got curious in that question. That's why I used it as my section one for my DipTESOL portfolio topic. We ask so many questions, but we are not necessarily always aware of why we ask the questions we ask, and what we were trying to get from the students.

Matt:  Did you find anything in your research?

Karin:  Yeah, the main thing was teachers rarely paid attention to the proportion of display questions and referential questions they ask.

Ross:  Before we jump into what kind of things teachers ask, what are some different types of questions or ways of categorizing teacher questions?

Karin:  The simple way of categorizing questions like open‑ended questions, and yes/no questions, and there's also, display questions, and referential questions.

Ross:  I think most people can get closed and open questions, but what's a referential question or a display question?

Karin:  A display question is when the person or the teacher knows the answer, or the other people also know the answer to the question. For example, when you hold a pen, so everybody can see the pen, and you ask, "What color is this pen?"

The referential question, on the other hand, would be when you invite opinions, or ask questions that there's no definite answer to.

Tracy:  I think the display question is quite similar to experience questions, because everybody can see it, can feel it.

Ross:  I suppose that's good for checking some kind of meaning. You can be sure that however the students answer it, they've either got the concept or not.

Tracy:  For example, can you find a microphone in this room?


Ross:  I can imagine that must be a problem. If teachers ask too many display questions, there's no real genuine or natural communication. You would never normally ask someone, "What color is this pen?" because you can see the color of the pen by looking at it.

Tracy:  Yeah, there's no need to ask a question.

Matt:  It's OK to ask questions about the function of language sometimes, like what it means. I guess we're talking about vocabulary here, but with grammar as well, asking questions, comparing two different grammar structures. It's not necessarily something you would do in day‑to‑day conversation, but I think it's the kind of question that's really essential in the classroom.

Karin:  It's almost like a concept‑checking question you're talking about.

Matt:  I think a well‑formed concept checking question can drive a student's understanding of this grammar point or vocabulary point forward. It's not just, "What do you know about it already?"

You can ask, for example, after reading an article. I think it's really useful to ask, "Why did the author choose to say it this way? What other ways could he have said it? What other grammar could he have used? How does that change the meaning?"

These can not just display that you understand what the grammar is, but it can actually push forward your understanding of grammar.

Tracy:  It seems like you give the students an opportunity to go further and to make connections between the language, and also how the language can be applied in real communication. For example, where can you use it, and why people use it, instead of using that.

Karin:  Or getting students to analyze and evaluate the language that they've heard, or they just used.

Ross:  Sounds like now we're heading on to Bloom's taxonomy as a way of looking at questions.

The lowest levels of Bloom's taxonomy might be "What's this?" or "What did you read?" or "What did this person do in this passage?" whereas, higher up, it would be, "Why did they behave this way? Why did they make this decision?" Then maybe at the top it might be, "Can you rewrite the ending to this story?"

Tracy:  Did you read something recently, Ross, about reading comprehension questions?

Ross:  I have here a couple of other models for reading comprehension questions. One is by Diane Freeman. She splits reading comprehensions into three different areas. One is questions about the content, like what happened in the text or why did this person do this.

Then, you get questions about the language. Maybe those are ones like Matt mentioned earlier. What tense did the person use here? Why did they use that? What does that show?

The final one, as she calls them, affect questions. It's like a personal response. What do you think of this character? Why do you think they did this thing? Or, evaluation, like what did the author mean by this?

Matt:  Or what stance does the author take? How does it represent the values of society? Where is the author's place in this?

Karin:  One thing that I didn't know or wasn't aware of before I did my research, but I did come to realize, was that the follow‑up questions really made a difference. For example, the first few kinds of questions that you mentioned, most teachers would ask them, but what really made a difference was the later ones, because not many teachers ask them.


Ross:  I always thought forward these things, like going to those higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy, it's nice to have, but maybe it's not really helping people learn language.

The more I've read about this recently, the more I'm beginning to believe, or understand, that the deeper you get students to process and think about it, the more they're able to remember and recall ideas later on. Really pushing people to think about things in a much deeper way actually helps them with language acquisition.

Tracy:  Recently, I read Edward de Bono's book, "Teach Your Child to Think." What he mentioned is about there are a different type of practice and you can help the children to improve their thinking skills.

There are four different types of item, and they are fun items, which means the questions should be imaginative, and they can be a little bit crazy.

What would happen if we all had a third arm? They have a remote item beyond their experience and means. For example, what factors would you consider when you're choosing a place to set up a new restaurant? For children, probably, they've seen restaurants, but they don't know what is the process to set up the restaurant.

The third one is called backyard item. For example, what do you think your school policy is. Do you agree with it or you disagree with it? It relates this to their life.

The last one is called highway item. It's serious and directly relevant to their life like how can you make more friends in your neighborhood?

These questions, of course, not always, were used in a classroom. Also, I think teacher and parents should help their children to be able to improve their thinking skills.


Questions trainers ask

Ross:  Let's talk a bit about questions that trainers ask them. I know Karin, you and I and Matt, we talked before about almost this danger of trainers asking questions to trainees and doing that classic thing of, "Hey, I'm trying to elicit an idea. Do you know what it is?"

Matt:  Years ago when I was a teacher, I had a trainer who was talking about board work and she asked us something about, let's say, word stress. She was saying, "What's a way we can symbolize word stress on the board?"

Somebody was like, "You could draw a circle over the stress syllable." The trainer went, "Yeah, I guess we could."


Matt:  She kept going at it and somebody else was like, "You could underline the stress syllable." "Yeah, yeah, yeah."


Matt:  Finally, we got to the point of just saying, "What is it?" and she was like, "Guys, we have different colored markers on the board." Then we're like, "Oh, OK. I get it," and she's like, "So, what can you do?"


Karin:  It's almost like reading my mind or guess what I'm thinking, rather than what we can do, or different options.

Ross:  At least in that example, none of those other options were any less valid than the other one. I think the thing is that people will be more likely to use their idea than something that someone else spoon‑feeds you.

Matt:  Ross, when you observed my training before, or maybe when you observed my lessons at the very beginning, the first question you asked was what kind of feedback do you want. Do you want to do a coaching reflection thing? Do you want to just give you a few points to work on?

I thought that was pretty cool. I think we ended up doing a reflection thing. Then we finished that and I said, "OK, what's your advice?"

Karin:  That's because maybe you both preferred that coaching style. We were so used to a certain way of doing things in training and feedback. We just assumed that people would prefer similar ways. We are just how we trained.

Tracy:  Like Matt mentioned, it's great if the trainer can give the options to the trainee on what type of feedback you prefer. It also doesn't mean that's always true. If I say I prefer direct feedback, it doesn't mean this person can really accept and then to be reflective on those direct feedback, or take actions. I think there is always a balance.

Ross:  I don't think I do that anymore. I don't think I give people that choice because what I found was that people just say, "Yeah, just tell me what you think." That's like the default setting.

I often find that after you tell someone, "These are the three things I would change," they're like, "Well, that was a bit direct."


Ross:  It's like that's what you thought you wanted but maybe that's not what you actually wanted. In that situation, now, I usually go, "What do you want to talk about, about the lesson or about the training?" Tell me about it.

Usually, you find that the thing the person first starts speaking about is the thing they're most interested in. Then you can start exploring that area.

Tracy:  I think it's also a good opportunity if they felt that they did something really well and we can still explore. Why do you think it went really well?

Matt:  When we were talking last night, you drew a distinction between two kinds of questions. You're saying that's eliciting, it's not really...what was it?

Ross:  Right, I think, Karin, your example.

Karin:  Self‑discovery.

Ross:  Yeah, your example was...I ask these questions so people can self‑discover. I think there's a difference between self‑discovery and eliciting. If you ask a lot of questions to elicit, that's like, "I have an idea and I want to 'coach you' to get to this idea that I'm already thinking of."

That's the thing people find annoying. Whereas self‑discovery is different, because that's, for me at least, you're discovering your own answer to the question. I don't really care if the answer that you get is the same answer as I've thought of or not.

Matt:  So often I think what every trainee hates is when the trainer is eliciting from them and they try to disguise it as self‑discovery.


Questions we ask ourselves to reflect

Ross:  We talked about teachers asking questions and trainers asking questions. I think that probably all of us have found, when you get to a certain point in your career, there isn't anyone asking you questions and coaching you. It comes down to yourself, to be in charge of your own professional development. What questions do you guys ask yourselves to help yourselves improve?

Tracy:  I always try to ask myself...I read something or I heard something or just to find out a new concept and how can I make it relevant to my working context.

Karin:  Remember, Tracy, I was showing you the Chinese quote from my friend. The three questions. She said, whenever you talk to people, ask yourself, one, would people be able to understand what you say?

Two, the things that people and the things that you mention, would people know about them? The third would be, would people be interested in what you're talking about, and why? I think those were three really lovely questions for us to ask ourselves.

Ross:  The other useful question that I find I ask myself is ‑‑ this is not so much as a trainer but as a manager ‑‑ when things go wrong and you often think, "Wow, it's because this person messed this thing up." So often that is the case.

The most powerful thing that I find for helping me learn is stepping back and thinking, I can't change how my boss behaves or I can't change how this person in the sale department behaves. Those things were out of my control.

Even though this was 99 percent this other person's fault, what's the thing that I could have done differently in this situation? I find that's a really useful thing. Also, for people who work for you, going, "This wasn't your fault."

But, what's the thing that you could have done differently to prevent that from happening? Then all of those annoying situations, all of those problems when they arise, you can still turn them into some opportunity to learn something.



Ross:  Matt and Karin, thanks very much for coming in again.

Matt:  Thanks for having me, Ross.

Ross:  You're very welcome, Matt.

Ross:  Bye, everyone.

Karin:  Bye.

Tracy:  Bye.