Can better questioning support student agency?

Over the last few weeks I have been listening to “A More Beautiful Question” by Warren Berger. In the book he talks a great deal about how beautiful questions can lead to innovation, change and creative solutions to problems. When asking “beautiful” questions you should start with a Why or Why not? followed by What if and then How? In the book he also talks about when children are young they are constantly asking questions. He refers to a Harvard University study by Paul Harris that found that children between 2 and 5 ask up to 40,000 questions and that by the time they enter school the number is drastically reduced and even more shocking is that by the time they reach middle school they ask virtually no questions. Why? Is it because teachers are focused on covering the curriculum so they feel that they need to dispense knowledge as opposed to allow students to create it? Is it because they do not have experience or modelling of good questioning? Is it because they do not see the power in a good question? Is it because they feel that rich questions are too difficult for their students? Is it because they are afraid to give up control and are concerned about where the students will take the learning?

In the last 2 weeks I have been doing teacher evaluations and have observed about 35 teachers doing various lessons ranging from shared reading, units of inquiry lessons, music, math or early learning. One of the things that struck me during these observations was the type of questions being asked of our students. Many of the questions asked were closed questions and did not get at critical thinking skills. They were focused on knowledge. I also noticed that often these were rapid fire questions and did not give students an opportunity to stop and think prior to formulating or giving an answer. Students were presented with a series of questions at the same time. While they were trying to process their response to the first question the second question had already been asked. When students were given time to turn and talk and discuss their thoughts and feelings with their peers the dialogue was richer and allowed for more critical thinking. Teachers did not seem to prepare their questions in advance of the lesson and were making them up on the spot. This often led to simpler more knowledge based questions. I wondered why students were not asking the questions and if there were ways we could flip lessons and allow students to ask questions and find their own answers.

These observations led me to the topic of discussion within our leadership team around learner agency. Learner agency occurs when learners are actively involved in the decision making processes of the classroom. In order to have agency learners must take initiate and have strong self-regulation skills, there must be an interdependence between the teacher and learners within the environment and all stakeholders must share the responsibility of how their actions impact others and their learning environment. Classrooms with high learner agency allow students to have a voice in the daily decisions of the classroom.

Why not use better and more beautiful questions to support greater agency?

What if learners were provided with more opportunities to create their own questions to complicated problems? Could they design creative and innovative solutions?

What if we expanded this beyond the curriculum and asked students to make fundamental decisions about how their classrooms are organized and function?

What if we intentionally supported teachers in asking powerful questions? Would this allow students to take more ownership of their learning? Will this improve the level of student agency in the classroom?

How do we support teachers in creating classrooms with greater learner agency?

How can we as leaders create and foster the conditions that support teacher and student agency?

I would really like to explore the link between questioning and learner agency and would love to hear from others about their thoughts.

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