Friday, January 22, 2016

How Questions Can Make Your Classroom More Democratic

Image: Pixabay

What makes a good question a “good question?”

I've been thinking a lot lately of questions. Not specific questions, but the nature and purpose of questions. The purpose and characteristics of finely crafted questions. Ones that do not have easy answers, but instead provoke curiosity. If you’re impatient, skip the following section on democratic education and jump right to the question section (and I hope you’ll be interested enough to come back and read the first part).

How does this relate to democratic education?

Wikipedia has a pretty good definition of democratic education:1

"Democratic education is an educational ideal in which democracy is both a goal and a method of instruction. It brings democratic values to education and can include self-determination within a community of equals, as well as such values as justice, respect and trust."

John Dewey
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Take a moment and let that sink in. There's a lot going on in just two sentences, and it's worth reading carefully and critically. In fact, it's worth reading the entire page on Wikipedia (for many of us, it will probably be a refresher for things we've studied).

Obviously, examples such as a democratic committee to decide on hiring fall outside the control of classroom teachers. However, we do have a significant amount of influence on how we educate democratically within the four walls of our classrooms. To be able to do this, we need to know the answer to the question “what are characteristics of a democratic learning environment?”


Real democracy in the classroom requires an awful lot of confidence, both from a teacher and from students. This might be surprising, but it’s certainly true that voicing opinions that may be unpopular can be a challenge for many of us. I put myself squarely in that group: I’m a people-pleaser, and most people aren’t pleased to hear that I think they might be wrong. It’s also pretty hard to hear that you might be wrong. Even harder is to truly listen when you’re being told why you’re wrong. All of those things require a lot of self-confidence, but also a specific kind of self confidence. You don’t need to be confident in your opinions, but instead, you must be confident in your ability to learn, grow, adapt and reflect.

Being wrong is okay. Staying wrong isn’t.


Image via Flickr
A lot of democratic interaction can be uncomfortable. Going against the popular opinion can be… unpopular, to say the least! Every single person in a democratic classroom must keep a positive perspective: both in attempts to explain your own opinion, but also in hearing critical analysis of it. We’re not disagreeing to be disagreeable - there’s a purpose to disagreement: resolution and growth. It’s easy to have an opinion, but it’s a lot more difficult to defend it without getting defensive. It’s important to have positive intentions, but also to assume that others have the same positive intentions, even if their methods, opinions, or decisions are counter to your own.


Are you noticing a theme happening here? Confidence and positivity are key to the good type of dissent. Dissent leads to dialogue (at least, in a democratic classroom, it should). Typically, dissent is seen in a negative light - something that’s motivated by frustration or anger. In my opinion, that frustration and anger can usually be attributed to the fact that opinions aren’t being heard.

Still with me?

Good, because it’s been a bit of a meander to arrive at the answer to my earlier question: what makes a good question a “good question?” Also, how do good questions relate to democratic classrooms? I believe good questions are at the heart of a good democratic classroom, in many ways. Questions are key - answers, not so much. Ever try to compete against the internet as a source for answers? You’ll likely fall short. As teachers, we don’t really need to be skilled answer-givers; we need to be skilled question-askers. We need to teach students to be question-askers, and we need to model effective questions. Questions that can exist because of a confident, positive and respectful classroom culture that welcomes productive dissent.

When we ask questions…

As teachers, when we ask questions, we have the opportunity to start students on a path of curiosity, to develop intrinsic motivation, and to encourage deeper inquiry. We need to ask questions that respond to a student’s needs, but also that have no easy answer. Questions that require students to investigate, form an opinion, and defend that opinion with fact.

Here’s an example of what I mean, in the context of math class. It’s certainly challenging to ask opinion questions in math class; ones that do not have a single, easy-to-look-up correct answer. Instead, we need to ask questions that require mathematical reasoning and investigation. Here’s an example of what I mean:

When I go to visit my parents (who live 500 km away), should I drive or fly?

There’s no easy answer to that question. It is, at its heart, an opinion, but I want students to justify their conclusions. They need to determine the variables that they consider important. They need to explain what factors influence their decision. They need to investigate the topic further. This is, on the surface, a simple question, but when it is critically considered, it becomes much less clear. It’s a big, messy problem without an answer key; a fuzzy concept that will ask students to work to define the boundaries of the question and the concepts it involves.

I love questions that don’t have an answer key included.

When students question us…

It’s important to remember that kids have a lot less experience than we do with good questions. In fact, I suspect that the bulk of their “question experience” relates to low-quality questions. Ones that make few cognitive demands, and can be quickly and easily assessed as right or wrong. Questions with an answer key. They might not be easy (especially in a test setting where you can’t just Google it), but they’re lousy.

Given that assumption (and if you disagree with me, you’re more than welcome to dissent in the comments), it’s important to remember that when students question you, it’s not personal; it’s professional. It’s a matter of teaching students not only good questions, but good practice in answering questions. I have a story that I often tell as an example of this:

I was doing a history review before the final exam. It was long. It was lecture-style. The kids were bored. Even I was bored. It was, plain and simple, not a good lesson. I had a student raise her hand, and she told me “I’m really not feeling this.” I thought for a moment, and then answered her honest expression with my own honesty: “I’m not either.” I changed tactics, and instead of lecturing, had that student lead the group in a game to review the content.

This was an example of a question (okay, loosely speaking, it’s a question) that I could have taken as a personal attack on my teaching. However, it wasn’t. Even kids who make it personal usually aren’t making it about you, personally. I always keep in mind that, as an educator, it’s not about me: it’s about my students.

My favourite question (right now) is the one at the top of this post: “What makes a good question a good question?”

I think that’s a really good question.