A Magic Question?

Teaching is hard work. There is no such thing as a magic pill that can suddenly remove all obstacles and help students to easily and fluidly begin to acquire and retain information. If someone were to invent this, he or she would make a fortune! (And given that it is February—the longest month of the teaching year, even if it’s the shortest in the calendar—we’d all be vying to be first in line to purchase it, right?)

Knowing that this magic solution does not exist, I was highly skeptical when I heard about a “magic question” which “revolutionized” one teacher’s classroom practice. No one question could make that much difference in student learning! Despite my misgivings, I decided to give this magic question a shot. And the results really did surprise me—and my students!

What is this magic question? It’s very simple: “What makes you think that?”

This question can be asked as a follow up to just about anything.

When a student gives a correct answer, “What makes you think that?”

When a student gives an incorrect answer, “What makes you think that?”

When a student gives a less than complete answer, “What makes you think that?”

It’s incredibly versatile. I’ve even heard of teachers using this outside the classroom. Find yourself in a conversation about a topic you don’t know much about: “What makes you think that?” Voila—just like that you’ve saved yourself the embarrassment of digging yourself out of a conversational hole!

What makes this simple question so effective is that to answer it requires the respondent to verbalize his or her thinking. Students who have answered correctly have a chance to demonstrate their mastery of the subject. Students who have given an incomplete or incorrect answer are given the chance to spot their errors or complete their reasoning as they respond. And even if they don’t catch their own mistake, the teacher or a classmate may pick up on it. Either way, it is easier to correct the error in thinking when you know where in the thought process the misunderstanding occurred.

When I first begin to use this question in my classroom, it made all my students uncomfortable. Those who had given a correct response automatically assumed they were wrong. Students who’d given an incorrect response were fearful of compounding their errors in answering the question. But the more that I used the question, the more comfortable my students became.

Soon, not only were students anticipating me—answering the question before I even asked it—they were far more confident in their answers. In making their thinking visible for me, they also made it visible to themselves. Now they not only knew the right answer, but also why it was correct. Or, if they didn’t know the right answer, they were better able to verbalize where in the process they were struggling.

Adding this simple question (and variations on it) to my repertoire of teaching tools really did revolutionize my classroom. It didn’t magically erase all obstacles to learning, but it did provide an avenue for my students and I to spot and address problems that had before remained under the surface. And it did so in a way that didn’t require loads of extra prep. work or generate more grading for me to tackle. In my book, that’s a win all the way around!

Becky Hunsberger, M.Ed. 
Teacher Education Services 
TeachBeyond, Global

Photo Credits: All photos via Shutter Stock.