That’s a great question

Not this (source)

As someone who’s be listening to a lot of US-based podcasts during the Covid era, the title of this post is very familiar to me, since it’s the first thing that a guest says when asked any question on said podcasts.

Even – and hear me out on this one – when it’s not a great question.

It is, of course, more a linguistic tic and and a means getting a couple of seconds longer to work out a reply (maybe even a great reply) to the great question.

Which is fine, but it’s also had me thinking about how we handle questions in our classes.

For many starting out in teaching, questions figure large in the pantheon of ‘shit that can go wrong’. What if I get asked something I don’t know the answer to? What if I get muddled up? What if the student disagrees with me? What if my colleagues find out?

So let’s try to map out some strategies and things to remember.

Firstly, recognise that the key reason questions from students in class seem daunting is that you don’t know what they’re going to ask. If you’re approaching teaching as an exercise in ‘I must do my thing’, then you likely had decided rather closely what your thing is, and anything else is at best a distraction and at worst a sandtrap.

Start by thinking through what teaching is trying to do: it’s about helping students to learn, not about you getting stuff out there. So it’s about them, not you. Which means you have to accept that there is always likely to be a gap between what you’re trying to communicate and what they understand of your communication.

[Small aside: I once spent 15 minutes discussing with students what ‘iterated’ means, because they’d not heard of the word before.]

This leads into a second point: students almost always are asking about something because they’re trying to understand. Just like journalists, almost none of them are out to get you when they ask a question.

Indeed, think about the shift you experienced from before your first ever class and after it: before, you probably worried about ‘all the difficult questions’, but after you more likely worried about whether you’d ever get any communication out of your class. Most students won’t ask stuff, and they ones that do are the ones who are interested in what you have to say.

Thirdly, the classroom isn’t a quiz show. There isn’t a prize for answering quickly and you don’t just move after your answer. Instead see questions as part of a dialogue with students. You can ask them to explain or expand on their question if you think that might help. You can say that you don’t have the answer to hand, but you’ll come back to them with it (and then you must totally do that). You can ask the rest of the class if they have any ideas.

[Another small aside from my first month of teaching: I got asked to explain voluntary export restraints, and got no further than that rearranging the three words and shrugging. This was not good.]

In short, see questions not as a threat, but an opportunity.

Yes, you should think about what students might ask about – the stuff that you know people find tricky, the application to a contemporary case – but more important is treating a question as a way to valorise the student in the learning process (that’s what ‘there are no stupid questions’ really means BTW), to give them a stake in your class. The more you respond constructively to questions, the more comfortable students will be in asking, and the better the chances that they will understand what you want them to be learning.

Maybe all those guest on those American podcasts might actually be on to something after all.