In case you’re one of the very few on the planet who has
never heard of the ongoing
Humans of NY project—or HONY for short—
it all started in 2010.
Back then, photographer,
Brandon Stanton, hit on the idea of taking
on-the-street portraits of the various people
he met on the streets of New York City.
To date, his social media postings have over 20 million
loyal followers and that fan base is growing
every day. Plus, HONY has expanded to
showcase 20 countries around the world.
What makes HONY extra-special, is that,
along with snapping the photos, Brandon Stanton
conducts mini-interviews with each subject.
The interviews are simple—there are Internet videos of Brandon posing some simple but incisive questions to his subjects.
But, because Brandon asks exactly the right questions,
he gets amazing responses: glimpses into real life
stories ranging from the humorous to the heartwarming,
the humane to the heartbreaking.
And we cannot get enough of them!
HONY’s crazy-good success speaks to the power
of storytelling as inspired by the best kind of questions:
the kind that generate the best kind of answers.
And aren’t these questions the same kind we teachers
should be using with our kids each and every day?
Be honest: Do you always remember to ask those
best kinds of questions?
Yeah, me neither.
I mean, sometimes I do. Sometimes, when working
with kids, I manage to ask a question so perfect, so
piercing, so thought-provoking that I can almost see
the little wheels turning in their heads as their brains
I’m sure it’s like that with you, too.
And aren’t you always surprised to discover how much
difference the right questions actually make in your
teaching and their learning?
I know I am. It’s thrilling!
That’s why I hunkered down, did a bit of research
on questioning and put together this “Clip-and-Save” list of
“7 Ways to Instantly Improve Your Questioning Skills!”
You can put these hints and tips to use with your kids, whether you
teach in a classroom, at home or online. Here goes:
“7 Ways to Instantly Improve Your Questioning Skills”
1. Focus on Their Answers
When questioning kids, keep in mind that your questions are far less important than their answers. And, each time a child answers one of your questions, thank him or her for the contribution—even if it is full of misunderstandings and misinformation.
INSTEAD OF: “No, Sean. That answer is wrong. That’s not how we spell that word. You didn’t study your word list like I told you, did you? See what happens when you watch TV instead of practicing your words?”
TRY: “Thank you, Sean. Your spelling is very close to correct; you have many of the correct letters and sounds in your spelling. Let’s compare your spelling with the way it appears on your word list.”
2. Be Patient
After posing a question, give kids time to think about their answers. Over and over, research shows that typical questioning tends to reward students who are fast thinkers and quick responders over those who take their time with it. But, many children need time to formulate thoughtful responses to your questions.
INSTEAD OF: “Come on, Camray! I know you know the answer to this one. Don’t be shy.”
TRY: “It’s OK, Camray. We know good thinking can take time. No rush. If you want, you can have some thinking time and we can come back to you.”
3. Respond Encouragingly
Respond in ways that invite more thinking, more learning, and more questioning. Remember to let the learner “save face” if he or she messes up.
INSTEAD OF: “I see you weren’t paying attention when we covered this yesterday, Brandon. That’s why you didn’t answer my question correctly. This is what happens when we fool around in class.”
Try: “Hmmm. We talked about this yesterday. Maybe you don’t remember all of it. That happens to me sometimes. Who can help Brandon remember our lesson from yesterday?”
4. Practice Active Listening
As your kids are answering the questions you pose, do your best to be as present as possible. Listen to their answers and reflect back to them any ideas and feelings they express.
Avoid rushing ahead in your mind to the next question. And, when they are done answering, actively and specifically acknowledge their contributions so that they know you have absorbed their words and really care about what they said.
Doing so only takes a few seconds, but for your kids, it can mean the difference between feeling dismissed and feeling acknowledged. This practice of listening will also help you know your children more fully and enjoy your time with them more completely.
INSTEAD OF: “Good answer, Francesca. OK. Lunch time!”
TRY: “Thanks, Francesca. I especially like how you described the characters in our story so completely for us. You even remembered what each one was wearing. I wish we could hear more, but now it’s time for us all to get ready for lunch.”
5. Record Yourself
To make certain your questioning technique is on track, try recording or videotaping some lessons in which you plan on including questioning techniques. (Don’t worry; these recordings are for you eyes and ears only.)
As you play the recordings back to yourself, note the quality and types of questions that you’re asking. Sometimes this can be a real eye-opener.
(When I did this, I was horrified as to how downright boring I sounded to myself. But, this exercise prompted me to become a better teacher with better questions.)
You may think you’re asking a variety of questions including high-level, open-ended questions, when, in actuality, most of your questions are of the low-level, closed-ended variety that require only a yes/no response.
Don’t let any results discourage you; pat yourself on the back for having the courage to listen to yourself (which is never comfortable) and then adjust your future questions accordingly.
6. Encourage Kids to Question Everything
When kids are able to formulate high-level, open-ended questions with you and each other, they will have developed a skill that will serve them well as they grow into adulthood. But how to do that…?
7. Let a Puppet Help Promote Powerful Questioning Techniques
You can easily use a puppet to model questions you wish your kids would ask. My puppets are inquisitive characters. I allow them to be as curious and confused as possible while asking all sorts of open-ended questions about whatever learning is at hand.
Each time my puppets pose a “Why?” or a “How come?” question to me, I turn to my children to help me formulate answers. Kids love being more knowledgeable than my puppets and are eager to help puppets understand. It gives my kids a chance to shine for a cause.
And, as I applaud my puppet’s ability to pose questions (“Wow, Beany Bichon! You were really thinking of things. I’m so happy you asked questions to learn more!”), I’m sending my kids the message that questioning is most welcome in our learning situation.
Besides that, when kids respond to my puppet’s questions, I get a much better window into their understandings about whatever it is we are working on. I can see for myself which skills and concepts my kids have mastered and which ones still need attention. It’s a powerful tool to have on hand (pun intended).
Still not sure if questions are really such a big deal? Just ask Brandon Stanton. Or, better yet, ask Beany Bichon!