As an ESL teacher, the majority of my teaching has recently been shifted to questioning. This is mainly because I’ve been teaching university Pathway courses lately, and the role of critical thinking has been the highlight of these lesson plans. In order to help my students become better critical thinkers, I need to ask critical questions. And that’s why I believe we should create the culture and context before asking critical questions, to ensure learner engagement as well as academic excellence.
By employing various forms of questioning, teachers can achieve the necessary culture and context to support deeper learning in the ESL classroom. Using a broad range of questioning techniques regularly, including open-ended, probing, leading, and rhetorical questions can help facilitate this goal.
The reasons why I believe we need to develop the culture and context BEFORE asking critical questions are twofold:
- First, critical questions are challenging, and require students’ participation to further the discussion. From my experience however, not all students are willing to do so mainly because of their personality and learning style.
- Secondly, without the right context students may not have enough information or awareness on a given subject to feel confident answering critical questions.
In both cases, it’s highly likely that learners don’t feel effectively and cognitively safe to speak up, so they avoid the questions or just give superficial responses.
- Thirdly, critical questions often require an arduous amount of reflection on the learners’ part to come up with their evaluative comments. Having their own voice and expressing that as an evaluative comment requires students to tap into their own personal and internal resources, as an individual and not just a learner.
In other words, through this reflection, students will see themselves and their world from various perspectives, as they start to see the question from different perspectives. This might be really intimidating at first for the shy, or quite the opposite for the overconfident, but it will always help to push learners out of their comfort zone. Thus, I firmly believe that we should prepare our students for dealing with critical questions by ensuring them that they are safe to answer from their unique perspectives, and to likewise consider the perspectives of others in a reflective process. We should assure them that they will not be judged nor should they judge others for their opinions, and to focus rather on enjoying the personal and academic growth that occurs when they embrace critical questions.
I would also like to point out that taking responsibility on the part of learners is important when questions are directed to them. As a teacher in Pathway courses, I often remind learners that they are accountable for taking my question to the next level through furthering the discussion. I also tell them that the process of commenting on certain critical questions has the potential to branch into other important areas of discussion, which in turn facilitates deeper learning. In fact, this approach could be a very effective one in their learning process, as being held accountable makes learners more engaged and involved in any learning task.
The last point I would like to cover is about the effectiveness of questioning across language-proficiency levels. From my experience, I can say that even elementary-level questions as simple as “what’s your favourite colour? or season?” offer vast opportunities to respond critically and creatively, if encouraged. In this way, not only is the purpose of language learning fulfilled, but we can also help our learners to become more independent and creative thinkers outside the classroom.