Developing Effective Focus Questions

I suppose it’s because I’ve been a professional educator for a number of years, but there are parts of movies that strike me a little differently than those in my home, and I laugh probably more than I should. There’s an old (ancient now that I think about it) comedy movie called Back to School, in which Rodney Dangerfield plays an adult businessman who returns to college to pursue a business degree. Dangerfield’s character ends up in an all-or-nothing oral final exam and his nemesis, a business professor, says, “I have only one question.” Dangerfield smiles, obviously thinking he’s going to be tossed something simple, and then the professor says, “I have only one question . . . in twenty-seven parts!” And that’s when I laugh.

Maybe I laugh because it’s a ludicrous portrayal of an educator that would develop such a question and think that it would help a student learn. I think author Jackie Acree Walsh would agree with my perspective. In the book Questioning for Formative Feedback: Meaningful Dialogue to Improve Learning, Acree Walsh identifies four areas to consider when developing focus questions (pp. 107-115):

  1. Content alignment. Identify essential content in the standard being explored and build questions that bring student attention to that content. Ask students to delve deep using questions that call for metacognition. 
  2. Potential value of resulting feedback. Build questions that will help students probe their current perceptions and misconceptions in relevant ways. Such questions often create additional questions and further content knowledge. 
  3. Learner appropriateness. Work to find the Goldilocks question – the one that is just right. Questions that are too easy or shallow will not increase understanding of the content. Questions that are too difficult will cause students to shut down. Revisit Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development to get the underlying theory behind the just right question. 
  4. Clarity and understandability. Use common language in your questions, so that students know what is expected. 

As you prepare for next week, avoid the twenty-seven part question. Instead, craft highly effective f

%d bloggers like this: