A teacher’s job is full of questions; that’s what we do really, live in questions. Answering, asking, composing, rephrasing — all those questions fill our day. And then we ask some more questions — questions that we hope will challenge our students, push them deeper, and foster critical thinking.
We perfect our questioning skills to avoid trite answers and reveal the true extent of thinking, learning and understanding of students. These queries help us re-frame and reflect to improve our teaching and increase understanding. We learn how and when questions are most effective to improve the learning process. Pooja Agarwal’s Powerful Teaching reveals the neuroscience involved in how we learn best and when in the learning process questioning is most effective. She outlines the importance of retrieval practice, “pulling information out of students’ heads” and demonstrates how it boosts students’ knowledge and higher-order thinking (Agarwal 14). How is retrieval practice done? Well, there are a variety of ways, like no-stakes quizzes, short answer questions, or brain dumps, but they all start with questions prompting students to remember (retrieve) what they learned yesterday, two days ago, last week, etc. It’s amazing how much better students learn material when we employ questioning that guides students to retrieve information, concepts, etc. In fact, Agarwal cites a 2006 study by Henry L. Roediger, III and Jeffrey Karpicke at Washington University in St. Louis which showed how most of us think re-reading information is the way to go, and in the short term it is effective but retrieval practice demonstrated better long term results.
An important aspect of questioning is the act of self-reflection. Questioning the how and why throughout the process of creating and delivering lessons is key to improvement. Sometimes it can be a difficult, agonizing process because it forces you to accept your shortcomings and mistakes — I know because I’ve been there a lot. It is a vulnerable position and being vulnerable is pretty scary — but it is worth it when the increased understanding and wisdom fosters improvement in yourself and for students.
While self-questioning in the form of reflection is a good thing, it can have a dark side. I’ve been trapped there many times. The quagmire of self-doubt, primarily caused by negative questioning and subsequent destructive self-talk, sucks you into a black, slimy, squelching mess to struggle and sink ever deeper. It’s a nasty place that foments negativity and shatters confidence. Furthermore, continued toxic self-talk can limit and affect your thinking, cause relationship issues and prompt feelings of depression.
Elizabeth Scott, in her article “How to Reduce Negative Self-Talk for a Better Life”, says that negative self-talk is “any inner dialogue you have with yourself” and that it “can follow the path of typical cognitive distortions: catastrophizing, blaming, and the like.” Furthermore, our ‘inner critic‘ “[limits our] ability to believe in [ourself] and [our] own abilities, and reach [our] potential. It is any thought that diminishes [us] and [our] ability to make positive changes in [our] life or [our] confidence in [our] ability to do so. Because of this, negative self-talk can not only be stressful, but it can really stunt [our] success.”
When questioning ourselves leads to self-doubt and this sort of negative spiral into the quagmire, we need to practice some kindness on ourselves and limit the detrimental effects and get ourselves into a more positive, healthy state of mind. There are numerous techniques that can be employed, four of which Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D. summarizes in her article from Psychology Today, “4 Ways to Stop Beating Yourself Up, Once and For All”. She admonishes that we should do the following:
- Notice the Critic – awareness is the first step to reducing and getting rid of that annoying inner critic.
- Separate the Critic – we often struggle to separate ourselves from the critic and one way to do this is to give it a name… literally. Names that might help you not take the critic so seriously may help, face it, would you trust the opinion of “Nasty Nincompoop” or “The Old Hag”?
- Talk Back – start by remembering that thoughts and feelings aren’t reality — that can help you start to argue back and begin to build an inner ally.
- Replace the Critic – By talking back and building an inner ally, we can begin to replace the critic and eventually get him fired! Cross-examining that critic and listing GOOD things along with thinking like a friend will help strengthen your inner ally and banish the critic from your thought processes.
Agarwal, Pooja K., and Patrice M. Bain. Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2019.
Scott, Elizabeth. “How to Reduce Negative Self-Talk for a Better Life.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 23 June 2019, https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-self-talk-and-how-it-affects-us-4161304.
Vilhauer, Jennice. “4 Ways to Stop Beating Yourself Up, Once and For All.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 28 Mar. 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/living-forward/201603/4-ways-stop-beating-yourself-once-and-all.