Why should teachers organize lessons around analytical questions?

In a recent blog post I argued that one important characteristic of good teaching is to ask students analytical questions.  In contrast with rehearsal or review questions, which ask students to recall previously learned information, analytical questions help a student break down some experience so that she can see the relevant patterns and relationships in the topic you are investigating.  Today, I want to expand a bit on that topic and discuss the benefits of organizing lessons around analytical questions.

There are several benefits to giving this type of question a central role in a lesson.  First of all, it forces the student to think about what she already knows and how it can be applied to the task at hand.  Does this question resemble other questions I’ve had?  If so, what is the connection?  What do I already know that can help answer this question?  Do I need more information? By virtue of connecting new information with what she already knows, this cavalcade of questions makes new ideas and new concepts both more approachable and usable.  The subject of the lesson isn’t something to be filed away for future use simply, but something to be investigated at that moment.

This engagement helps students attend to the lesson.   Because they are being asked to prepare a response, they have to assimilate and interpret the situation the teacher is presenting quite actively.  In contrast, when a student listens to a lecture or observes a demonstration, there are usually no demands for an immediate response and so it is much easier for her mind to wander.  The active engagement of students who have to respond to analytical questions also keeps the energy of the lesson and the interest of the students high.  The analytical questions present the topic as a kind of puzzle, and solving a puzzle is much more exciting than listening to someone explain something.  In addition, something that is considered a problem elicits more of our attention than something that doesn’t present itself to us as problematic.

Another benefit of asking analytical questions during a lesson is, not surprisingly, that it helps to develop a student’s analytical skills.  If a teacher constantly asks, “What patterns and relationships do you see,” then the students get tremendous practice taking things apart to see what makes them tick.  Indeed, they come to see that as a central aspect of learning.

With this approach, moreover, it doesn’t take long for the student to understand the active role he plays in his own learning.  The teacher’s job is to provide activities that help clarify the underlying patterns of a thing that are obscured by ordinary and random experience, but it is the student’s job, in the end, to find the connections herself.  What is truly learned isn’t given, but earned.

In upcoming posts, I’ll continue discussing the benefits of organizing lessons around analytical questions by showing how this technique is used in the ABeCeDarian Reading program.  I also plan to give some examples about how this technique can be applied to math instruction as well.