Students typically see us as the ultimate “answerers” for their questions. Of course, many questions they have, such as classroom expectations, routines, assignments, etc., are our purview. Our timely and efficient responses can move classroom activities along and minimize confusion and distractions.
Students also frequently have questions related to the learning tasks, challenges, and projects that support their learning. These questions can be important to moving learning forward, but we’re not always the best person to answer them. In fact, when and how students wrestle with these questions can help their learning to grow, inject greater meaning into their learning, and build learning-related skills for the future.
In the interest of time and convenience, we may tell students what their next steps should be, how to find the answers to their learning questions, or we may simply give them the resources they seek. Yet, when we do, we may be helping them to solve today’s problem, while neglecting some of their most important learning.
Rather than supplying ready answers, the learning interests of our students are better served by our helping them to find answers, develop strategies, and tap resources available to them. Our positioning shifts from being the “chief answerer,” to coach and co-explorer. Rather than immediately answering the learning-related questions students pose, we might respond with coaching questions to help them see options to finding answers and alternatives to pursue. Here are five coaching questions we might employ.
First, what do you think? Students often come to us without having given much thought once they encounter a barrier or are not certain what to do next. We might have a “try three before me” expectation, but even so, students may have ideas and perspectives they’ve not considered or pursued. By asking students what they think, we send a message that their ideas and perspectives matter, and they may have answers they’ve not recognized. At the very least, this question reminds students that learning is what they do. We can’t do it for them.
Second, what else might you try? The typical response to this question is, “I’ve tried everything I know.” We might explore with students the attempts they’ve made and what they’ve learned from doing so. We also can coach students to think about additional steps and strategies that have worked for them in the past that might be useful. The goal is to have students “mine” their experience and develop additional options and steps they can try.
Third, what do you know that doesn’t work? With this response, we’re coaching students to reflect further on what they’ve tried. Even though previous attempts weren’t successful, they may have encountered an element or aspect that could be part of the answer they’re seeking. The underlying message is that failed attempts can contain information they can use and be valuable learning experiences.
Fourth, how else might you think about this? Sometimes the answer lies in backing up and starting anew rather than pressing harder and pushing farther. This question invites students to reframe the problem or situation and consider it from a different perspective. When approached from a new direction, the answer may be clear and immediately useful.
Fifth, who else could you ask? Students can become trapped in the mindset that they must solve every learning problem on their own. Yet, classmates often can be good resources. Other people in their lives may have insights and ideas. Even experts in the community and beyond may be helpful resources. In life, success is less often determined by how intelligent we are and more by the intelligence we’re willing to tap.
Of course, we need to place our questions in a coaching context, so that students understand our purpose is to build their learning skills and flexibility, not torment them. Our questions can provide valuable opportunities to remind students that the work they’re doing and the support we’re providing are intended to prepare them for future learning success, not only to complete today’s assignment or this week’s project.