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Hogan’s Request


I find myself faced with an interesting dilemma this week due to a request posed to me by one of my GT students last spring. His request is indicative of a situation that many gifted kids find themselves struggling with when they are placed in heterogeneous groupings. [We’ll cover various grouping options in an upcoming blog; today’s topic is a tangent.]

School begins for our district after Labor Day, so we here are in the midst of that energetic push we all thrive on at the beginning of a new school year. [I suppose most of you have probably already been in school for a month now, but here in the land of agriculture, state fairs, 4-H, and powwow season, we wait until later. We do our best to enjoy the sunshine before the snowflakes fly!]

Hogan and his classmates are transitioning to a new school this year, so the teachers in that school have essentially no background knowledge on the incoming kids (unlike, for example, a 4th grade teacher who is aware of upcoming students because they’ve been in the same building together for a few years). One day last spring, when I was having a discussion with Hogan’s GT group about their new school this year, he raised his hand and – out of the mouths of babes – made what he probably thought was a simple request. Yet its implications are profound.

“Ms. Fish,” he said, “Could you please not tell our teachers next year who the GT kids are until a few weeks into school? That way we can at least get called on when we raise our hands for a short time…”

The other kids in the group immediately chimed in with their agreement to his request.

Perhaps part perception, part reality, but their explanation was a bit heart wrenching. The kids all said (as it seems to them, at least) that once the teachers (not all of them, but at least some of them) know who the gifted kids are in the class, they quit calling on them when they raise their hands. The teacher has confidence that the gifted kids already know the answer to a question, but she doesn’t always have confidence that other students do. If the purpose of asking the question is to know who understands and who doesn’t – well, then, apparently some must think: why bother calling on the gifted kids?!?!

My students expressed to me the frustration they feel when they are – from their point of view – shut out of participation in their regular classes. Like any other student, these kids just want to learn and participate, too! After months (years?) of raising their hands and not being called on, some of them eventually give up on the process and they quit raising their hands in class. Some go so far as to quit trying to participate altogether. After all, from their point of view, the teacher doesn’t seem to want them to participate in the first place.

[Add a less-than-challenging curriculum into the mix and it’s no wonder some of these amazingly bright kids get turned off about school. Or worse, drop-out altogether. Those could be great topics for future posts.]

Granted, some kids can really be “hand hogs” – raising their hands and expecting to be called on EVERY time. In the society that is a classroom, it of course isn’t realistic for only one child to answer every question. But I’m not referring here to the hand hogs. It’s about those kids who are shut out of class participation because they’re perceived as being “already where they need to be.”

[Yet you can bet that when another student in the class is struggling, who is the first child called upon to help tutor? MmHm. Ironic.]

Why do we pose questions in class? Is it only to assess who has the answer? Shouldn’t we also pose questions to spur on higher-order thinking? To seek out perceptive responses? To highlight various points of view? To establish opportunities for brainstorming and creative problem solving?

If a teacher isn’t calling on the gifted students because he knows they already know the answer, shouldn’t that be a clue that those kids need some curricular accommodation(s)? Couldn’t that be a clue that we need to broaden our question-asking horizons?

So, a little food for thought for everyone as we begin a new school year… Why do you ask questions in your classroom? What are you seeking to learn from your students by their responses? What types of questions do you pose? What implications do your question-asking patterns have for student learning, curriculum, and instruction? And finally, what question-asking strategies do you employ so that the gifted students in your class aren’t shut out from participation in your classroom?


Two quick comments--Susan Winebrenner suggests that questioning is a great place to differentiate. Ask "harder" questions to some; easier to others.

I love the work Nancy Johnson has done on questioning. She has lots of strategies that include NO ONE raising their hand. Kids are called by different means--names on popcicle sticks, for example. For every gifted kid that's not getting called on for the reasons you mentioned, there are struggling students not getting called on either.

At a parent-teacher conference last year, my gifted son's 2nd grade teacher asked why he didn't raise his hand to answer questions in science, given that he's really interested in and advanced in science and clearly would know the answers. I had to tell her that at a couple of science camps he'd been to the previous summer, the counselors had asked him not to raise his hand until (in one case) two other kids had tried to answer and (in the other case) until the counselor had answered and then my son could provide additional details. She thought that was really sad for him. I told her my son was quite good at judging which questions the other kids could answer and so "weren't for him" and which questions were for him because they required more analysis or advanced knowledge. I suggested throwing in a few questions higher up on Bloom's Taxonomy for him to answer. That seemed to work well.

Having just read Stephanie Harvey's new book (Strategies that Work II) I was impressed with the section that dealt with the issue of questioning. She said that most questions teachers ask are comprehension check questions rather than opened ended inquiry questions. It would be obvious that teachers would target the students that struggled to see if there level of understanding had arrived. On the other hand, the more critical question is why don't teachers go beyond to the "think" questions. Some of the reason could be the intense pressure we're under to satisfy the benchmarks. Some of it could be new teacher training that insists we stick precisely to the pacing guide and some of it may be traced to teachers that aren't confident enough as teachers (yet) to stretch their students. It's sad, but too often we don't just don't feel like we have enough time for those kids to move us beyond the "assessment" answer. Gone are the days when a teacher can spend an afternoon exploring the butterfly emerging from the cocoon.

I have worried about this question...not only how it applies to GT students but all students. That's why I use the popsicle stick method most of the time. I really like it because if the student you pull doesn't know the answer, they can call on a colleague consult from another student.

I also have another perspective on the GT student. Frankly they think if you don't call on them everytime, you don't call on them. They are so eager that it is difficult to give other kids think time. I've had some success with asking every student to put their hand in the air when they ..."know the ______________________", then you count how many know and it becomes contagious. Even the uninvolved kids realizes that everyone is supposed to be thinking about an answer and they get with it. But it also gives those GT students a chance to see that everyone can come to an answer if you give them time. Patience. A hard earned talent.

I also think it is perfectly reasonable to ask struggling students questions you know they can answer correctly. And that you ask more "daring" questions to those that withstand being wrong. Many times that falls within the domain of my GT students...they don't really care if they're wrong as long as they get to voice their idea and someone (me or hopefully another student commentator) validates the thinking behind what they offer.

It's also probably why you can joke with the GT students earlier than other kids. They "get" humor and if you tell them that you only joke around with kids that can take it, they rejoice in the interplay of words/ideas. Their example sets the stage for others.

My sticks removes as much as bias as I can. And I think I don't ask all students the equal kinds of questions. I can see that its hard in classes of 29-31 students to think you have had a fair chance....too many kids who all want a say. That's a lot of questions and even more answers!!!!!

I'd like to see the whole concept turned around - rather than the teachers asking the questions and the students answering, as often as possible let the students ask the questions.

THANK YOU Cheryl for posting the thought that the students should be the ones asking the questions instead of the teachers.

I taught fourth graders for eight years and second graders for ten years. Their questions prodded me to develop a "Stump the Resourceress" (or "Resourcerer" if you are male) part of each day and curriculum area.

My favorite question took eight years to find the answer. The question was:
"IF the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into?"

I found that the questions were within the curriculum being studied and came from all ability students.

After all, learning should NOT be limited to what was learned in the past, BUT thinking about what might be learned in the future. Answers needed in the future won't be coming from any one category of students. ALL students, IF they are allowed to pose questions, can find solutions to the upcoming needs of society.

AFTER ALL, a question posed by students just 515 years ago should/may have been, "Is the world round?"

There is another way that gifted kids are shut out of classroom discussion. When the student is finally called on with what to her mind is a burning question, the teacher answers with "I don't know," and goes on with his prepared discussion questions. When I was in teacher-training twenty-some years ago, we were encouraged to "admit" when we didn't know the answer to the question a student posed. Admitting is one thing, but the important thing to do is to pursue that line of inquiry. Otherwise, the gifted student learns that "I don't know" means "Shut up."

"Admitting is one thing, but the important thing to do is to pursue that line of inquiry." I agree. Especially with global resources instantaneously available (read: internet). The answer may ultimately be "nobody knows", but the pursuit is critical. I don't suggest burdoning the teacher with the pursuit, however - I perceive the teacher's (parent's) role as guiding the student's pursuit by suggesting resources, etc. In a sense, by forming the questions, the students do their own differentiation. Writing a report or presentation about the pursuit of that inquiry is a perfect differentiated assignment (with guidance from the teacher on the rubric for the report/presentation). What I think is most important is empowering the student to take control of his/her own education. In a perfect world, that might not be neccessary (then again in a perfect world, that might be the ultimate goal!). But in the real world, where we seem to agree that the system by and large is failing gifted students, we can at the very least help them reduce their dependance on a failing system and empower them to succeed despite it.

P.S. - I also have some favorite questions:

1) For whatever reason, I had reworked the same problem on two consecutive days in a 12th grade pre-calculus class. One of my students asked why I got a different answer the second day than I did the previous day.

2) In an 8th grade honors algebra class, there was a textbook problem where the students had to find the distance travelled in a certain amount of time - the given equation was a function of time squared. One of my students wanted to know why this was different from what he had learned in science class, that distance was a function of velocity and time (not squared).

3) A teenager wanted to know what a beam of light would look like if he could travel with it at the same speed. A related question was why the trajectory of a stone dropped from a moving train was different for an observer on the train than it was for an observer on the ground.

All three of these students were insisting that their world be consistent. The answers:

1) The previous day, I had followed the convention of moving imaginary numbers from the denominator to the numerator, and when I continued with that process the second day the answers did in fact match.

2) The equation in science class assumed no acceleration. If the velocity was itself a function of time (i.e. acceleration), there are then two dependencies on time. I don't think he followed the answer immediately, but I suspect he digested the answer long before any of his classmates thought to ask the question.

3) Of course this one changed the way we know and interact with the universe, and it was the teenager himself who answered it, not his teacher.

I know I'm typing too much, but "Stump the Resourceress" is so cool!

Teach your GT students the Rule of Thumb!You raise your hand and comment- touch your thumb to your first finger, unobtrusively. As others participate, touch the next finger. When 5 others have spoken- and you have genuinely listened-join in again. Some stop calling on the articulate as, in their genuine interest and enthusiasm, they may come to dominate the class, and less articulate students mentally drop out.

Why do we stay focused on questions and answers? Shouldn't an actively involved class of students be in a conversation or dialogue. We don't take enough time to truly converse with our students about the topics we are teaching. The Junior Great Books model of teacher as a facilitator was wonderful in allowing me to bring all students into the discussions...I found myself bringing these higher level questioning strategies into other subject areas and opening up conversations in my classroom in which all students took part.

I had an 11/12 grade precalculus class that gave me the most profound appreciation for teachers who are skilled at differentiation - 30 students from 12th graders who had no working knowledge of Algebra to 11 grade honors students who wanted an "easy A". One assignment that worked very well was a presentation; I chose a few word problems from the textbook at varying levels of difficulty and let the students choose from among these (they could also propose another problem, but noone did). The assignment was to prepare a presentation on how they worked through the problem and what they learned and struggled with along the way. Some of the students who had been very unobtrusive in the large class really shined with this assignment. Unfortunately, I also got 3 presentations with identical mistakes and identical erroneous results.

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