Tag Archives: pecha kucha

Ask, Don’t Tell: the power of questions

Scientists are not trained to ask questions.

No, excuse me — scientists are absolutely trained to ask questions. In the lab. In the lab we are rabid information ferrets, and we will run up every trouserleg that the great wardrobe in the sky sees fit to provide.

Scientists who become lecturers are not trained to ask questions — at least, not questions of the classroom variety (remember, we’re preoccupied with being subject matter experts). We are trained to talk. And talk. Seriously, if you like to pontificate, you could do worse than become a scientist. It’s like our national sport or something.

And so, at the end of class, because we know we’re supposed to ask this, we ask any questions? and nobody says anything — instead, the entire class launches into a frenzied scramble for their bags and coats. Because “any questions?” is about the worst thing you could possibly ask, and my students know it, even if they don’t explicitly realise it.

And yet, in defiance of the mute, are-we-done-yet hordes, a small trickle of students invariably arrives afterwards to ask questions, or to share something interesting and relevant from their lives. And sometimes, it feels like more teaching and more learning happens in those little conversations than in the whole of the lecture preceding them.

I experienced for myself, and am trying hard not to propagate, the cycle of abuse that is didactic, teacher-led education. “Sit down and shut up” is a powerful message to impose on children — and it’s clearly a sticky one, because by the time my students arrive at university, that’s their expectation of what should happen in class1. Ironically, when students don’t want to interact in class, it’s actually even harder not to ask things like “any questions?”, because we do it out of habit, and stressful situations are great for dredging up our most-ingrained routines.

“If you want to improve any element of your life, learn how to ask better questions.” (via Paul at Brain Friendly Trainer).

I’m a huge fan of asking questions: they’re the fast track to learning (a) how interesting the other person is [seriously: people are fascinating] and (b) all the stuff they know that you don’t. And pretty much everyone likes talking about themselves and their thoughts, so asking questions is good social grease, too.

Asking great questions is also a brilliant habit to build in the classroom. It’s a skill I’ve been quite slow to develop, but I’m getting into it. So here are a few ways that I’ve tried to bring more questions into my classes:

I already posted about how I turned a two-hour lecture into a two-hour problem-based learning session. This was great for two reasons: firstly, I asked the students a ton of questions, which normally isn’t something we make much time for in lectures. Second, and even more exciting, was that the students then started asking their own questions. In front of 60 other students. Seriously, if I do nothing else of value this academic year, I’d almost be okay just with that. (Well, not really. But you know.)

I added media clips to my lectures as an excuse to ask concept checking questions. I showed my students Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk about the subjective experience of having a stroke. Watch it if you haven’t already — not only does she bring great insights from her knowledge of the brain (she’s a neuroscientist), but she also gives the talk with great humour and humanity. And instead of giving students multiple-choice questions afterwards (Did the stroke attack (A) the left (B) the right or (C) both hemispheres of Jill Bolte Taylor’s brain?), I asked much harder questions: What are the physical and emotional consequences of a left-hemispheric stroke? How do you see objects that appear in your left visual field? Outline the path taken by information through your brain. And so on. (I let them talk through it with a partner first, before I threw it open to the class. Small steps.)

For reasons outlined here, I changed the format of student presentations to Pecha Kucha (which I must write about soon, because it completely deserves its own post). And we went from from “mostly the student talking” to “the student talks for a while and then everyone pitches in with questions and discussion” — which, for the record, is a way better experience. For everyone. (I collected questionnaire data that says so, too.) Nothing makes a class interactive faster than getting students interested enough in the subject to ask each other questions.

I stopped telling and started asking. This wasn’t a class-specific intervention, just something I’ve consciously started trying to do over the last couple of years every time students get stuck: I answer their questions with questions of my own. It seems especially useful when working with very reticent students, but it’s also a handy tool when guiding students who are struggling to express their thoughts on paper: how do you know that? What evidence do you have? Why is that relevant?

What have I learned? Asking questions works. I’ve had really positive feedback from students about these sessions, and I know in my heart that I’m asking better questions and getting students to think more actively about the problems I’m setting. I’ve also learned that if your concentration lapses, even for a moment, it’s really hard not to reflexively ask “any questions?”, so deeply ingrained is the concept. (I guess the only solution to that is more practice.)

Yes, these activities are all things I should have been doing to begin with — but remember that didactic, scientific background, and show me a little mercy; breaking the cycle of abuse can take a while.

And now I want to add a whole session on “asking questions” to the teaching certificate.

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Edit, one day after posting: One other thing that I learned, just today, is that sometimes it’s okay to ask if there are any [further] questions, if everyone is good and warmed up, and you have time to spare. Because they were, and we did – and students came up with some great questions. Stuff I had no idea about, but about which it was fun to speculate. But I think people really have to be in that headspace and comfortable with the idea of asking questions in class before this will work.

1 Okay, some of students’ reticence in class is also driven by not wanting to look like an idiot in front of their peers, in case the question is “a stupid one” … one day I might turn up at class wearing a t-shirt that says THERE ARE NO STUPID QUESTIONS — ONLY STUPID LECTURERS, but you just know that’s going to backfire in ways that are both immensely embarrassing and completely predictable.

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Pecha Kucha and Ignite: the sonnets of presentation

Sometimes we get our students to give talks – with slides – instead of writing yet another essay. I like this – it challenges them in new ways.  Some students clearly find the experience very uncomfortable (maybe I would have, too, at that age) but it’s always interesting, and sometimes they surprise and delight us.

Mostly, we are fairly strict about the timing: talks are usually in the range of 10 – 15 minutes, plus a little time for questions.  This partly reflects class size: any longer and we would have to find several afternoons in the timetable, instead of two or three; this would be hard, since time (particularly for staff) is at a premium. But even within that small space, students are able to demonstrate the extent of their knowledge and excitement about a particular topic.  In fact, I’d say we’re probably giving them more than enough rope with which to hang themselves.

One of the problems I think students have with giving presentations is that they readily conflate slides, and slide content, with the presentation itself; this is often expressed as reams of text on slide after slide, which students then read aloud.  They’re not thinking about added value – the value they themselves add.  Perhaps this is partly the fault of lecturers and presenters everywhere who do this too, and perhaps institutions – mine included – are to blame for placing the emphasis on making slides available after lectures/presentations/workshops, as though the slides were a ready substitute for the talk.  (They’re not; if they are, we’re in slideument territory.)

So if we’re going to assess students on the basis of their presentations, perhaps we should focus more on actual presentation skills.  I get very excited about Pecha Kucha (20 slides at 20 seconds each: a 6-minute presentation) and Ignite (same format but 15 and 15, giving a 5-minute presentation).  These represent the presentation equivalent of a sonnet: a strict form, but total freedom therein.  Constraints are often a spur to creativity, which is why trying to write haiku is so much fun (graphic designers, pregnant women and those of a nervous disposition may want to steel themselves before clicking; I have never seen such frightening wallpaper).

Of course, there are potential downsides to using this approach: how do we grade a student who just loses it in the moment? Will the presentation content be too simplistic because of the time constraints? Is it even possible to stuff serious academic material inside one of these talks?

But I think there’s a counter-argument to be made there too: five or six minutes is enough to get a message across, but in a really focused way. Both formats force the presenter to think hard about what goes on the slide, and what they’re going to say in the allotted time; they encourage development of real, actual presentation skills.  Ignite and Pecha Kucha also kill Death By Bullet-Point, kill it dead, since you can’t reasonably expect people to read more than a few words in 15 or 20 seconds.

If we shift the focus of making a presentation towards actual presentation skills, that’s surely good for students’ employability.  Presentation skills are increasingly important in our blah blah knowledge economy, and employers want graduates with a bit of polish (yeah yeah, add your Modern Languages jokes to the pile by the door).  And we need polish: I would do almost anything to avoid a repeat of the mortifying shared experience I once had, watching a presenter stumble over one of the fundamental technical terms in her presentation: after the first bungled attempt to pronounce it, she just skipped blithely over it – “yeah, I can’t say that word”. Ouch.

We can do better.

(Sometimes I think about starting an Ignite/Pecha Kucha club here, and then I remember how much free time I don’t have.)

Edit: My husband just pointed out that it’s not unusual at academic conferences to be asked to give a talk lasting less than ten minutes, so maybe it’s possible to squeeze enough science into five or six.

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