George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"Q & A teaching" is a practice that I was sometimes guilty of, and one that I've frequently seen throw off a lesson in many other teachers' classrooms. This occurs during the direct instruction portion of the lesson -- the instruction turns into a Q & A session instead of the teacher giving a clear model or explanation.

Teacher: I'm now going to model how to solve this type of problem. First I set up my equation. Now, who thinks they have an idea of what I should do next?

(30 seconds waiting for hands)

Student 1: Solve for x?

Teacher: Well, before that. You're on the right track, but what would I do first?

Student 2: Get the x by itself?

Teacher: No, not quite. What I'm going to do first is . . .

And then the lesson goes on in that confusing, start-stop fashion.

It's easy to understand why we do this -- we want students to be involved and stay engaged in the lesson. The problem for a lesson covering a new skill, though, is that the end result is disjointed instruction possibly including wrong information, since students were asked to contribute aloud before they were ready. This can lead to confusion for students, since the lesson wasn’t presented clearly and succinctly. Another possible risk is that it can throw off the pacing of the lesson, since this Q & A is usually impromptu and not accounted for in the timing of the lesson. Q&A teaching is often the culprit when you realize that your direct instruction took 30 minutes and you'd only planned for it to take ten.

Here are some ideas for how to avoid it.

1. Announce Your Intention

Openly tell the students that you're doing a model and that you'll check for their understanding at the end. Announcing that can often be enough of a reminder to yourself not to make it conversation. If you're comfortable, you could assign a student to make sure you don't interrupt your model by asking them questions. My students loved it when they got to be in charge of me for something.

2. Raise the Stakes

Prior to your direct instruction, give the students a little time to try figuring it out by themselves. This can be particularly effective in a math class or another problem-solving situation for which they have already learned some of the concepts or skills. In this scenario, the kids are engaged in trying to problem solve on their own, and then when you're modeling, they're anxious to see whether they got it right or what your solution is, and so are likely to stay engaged as they follow along.

3. Rehearse the Lesson

Script out and practice your direct instruction ahead of time. This can be time consuming, but it can really pay off for crucial concepts. When you script and practice what you're going to say, you give yourself the opportunity to really make sure that you’re putting that concept or skill into words -- and doing it succinctly.

4. Watch the Clock

Use a timer for direct instruction. If you've been talking for 15 minutes and you're still not done, 90 percent of the time you probably won't make things any clearer by talking for even longer. So just stop and let your students try the task with their groups or partners.

5. Watch Yourself Teach

Video your direct instruction and then watch it. This can be terrifying for some, but it's incredibly helpful. We often make assumptions about our teaching and only realize some of our tendencies when we actually see ourselves doing them. When you watch that video, you can identify whether Q & A teaching is a problem for you and what kinds of distracting questions you're asking kids. Once you know that, you can plan for how to avoid it.

Keeping your direct instruction clear, succinct and as short as possible is essential for ensuring that students are spending as much time as possible grappling with the concept and practicing new skills. What other strategies do you use to keep your instruction succinct and avoid Q & A teaching?

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Stephanie Baugher Oyster's picture
Stephanie Baugher Oyster
Sixth grade Language Arts teacher from Austintown, Ohio

I am a first-year teacher and I constantly find myself writing down little notes on things I want to remember to discuss with the kids. It doesn't look like a script, per se, but it does help me remember to cover everything I was intending to. Also, one thing I'd like to add to this list is simply telling the students, "Hold your questions until the end." It helps to eliminate questions intended to start off-task behavior.

Kristen's picture

This sure is a different way to look at instruction! I always thought learning was supposed to be "inquiry-based," especially now with Common Core. I think a good way to still have that inquiry based learning is to "Raise the Stakes" like you stated before. Since I teach first grade, I will normally do that by giving my students manipulatives, such as base ten blocks, to work with and try to solve a problem before I fully teach them how. It is amazing to see what they can do!

Nicolas Connault's picture

It's not the Q, but the A that's an issue. Questions can be one of the best teaching tools, but they mustn't be used to fish for answers.

Kiera Bridges's picture

Hello! I am a pre-service teacher. I am studying Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in EC-6th grade. I found you blog to be very insightful. I could relate to the dialogue, because I have been in classrooms where teachers tend to do that. There is a difference between an engaging lesson and a Q&A session. I really like your ideas on how to avoid the Q&A teaching; they are all really great and could get any Q&A teacher on the right track. How did you come up with those five specific ideas?

Petra Claflin's picture
Petra Claflin
Manager of Digital Media and head blogger for YES Prep Public Schools.

Hi Kiera! I'm glad you liked the ideas in the blog. The ideas came from my own experience in the classroom and also from my time as an instructional coach. This problem is common, but there's not a one-size-fits-all solution, so I, and my teachers, had to try different things.

Jane's picture
elementary special ed teacher

Good reminder and great suggestions for avoiding a Q&A lesson. I hate to admit it but I know I have presented more than one Q&A lesson with the intention of keeping students engaged.

Mary Ann Stoll's picture
Mary Ann Stoll
Curriculum developer for K-12

"Questions can be one of the best teaching tools, but they mustn't be used to fish for answers."

Wow, that is an eye-opening statement. Questions that fish for the "right" answer do set up and/or reinforce a quiz-like approach to teacher-to-student interaction that tends to shift students away from creative and critical thought.

Bon Crowder's picture
Bon Crowder
Math Mom & Education Advocate

I have some issues with your points. But for now I'll address the small one.

Your sample teacher says, "No, not quite" in response to the suggestion to get the x by itself. When in fact, that's EXACTLY what should be done. A better response might be, "Yes, and there's a few steps in between the problem and having x by itself. Do you have a suggestion for a smaller in-between step?"

The word "no" shouldn't ever be used when solving math problems. Rarely is something wrong. Often steps are unhelpful or cause more work. But those steps aren't wrong.

For example, consider the problem 5x + 2 = 12. It wouldn't be wrong to divide both sides by 5. It would create fractions and be a little annoying, but it certainly isn't wrong.

Even if you divided both sides by 5 and got x + 2 = 12/5, it isn't WRONG. It, in fact, is an untrue statement created by applying some "Calvin Ball" steps. But those steps aren't wrong. They just don't apply to our real number system with our accepted definitions of addition and multiplication.

Okay, that might be semantics. But since students are already in the right-wrong mode in math class, we really should avoid the "no" word.

Find another way. But quit saying no.

tamika's picture

So, I have to admit, I totally did this yesterday. The students were so chatty, that I doubted they were actually engaging with the work. After circulating and seeing incomplete responses or very generic responses, I then resorted to exactly the kind of teaching you've described. Meanwhile, I felt I was doing the WRONG thing. The Q&A allowed me clarify concepts, but it went against everything I had hoped to do. The timing of this article is beyond perfect.

tamika's picture

I read this article again and your logic, explanation and solutions are truly spot on. I envisioned today's lesson using your points and I can see how it engaging the lesson would be. My biggest challenge is my disruptive students. They disrupt students who attempt to delve in to the work. I am currently writing my lesson plan for the week and am going to really tighten it up. Thank you again.


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