Guiding Questions – What Are They? [And Why Use Them in Online ESL?]

Guiding Questions – What Are They? [And Why Use Them in Online ESL?]

When learning a new skill or subject a student will be encouraged to consider a specific topic, but in an impersonal sense. Take, for instance, a traditional school curriculum.

A student will be told to study the Normans, or the Vikings, or the Russian Bolshevik Revolution. Each ‘topic’ will consist of various sub-topics that the student will be expected to remember: social divides, wars, foreign relations...

The student cannot connect with them in a more personal sense. They may well be capable of recalling a statistic or figure, but a deeper sense of understanding will elude them.

This approach results in a world full of adults who can honestly suggest that school is a waste of time – they can recall a few Roman emperors, know how to recognise a fraction, and can take a good stab at telling the difference between a verb and an adjective.

Who can blame them for feeling like school wasn’t worth their time and effort?

If a teacher should choose to employ what are called ‘guiding questions’ then this issue can be avoided.

So, what are Guiding Questions?

Guiding questions encourage conversation between student and teacher, and result in a fundamental sense of understanding.

A guiding question is a question which encourages a student to consider the information they have been taught, but to come up with their own answers.

In studying sociology, instead of asking ‘why is crime bad?’ consider asking ‘are there any instances in which an illegal action may be justified?’

A guiding question must not include a suggestion as to the ‘correct’ answer. It cannot ask ‘why is x good/bad?’ This is a leading question, and will not allow a student to consider all aspects of a subject.

What does a Guiding Question look like?

On the surface a guiding question can appear to suffer from the same propensity for generalities as the ‘traditional’ school curriculum. This belief would not survive exposure to guiding questions.

A student encouraged to consider the question ‘what would life be like aboard a Viking longship?’ will develop a much greater understanding than a student asked to remember ten things about Vikings.

A student asked to roleplay a customer, perhaps trying to order a coffee in an Italian cafe, will come to terms with the language much quicker than a student asked to remember the names of three different beverages; likely with the typical ‘and use them in a sentence’ bolted on at the end, resulting in the jumbled word-salad of half-remembered expressions that many of us have.

The ability to recall the words for ‘swimming pool’, ‘horse’ and ‘red’ is a poor reward for studying a foreign language.

Why should I use a Guiding Question?

Guiding questions can prove to be an excellent teaching tool for those offering ‘English as a Second Language’ teaching services.

Guiding Questions

Consider asking your student about their favourite part of the local park, or to discuss the plot of the worst movie they’ve ever seen.

A ‘traditional’ list of ‘these are verbs, these are adjectives, remember them and use them in a sentence by next week’ is unlikely to leave your student with lasting sense of understanding, and will not give them a feeling of what it’s like to use the language.

Language is personal, and social; expressive, and restrictive; you can use it to show or you can use it to hide. Your student cannot be expected to internalise and understand what it is to use a language by use only of the ‘traditional’ list of adjectives/verbs/adverbs.

Ask them some guiding questions, encourage them to engage with and think about the topic beyond simply memorisation, and watch them understand.

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Guiding Questions

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