The Simplest Tool a Teacher or Parent Should Never Forget - The Question

Teaching is hard. It's so hard we sometimes tend to forget about the simplest things. But they are often the most effective...



Doing something over and over again and getting better and better at it sometimes hides the big picture from us. We start digging deeper and deeper into the specifics and while we learn about all kinds of new fascinating tools, tricks and approaches, we sometimes start overlooking the basics.

This is certainly the case with me and I always need to remind myself to keep it simple at least from time to time.

A Problem With Modern Education

There has been a lot of ink spilled on how imperfect the current school system is and how it needs to be changed radically. But if we have to be honest, teachers also have a lot of tools at their disposal to make huge difference for their students as is, but we often forget to use them.

Personally, one of the main problems I see with the way teaching is currently organized is the fact that students are treated like storage units. In a lot of the classes taking place today, teachers simply unload a ton of information on them with the hope that it will stick. They want to load up the storage unit that is the student's mind and they want to be able to retrieve this ready-made knowledge on demand. Tests, exams and questions during class are often aimed at checking that the content required is still there in the exact shape and form that it was delivered in.

But this is not how the human mind works and hearing, remembering and repeating is not the best method to make sure a person learns something. A person learns something by processing it and we need to encourage our students to be processing and internalizing what they are supposed to be learning. Very often we as teachers who care about our students try to make our classes more successful without addressing this issue directly. We find new and creative ways to present information, but we forget about a very simple tool that can spark curiosity and promote learning and understanding in a very different way...

The Power of a Difficult Question

And I'm not talking about questions that try to just probe the storage for the binder that the teacher tried to stuff there yesterday. I'm talking about questions that show the student that there is something to be understood there.

Every class has the goal of teaching something, but if we just present the new information, it's hard for the students to view it as significant even if we present it in a memorable way. The human mind needs to be engaged for real learning to occur and it's much more engaged when it's searching for an answer rather than when it is just given the answer ready-made without even having been asked the question.

This is why I think that we as teachers and educators need to always remember to try and plant that seed of curiosity. One way to do it is to make your students really experience the feeling of having an unanswered question and wanting to learn the answer. We should not only ask the class the question, but make sure the students ask themselves and really wonder about it.

While I was still teaching, I used to forget this quite often and was instead worrying about curricula, exams, schedules and grades. But when I remembered to include the right questions to ask in the beginning of every class, everything seemed to go much more smoothly and the students seemed to be learning more while having more fun and staying interested for longer.

I always tried to ask related questions that I knew the students would initially struggle with. I even added misleading details to give them the chance to think about it the wrong way first. Getting it wrong at first is part of the fun! The more difficult the question, the more they were engaging with it and the more they were struggling, the bigger of an aha moment they got when we untangled that mess together.

Regardless of what we are teaching, having the students try to figure it out on their own first opens their minds up for understanding. It makes them care about the information that will be presented afterwards and allows them to really internalize the answers.

A Simple Example From Physics

When I was teaching physics, I would open class with a question from the topic of the day that I expected them to get wrong. Like giving them a piece of wood and a piece of metal that have been in the room for hours and asking them to pass them around and tell me which is colder. Then we would vote and I would record their votes on the board. Then I'd start asking question like why do you think the metal is colder if both of them have been here in the same room temperature air. I would ask them what is the process that takes away heat from the metal to make it colder than the wood or where does the heat that stays in the wood come from. They would hypothesize for awhile, but I would wait for them to discover the contradictions on their own first only helping with leading or even misleading questions.

And only after they had been scratching their heads for a while, I'd tell them that most of them had gotten it wrong and ask them to think about it again. Then I would finally explain that both the wood and the metal are more or less the same temperature and that they feel different because of their different thermal conductivity and that both the wood and the metal are colder than our bodies, but the metal feels colder because it has higher thermal conductivity which allows it to lead more heat away from our fingers and hands.

Now, if I hadn't asked them all the questions and if they hadn't made some wrong assumptions, presenting this physics concept would have been dry and boring. But since their curiosity had already been sparked by not being able to get the right answer right away, they were ready to dive into the concept and had the motivation to understand, internalize and remember it.

I am sure that every discipline allows for such discussion about real things that can spark the interest of the students so their minds are ready and open to learning the piece of knowledge meant for today. That's why I want to remind all my fellow teachers to remember this really powerful teaching tool - the good old question. And don't forget to pick a difficult and frustrating one because those are the ones that come with fascinating answers later!

Of course, all of this goes to parents, too as this approach is always applicable.

So tell me...

How often do you open classes with discussion like that? Do you include hard questions in your lesson plans? Will you try to do that more often now that you have been reminded of this simple but powerful tool?


Very well stated. Teach them how to process information and problem solve not just cold hard facts. I love the example of the metal and the wood! Only master teachers do this level of teaching. Will try to incorporate it into my parenting. Great post! Steem on.

Thank you! I'm very glad you've found some value in my post and that you have taken something out that you could put to practice in your life. That's the best reward for a post one could hope for! :)

It seems like the easiest thing to do is download information because there's so much to get through that will end up on a yearly standardized test.

And we want all students to do equally well on the test so there's less time for exploration or working through a problem. Was that your experience at all? Did the tests actually measure the knowledge of the student, or the teaching ability of the teacher?

As I've said before, it's a rare skill to be able to teach, especially youth, and I like how you tried to approach it.

It seems like the easiest thing to do is download information because there's so much to get through that will end up on a yearly standardized test.

The thing is when you just bombard students with pile and piles of info they don't retain any. And if they are going to do well on the tests afterwards, you need to count on them to put the effort to study at home and internalize it on their own. And when they don't do it, you need to find time to explain the same things again when they are already scared and/or tired of them. Every proper lesson plan and curriculum has some time set aside for interactivity and what I'm saying is that if you put that interactivity in the beginning to open the topic, the rest of it goes over quicker and easier and the students grasp the concepts better and do better on later tests. It's much easier to remember something that you understand and have cared about even for a bit.

For instance, I recently met a former student on the street who is now a car mechanic and the reason I included the wood and metal example in the post is because he told me he still remembers that and gets reminded of it whenever touching "cold" metal at his job. And he used to be a pretty bad and careless student.

And we want all students to do equally well on the test so there's less time for exploration or working through a problem.

It might be counter-intuitive, but you don't. If you want them to do good on the tests, you want them to spend as much time as possible pondering the matter. When you just tell them the facts, they do very little thinking and very little understanding and when it comes time for the tests, they can't remember much and are easy to get confused. If they have spent time truly thinking about it and probing at the issue looking for an answer actively, the logic and solution tend to stick with them more and even if they have forgotten the detail, they have a higher chance of engaging in critical thinking on the test and allowing logic and understanding to lead them to the correct answer.

Did the tests actually measure the knowledge of the student, or the teaching ability of the teacher?

Well-written tests do measure some knowledge, but they also tend to measure "test-taking abilities". The same student would do much better on a test in a format they are familiar with rather than on a test that works in a brand new way. So part of the strategy to get your students to do well on a standardized exam is to teach them about the format. Sometimes simple test-taking tricks based on statistics could help a student raise their score more than a bunch of hours of studying at home. In that sense, having a teacher willing to explain that gives you an unfair advantage at the test. Additionally, there are students who have decent knowledge who simply don't do well with test because of other factors like not doing well under stress or simply having a test format that plays to their weaknesses.

Standardized test can give a lot of insight into the general state of education, but in places where the teachers are dependent on their student's scores, you see too much time being devoted to test-taking instead of proper understanding and retention. For instance, there might be important concepts that would be crucial to the continued education of the student, but that are hard to properly test at an exam. If the teacher cares about the scores now, they might simply skip the concept entirely and use the time for test-taking skills.

But my experience with standardized testing hasn't been too huge. Bulgaria doesn't have too many of those, but when my students have taken tests like that, they have done reasonably well. I'm not counting my English as a second language students as I tended to be given the more advanced classes to teach as they suited my teaching style better, so when those students aced their maturity exams at the end high school, it wouldn't be fair for me to claim much credit as they were already significantly above average at it to begin with. Of course I'm proud that none of them ever got a B, but still... ;)

As I've said before, it's a rare skill to be able to teach, especially youth, and I like how you tried to approach it.

I'm very glad to hear that! :)

I wish more teachers were like you, instead of trying to stuff the kids heads with information and hoping it doesn't leak out! (Flight of the Navigator)

Thank you! I appreciate both the sentiment and the support! I do think many teachers start out that way, but the daily grind sometimes takes a toll. That's why I think this is something that's worth reminding. There were times when I could have used this reminder myself.

Great lesson!

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