How to listen effectively and ask deeper questions


“The ability to think – to be a lifelong seeker and integrator of new knowledge – is based on the ability to ask and consider important questions.” (Richetti & Sheerin, 1999)

I’ve always thought I was a good listener but during an action research project for my Master’s, I discovered that I had much work to do. Early in my teaching career I was given the opportunity to mentor a beginning teacher. I used this as a chance to examine my questioning and listening skills. Effective questioning is an important skill for a mentor as it can prompt self-reflection and influence self-confidence and self-awareness. It can help people think deeply about their practice, critically reflect on their teaching, and promote discussion. A good mentor asks questions to help gain an insight into a teacher’s decision-making process and unpack what they did in their practice but more importantly, determine why. And crucially, ask deeper questions where I did not already know the answer.

After listening to a recording of our initial conversation before I had decided to undertake this project, I discovered that I talked for the majority of time, asked closed questions, tried to solve all the problems, and shared my own experiences. As uncomfortable as it is to have a spotlight cast on these things, it was a lightbulb moment of required growth for me. Instead of problem solving or providing solutions, as a mentor, I decided to use effective questions to shift the focus and responsibility from me to my mentee, and encourage her to become more self-aware and develop her own solutions, with my guidance.

Some questions before intervention:

  1. So that’s your main goal? Do you have any other…?
  2. Have you filled in any information for the Practicing Teacher Criteria?
  3. Do you use PAT [Progressive Achievement Tests] data?
  4. I always find that’s an interesting one to watch – the pace of a lesson, don’t you think?

The literature, and common sense, suggests not to ask too many questions in order to encourage articulation, it can leave people feeling as if they are under attack. To be a more effective mentor, I worked to:

  • Develop open-ended, higher-level order questions based on Sam’s (pseudonym used) goals and tailored to her needs. These types of questions have been found to be more effective and would stimulate rich discussion and thinking for both me and Sam (Thurlings et al., 2012).
  • Create wait time to elicit deeper and well-thought out responses to Sam. This would also ensure that I jumped in to provide the answer (Polluck, 1993).
  • Give Sam questions via email in advance of our meetings. This gave her time to understand the questions and prepare responses.
  • Listen more and talk less.

My new approach to questioning for a classroom observation looked like this:
The difference was significant. Our conversations were much more focused on Sam and her practice. Ensuring Sam had time to read these questions before our meeting meant she wasn’t caught off-guard and helped to build our relational trust. I spent less time talking and was able to focus on allowing enough wait time to elicit responses. It was a challenge for me to remain silent, but was valuable because Sam generated much deeper responses that showed her thinking about her own performance and what she needed to change. I was able to reflect and determine that it is not my responsibility to generate all solutions. This had wider implications as I then started to think how I interacted with my students and if I did the same thing. I was reminded of the idea of ako – which describes the reciprocal nature of teaching and learning. Sure, I was the mentor, but I learned a lot about my own practice and my own need for growth. Indeed, isn’t that the joy of teaching? You are continually learning.

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