(Not) Going Fishing

Think for a moment – no judgment! – about whether this scenario feels familiar:

Teacher: So, guys, you’ve learned so much about revising in other school years, and we’re going to learn more today. Who can remind us what revising means? John?

John: Well…well…ummm…can I get some help?

Teacher: Sure, uh, Mecca, help him out.

Mecca: Well, revising is like when you get good ideas for writing, and write them down.

Teacher: Weeeeelll…I mean, writing DOES need good ideas, but that’s not quite what I had in mind. Oh, John, you’ve got it now?

John: Yeah, like this one time, I wrote and it was a great idea, like, it turned out to be a great story, it was about my grandfather, and we went hunting, and it was really funny because I had to go to the bathroom…

Teacher: So what is revision?

John: So then, I wrote the story and I checked my spelling so it was perfect.

Teacher: Well, spelling is sooooort of like revision…Anyone else?

Suddenly, your fast review question that was going to be a ten-second reminder to the class of an old concept has turned into a two minute long moment that left half the class convinced that revision has something to do with peeing in the woods.

A lot of us have fallen into this trap – the trap of fishing for answers.

When I work with teachers in classrooms of all sorts, all over the world, one of the most frequent conversations I have is about questioning. I often wonder if teachers think I’m kind of an evil jerk who hates kids when I constantly motion for them to put their hands down during lessons (Who could resist that adorable waving hand? Don’t I care about their ideas?) In my darker moments, I worry that maybe I am, in fact, stifling the thinking of bright young minds, crushing their love of learning.

But then I remember the scenario above. We’ve all been there.

One of the moves that can do the most to tighten your minilessons, focus your instruction, and provide time for real talk, reading, writing, and learning is to cut bait on your fishing questions. Fishing questions are like the one above – you know the right answer, the kids know you know the right answer, and the goal is to see if you can fish it out of a child. Kids’ goals are to avoid being called on, to get called on and show off their mind-reading abilities, or to try to ferret out the right answer from hearing their classmates’ missed guesses.

Compare the scenario above to a question like “We know that revision is when you’re working on making your piece of writing stronger, making it communicate more powerfully. Tell me how you’ve revised in the past.”

To me, that second question does three jobs – reminds kids of what you mean when you say the word revision, invites kids to recall their past experience with revision, and lets you read the room to figure out what this group of kids knows about revision.

The first question has a few problems.   It only does one job for sure – it lets you figure out whether the specific kids you call on know how to define revision. If you’re lucky, it can also do the job of reminding kids of the definition of the word. But the problem with that first question is that it sets you up to (sometimes mistakenly) assume kids don’t know.  Certainly, from reading the exchange above, you’d conclude that John and Mecca aren’t especially confident about what revision means. It would be tempting to shake your head, mumble something about their previous year’s teacher, and haul out the “101” lesson plans.

My question to myself, when faced with that temptation, is to ask myself, “What do I really need to find out here?” If the kids know the definition of revision, but can’t actually revise, how will I know, and how will that help me? And if the reverse is true, if they can revise but can’t state the definition, how will I know, and how will THAT help me?

Some questioning tips that I learned the hard way:

  • Before you pose a question to the class, think about what jobs that question will do. What are you trying to find out? What are you hoping the rest of the class will hear and think about from the question and response?
  • Consider whether the question is one that is best posed teacher to a single student, with the class listening, or whether it’s one that invites a whole class conversation, or whether it’s a topic perfect for partners to turn and talk about.
  • Be ruthless about cutting questions from your lessons. Remember that if you’re looking for one specific answer to a question that sounds like an open-ended question, it is often a fishing question.
  • In the moment, if you’re finding yourself flailing to connect kids’ responses to the right answer, or calling on numerous kids to get a response to what should have been a fast review question – cut bait! Tell kids what you’re thinking – usually the definition of a term or a concept you have a particular explanation for – and then change the question so it forces kids to engage with the concept (like giving an example of the term or idea).


3 thoughts on “(Not) Going Fishing

  1. Pingback: Asking Better Questions | Stop & Jot

  2. Very interesting! It shows how a slight tweak can make a question more thought-provoking and higher level for students. I’ll definitely try this! Thank you!


  3. I have had so many conversations with teachers about this very topic. Time is always our enemy, and our students are forever curious. There is certainly no hope of stopping the clock or altering who our kids are (and would we even want to?), but monitoring how we spend OUR time is in our control. Looking at how we deliver, the instruction may provide us with a clear picture of where we might find the time and clearer student understanding.


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