The Threat of Questioning – What We Can Learn From Brain-based Learning Research

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Professional Development

Teachers have been asking questions for centuries and for centuries there have been students who do all they can to avoid answering. Some teachers try a variety of means to force the reluctant to answer from time to time, but more often, the path of least resistance in calling on those all too eager to answer is the path taken.

Today we have scientific evidence to support what many teachers have long suspected. Some students feel threatened when asked a question. In 1983, researcher Leslie Hart published Human Brain, Human Learning in which he explained how the brain learns best when challenged, but shuts down when it senses a threat. Today this is an accepted principle of brain-based learning.

It is easy to restrict our thinking about constructing an accepting and non-threatening classroom environment as one where physical safety is not an issue. In many urban schools, physical safety is a major problem.

However, “social” safety should be of equal concern. Regardless of whether the learning environment is a formal classroom or an industrial training workshop, no learner wants to appear “stupid” to those around him or her. Fear of looking foolish or stupid is highly threatening and leads to the brain shifting into survival mode where avoiding answering becomes the paramount concern.

The problem is compounded by those learners who are truly interested in demonstrating what they know and those who are interested in impressing everyone around them with their brilliance.

Teachers and instructors in all settings find it all too easy to call repeatedly on those students from whom they know they will get an intelligent answer. In most cases, teachers tolerate the “show-offs.” All the while, some other students feel deeply threatened by the whole process. Intelligent responses make them feel inadequate and responses to impress have the desired effect on these threatened students – they are awed by the apparent superiority of the respondent.

The threat of social ridicule has always been present and eliminating it is not easy. In the distant past, teachers could tell themselves such reluctant students were still learning, even though they were reluctant to participate. However, we now know that may not always be true.

There are several steps instructors can take to begin to build an environment where questions are not seen as threats. The first is to begin a process of ensuring that everyone is called on to respond at some point.

The second is to be accepting of all responses, avoiding undue praise of better answers and no comments of lesser answers.

The third and perhaps the most effective is to facilitate student-to-student questioning. Social safety is often a matter of finding and developing peer support for those less inclined to get involved in questioning and discussion. It is not always easy, but teachers need to be looking for potentially supportive peer pairings within the classroom.

In today’s rush to instil all sorts of interactive learning experiences into educational settings, it is easy to overlook the sad but true fact that not all learners are presently equipped to deal with these methods. However, they too deserve a challenging but non-threatening educational experience.

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