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Seminar Approach Builds 21st-Century Skills

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present this classroom teaching tip based on the book Teaching Critical Thinking: Using Seminars for 21st Century Thinking, by Terry Roberts and Laura Billings.

The authors show how a seminar approach can lead students deeper into a text and improve their speaking, listening, and writing skills, as recommended by the Common Core State Standards. They also demonstrate how teachers can craft meaningful questions that allow purposeful discussion to occur.

What Makes a Good Question?

When you are able to ask evocative questions, you will drive a classroom discussion first by engaging the participants and then by inspiring their thinking. While the best questions can seem simple at times, there is an art to both composing and asking them. Although questions will vary depending on the text under discussion and the participants involved, there is a consistent set of characteristics that define a strong question. It is always open-ended, thought-provoking, and clear.

Open-ended questions are designed to elicit numerous correct responses. The openness of seminar questions invites multiple perspectives and allows a much wider range of participation than do more closed, traditional questions. Good seminar questions are also thought-provoking: first by sparking numerous responses and then by requiring participants to synthesize those responses.

All good questions must also be clear. Participants should understand immediately what is being asked. Often, clarity comes with simplicity; the fewer the number of words in a question, the more effective it usually is. When experienced facilitators find themselves needing to ask a more complex question, they are careful to preface it adequately, speak slowly, and repeat it at least twice. In other words, ask a complex question in a clear and simple way.

When you are structuring a classroom-wide discussion or seminar, questions are best divided into three categories: opening, core, and closing.

Typically, you will ask only one opening question. This question is designed to get participants to identify the ideas and values in the text they are most interested in discussing. A good opening question is usually very easy to answer. (For example, “What is the most important word in the speech?” or “What detail do you notice first in the painting?”) It requires that the participants look closely at the text in order to respond, and invites a wide range of possible responses.

Core questions, of which there are usually three to five in a typical plan, are designed to have participants analyze the text in detail. They require that the students study what the text has to say before allowing themselves to branch out into their own reactions to the text. (For example, “Why do you think the author chose that specific image?” or “How is the message of the first paragraph related to the message of the second?”) Early core questions are often designed to elicit multiple perspectives, while later core questions often ask participants to juxtapose and even synthesize those responses based on the text.

Closing questions, usually one, or at the most, two, ask the participants to personalize the ideas and values under discussion. In other words, now that they have analyzed what the text has to say, participants are being asked to respond in a more personal way to the ideas and values under discussion. (For example, “If you were that character, how would you have responded? Why?” or “Which of these two paintings would you choose to illustrate your personal journal? Why?”)

Finally, whether the questions are planned or spontaneous, whether they come from a facilitator or participant, they are about ideas. Not just any ideas, but the fundamental human concerns that have haunted us as a species for thousands of years. As Robert Maynard Hutchins put it in The Great Conversation: “Yet the great issues are there. What is our destiny? What is a good life? How can we achieve a good society?” The ideas that haunt us do so because they are themselves not answers but questions.


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