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Asking Questions Students Want to Answer

"how was school today?" -- "good"


"does this make sense?" -- "yes"


"how did you go during practice?" -- "okay"


It's questions like these I try to catch before I ask them in my studio. They're boring. They don't help my teaching. They encourage autopilot mode. And they don't help kids learn!


But questions can drive a lesson, too, if they're the right ones. Here are some examples of questions/questioning strategies I use most often:


Explicit Questions:

Explicit questions aren't that interesting either, but I think they're necessary sometimes.


When I do need to use explicit questions, I try to make sure they're clear. For example, I may ask "what is the letter name of this note?" rather than just "what is this note?"


"What's hardest about this for you?" I like this question for two reasons:


1) it drills home the idea that we needn't avoid the parts of pieces that are most difficult. We should actually play/sing them more!

2) students are taking control of their exercise/repertoire piece by telling me what's hardest.


"Why didn't you ___________?"

I use this question when students have sang or played something correctly, or given the correct answer to a musicianship/theory activity, but I'm not convinced they understand exactly what's going on. For example, if a 4 4 piece begins with a lead in note - I would sometimes clarify they have done it correctly by starting on beat 4, then ask "why didn't you begin on the first count?" to either a) have them explain their sound knowledge again or b) say they don't really know and have me help them further their understanding.


Scaffolded Questions:

Scaffolding as I understand it is basically just ensuring students have a leg to stand on when they go to tackle what you're asking them to do.


For example, if we're doing a theory paper and need to work in the key of B minor, I may go back and ask the following questions:


1) How do we work out the key signature of a minor key? (I teach to the relative major) -> 2) What is the relative major of B? -> 3) Does that have sharps or flats? -> 4) How many? -> 5) What are they? -> 6) So what is the key signature of B minor, then?


And we've arrived! One day, I'll be able to say "what key signature are we in?" and they'll be able to spot B as the tonic, maybe a raised 7th and a two-sharp key signature to deduce B minor straight away. But until then, this is the process I use each time.


I also like scaffolding questions in this way to emphasise a thought process I think will be helpful to them when working things out by themselves.


"Do you think it's (option A) or (option B)?"

For when a concept all gets too much and the wide staring eyes start happening - sometimes a straight question just isn't going to be friendly enough! Two options is much less intimidating to get over the confusion hump.


"What would you like to start with today?" My students expect this question and usually have an answer - the context changes depending on the student. It may be which repertoire piece they're starting with, or whether they'd like to play their instrument or work on their singing content first. Either way, it ensures they're engaged with what's happening from the very beginning of the lesson.

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AND my favourite question to get kids engaged and talking at back-to-school time:


"What's different about year _____?"


"Now we're allowed to use iPads at school"

"We have to get our own worksheets this year instead of them being put on our desks"

"We have an assembly right at the beginning of the year"

"It looks like it's going to be so much more work now I've started exams"


...and stories ensue.