Visualization as a Cognitive Tool Pt. II

As previously discussed in part one, visual prompts, tools, and strategies can help learners who may struggle with linguistic presentations. Whether attentive issues, behavioral struggles, or deficits in auditory processing are the obstacle, visualization methods can assist with students whose needs vary in and out of the classroom.

 

Reading/Writing/Literacy

  • Use visuals to provide context for vocabulary terms. Teachers can boost memory and recall by pairing terms with images that explain or represent the definition. For example, science teachers may want to accompany terms for the parts of a flower with a diagram that depicts each part. They could use photos or time lapse videos to demonstrate how organic matter decays or decomposes. In history or world studies, students can benefit from seeing locations, countries, and landmarks that they are studying so that they have a better grasp of its importance. Instead of simply discussing Tanzania, teachers will want to show Tanzania on a map so that students can conceptualize its location with background knowledge of the surrounding areas.
  • For practices involving phonics and fluency, obviously pronouncing new words for students to chime back is beneficial to start. However, when working independently to decode, students may find that visual cue cards for prefixes/suffixes are more helpful for their visual approach to reading. For example, struggling decoders might find it helpful to see how words are segmented or broken down into parts and then physically put them back together like a puzzle. Visually speaking, words like “cub” versus “cube” could be confusing to beginning readers or English language learners. Teachers should provide opportunities to use letter cards or scrabble pieces to match “cub” with the photo of a baby bear; then add the “e” to match the word with an image of an ice cube. The physical manipulatives, combined with the images, help young readers visualize the proper spelling while also solidifying pronunciation and definitions.
  • Similarly, teachers and parents can help beginning readers by incorporating visual aids into sight words. As a memorization tool, basic flashcards only go so far. Instead, think about how the letters of the word could be constructed or decorated with images that relate to the word’s meaning. For example, the sight word “look” could be spelled using googly eyes for the double “o” to demonstrate someone looking at something. Perhaps the word “play” could incorporate athletic equipment to form the letters, with “p” resembling a basketball, “L” formed by a hockey stick, and “y” in the shape of a tennis racket.

 

Additional Concepts

  • If content involves a process or step-by-step explanation, consider using flow charts, mind maps, or other visual diagrams to help students conceptualize the process. For differentiation, teachers may ask advanced students to create their own flow chart using their text or class notes, while struggling students may use a word bank/concept bank to complete a fill-in-the-blank flow chart. Either way, the objective is the same; students are demonstrating knowledge of a specific process by constructing a visual/diagram.
  • For essays, written responses, and notetaking, teachers should instruct and encourage students to utilize graphic organizers to visually compose comprehensive outlines of their drafts. In spider diagrams, the main idea of the written response is the spider’s body, while the legs connect to supporting details, quotes, and examples, which helps students visually compose a well-supported argument or claim as a prewriting activity.

Besides standard images or symbols to help students, teachers can expand upon the idea of visuals to include videos, films/documentaries, art, graphic novel excerpts, artifacts, and video games. The more engagement and connections to prior knowledge that visuals can offer, the stronger the learning experience will be.

Visualization as a Cognitive Tool Pt. I

Visualization as a learning strategy is most commonly seen in the language arts department. Teachers may prompt students to visualize what is happening in the text to boost comprehension and recall before, during, and after reading. This is a proven, worthwhile technique, especially for struggling readers and those with attention difficulties. However, there are numerous other ways in which educators can use visualization and visual tools to enhance learning opportunities that span far beyond the “try to picture or visualize what is happening” cue.

 

Visual Awareness

Some students, especially those with attentive or behavioral issues, often find that they are most successful when educational tasks encourage the use of spatial areas of the brain, as opposed to linguistic areas. To initiate visualization processes, teachers and parents can practice many different strategies, across any content area.

 

Math

Because mathematics can often involve complex, abstract, nebulous concepts and values, even grasping a math question can be daunting, especially for people who struggle to tap into their “math brains,” like myself. For instance, questions involving exponents, decimals, and measurements, can be very intimidating. Students may not know where to begin when working with what they believe to be ambiguous concepts or terminology.

 

  • Accompany measurements, whether weight, height, temperature, density, etc., with familiar, tangible comparisons. For example, if the question involves calculating the area of a surface, provide visual context by telling students that the surface would be about the size of a tennis court, classroom tile, standard doorway, etc. On assessments, consider providing images to represent that object, as opposed to just the calculations or measurements. If asking students about three-dimensional objects, prompt them to picture an everyday object that represents the size and shape.
  • Provide learners with opportunities to conceptualize number functions in different ways. For example, understanding exponents, like 2 to the 8th power, might leave young learners scratching their heads. If teachers provide visual context or long-written forms, students can better prepare to grapple with the task. Even a simple visual process, such as writing out the simplified exponent, 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, and then grouping them while multiplying, can assist with the otherwise unfamiliar concept.
  • Post visuals around the classroom of commonly used terminology. Especially for younger learners, simple symbols used to exhibit addition or subtraction processes can serve as a subtle reminder to students during instruction and practice.
  • Consider taping simple visual resources to each desk during the start of a new math unit. If beginning to discuss fractions, use a photos of segmented chocolate chip cookies for reference. With a visual, some students may find that decimals and fractions are more approachable when they can see what that fraction looks like in a physical sense; ⅛ of a cookie is much less appealing than ¾ of the same cookie.
  • Teachers can prompt visual thinking as well by asking clarifying questions or having students come up with their own comparisons. If measuring objects, ask students to brainstorm what they think would be a similar sized object. What would be slightly smaller or bigger? Which might weigh more? Ask students to visualize patterns and proceed with the next series of figures.

Summer Slide

For those who are not immersed in the educational realm on a daily basis, the term “summer slide” may conjure up nostalgic memories of sunny afternoons at the pool. For academia, however, summer slide is a dreaded termone that is not associated with a relaxing pool day at all. Instead, summer slide refers to the loss of academic skills and knowledge over the course of the summer months when students are not in school.

Statistically, summer slide poses a greater threat to students of lower socioeconomic standing, or those considered “at-risk” and most adversely affected by the achievement gap. While research suggests that summer slide is a larger factor for students who may not have access to educational experiences, materials, and books over the summer, the grim truth is that regardless of a family’s income, any student is susceptible to the loss of knowledge and skills while being out of school for the summer months. With some research indicating that summer slide could mean a loss of 20-30% of information gained over the previous school year, summer slide is valid concern for educators and parents to consider.

Fortunately, there are many ways to combat summer slide. For children and teens, summer reading packets, math booklets, and the like are most often met with groans. Summer is supposed to be a time of freedom from stress; it’s a time for adventure and exploration! So, if parents truly want to sell a child on schoolwork during the summer, they really must package it appropriately.

  • Provide an ample amount of what teachers call “student choice.” Children are much more likely to invest their time and attention in a book or learning activity if it involves an aspect of interest. Additionally, a sense of agency and independence comes with children and teens having a say in what they would like to read or participate in.

  • Parents of reluctant readers will want to provide multiple modes of texts as well. Consider purchasing the audiobook or ebook so that your child can listen while following along. If lengthy chapter books bring dread, expand literature options to graphic novels, magazines, or adapted versions of the classics. Again, the more a young reader has to choose from, the more likely he or she is to land on something pleasurable.

  • Plan for activities that relate to or expand upon parts of the curriculum from that previous school year. Children are always surprised when topics or facts from the classroom suddenly apply in “real life.” Parents can check the school district’s website for curriculum materials or email the child’s teachers to review the major concepts, novels, or skill sets that students were to have mastered that year. Then, with that knowledge, parents can select materials or push children in the direction of texts and activities that incorporate those skills. For example, if parents know that their middle schooler read The Diary of Anne Frank over the winter term, they may want to select from sub-genres involving WWII, Holocaust survival stories, or other autobiographical works that feature a strong, young narrator.

  • Getting the whole family involved in summer learning can help to motivate children and teens as well. Consider starting a weekly family book club, in which each member reads the assigned pages and then participates in an informal chat about their thoughts on the chapter or events so far. The key to keeping the momentum and enthusiasm going is to ensure that the book talk remains as informal as possible. Throw pillows and blankets around the living room, set out snacks or use the night as an excuse to have a pizza party while discussing the book. Since a movie night can be a great incentive for children, think about choosing a book that also has its own film adaptation.

  • Connect the reading material to real life experiences. For instance, if a child is starting middle school next year, provide her with YA book options that feature a preteen navigating through middle school. If soccer camp is on the agenda for the summer, find reading materialsnonfiction, fiction, or biographicalthat center around soccer, soccer players, or the history of the sport. The secret to keeping kids reading is to keep the material fresh and relevant.

504 vs. IEP for Parents

Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and 504 Plans, while similar in that they support students’ needs, are also quite different when it comes to how they support students and how they are implemented within the school system. Below is a useful outline to help parents, educators, and children differentiate between the two services.

EXPLANATION 504 IEP
In simple terms, what is each plan? An educational outline designed to help students access their learning in school An educational outline designed to map out a student’s special education experiences throughout their schooling
How does each plan work? For students with disabilities or major health impairments, a 504 provides specific modifications or accommodations so that learning is not impeded or interfered with For students with at least one of the specific learning disabilities listed in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an IEP guarantees specialized modifications, accommodations, and instructional services so that learning obstacles are removed
Who qualifies according to the law? A child with a disability, health condition, or medical need that substantially limits or interferes with a student’s daily life functioning qualifies for a 504 under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act A child with a specific learning disability listed in IDEA, including attention difficulties, is affected to the point that their learning needs cannot be met in the general education system alone. A student qualifies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
How does the evaluation work in schools? Students must be evaluated and diagnosed by a professional, but parents typically must acquire the diagnosis on their own Students must be evaluated and diagnosed with a documented learning disability that affects their success in a general education classroom. Students can be evaluated by the school’s psychologist or request a private, outside evaluation
Who has a hand in the creation of each plan? The guidelines for the 504 are less restrictive; typically the parents, teachers, any special educators who are familiar with the child, administration create the plan Legally, the creation of an IEP is more specific, and usually includes the parents, one or more of the child’s general education teachers, a school psychologist or private specialist at the request of the parents, the child’s special education case manager, and usually the schools special education department head
What are the key aspects of each plan? Again, a 504 plan is the less restrictive of the two; it will typically include a list of accommodations, classroom or instructional modifications, health care instructions or details, and how teachers and other school personnel will implement and track the student’s progress Since the IEP is a signed, legal document, it is more extensive; it will include past and current academic data points, test scores, evaluation findings, and any other cognitive, behavioral, or social test results. Based on these score reports and teacher reports, the IEP team will draft academic, social, and/or behavioral goals for the student to work towards. The plan will also include how the progress will be measured/assessed, which instructional and testing accommodations will be used, and supplementary aides and services that the school will provide with the help of the special education department. Finally, the IEP plan will include details about the frequency of the accommodations and how the student will participate in standardized testing.

More Testing Accommodations

Testing accommodations in the classroom are essential for student success. Not only should the accommodations provide support for students to access material and demonstrate mastery, they should also foster a sense of confidence. When students feel successful on an assessment, that confidence can bolster future success and motivate students that may have been discouraged by their learning differences. Of course, accommodations should be tailored to each learner’s specific needs—that is why plans are called IEPs, or individualized education programs. As much as these tools vary for each individual student, there are certain accommodations that are known to assist certain styles of learners better than others.

ADD/ADHD Learners:

Again, every learner is different, so each student with ADD and ADHD exhibits different behaviors and strengths. As much as everyone has different needs, students with ADHD, who exhibit certain behaviors more frequently, can benefit from a myriad of different testing accommodations.

Reduced distractions during testing can greatly help students with attention difficulties. This accommodation can vary depending on the classroom environment. For many, as long as the class is co-taught or has a paraeducator, students with ADHD or ADD should be pulled out into a smaller group setting for testing. This removes the unnecessary distractions that a full classroom can present.

If pull-out groups are not an option, consider moving the student to the front or side of the classroom where he/she will be less inclined to look around or daze off. Another tip for reduced distractions during testing is to instruct students to simply flip the assessment over when finished, as opposed to walking up to turn it in. Students with ADHD can easily become distracted or even discouraged if others are finishing the assessment faster than they are. Additionally, seat students away from windows or within view of the door or hallway. Because students with ADHD struggle to refocus when distracted, anything from a dog walking outside to a peer passing through the hallways can deter their focus.

Consider playing soft, slow, instrumental music or nature sounds in the background while students are testing. This will drown out any compulsive pencil tapping, chair screeching, or leg-shaking. Be sure that the music or sounds do not have any lyrics or distractibility factor.

Different seating options can provide the slight mobility that students may need when testing. Something as simple as providing students with the option to sit on stools, yoga balls, floor cushions, or to stand while testing can alleviate the jitters or restlessness that some students with ADHD experience. Tactile items such as fidget cubes, moldable erasers, or stress balls can help students to focus, as well. Just be sure to monitor their use so that they work to expel energy and channel focus, rather than distract students further.

If planning allows, consider breaking up longer unit assessments into multiple days or class periods. For instance, if an exam involves multiple choice responses, short answer, and written responses, see about allowing students to submit the test in two parts over separate days. This allows students to maintain focus for each section and regroup before moving into the lengthier writing portion. This is a best practice, not only for students with attention issues, but for all learners because it keeps students’ focus from straying. Splitting an assessment up over two days allows students to refocus and maintain motivation since they are not rushing through it or eager to get it over with.

When issuing an assessment with long reading passages or a lot of the text on each page, modify the visual aspect of the exam so that students with attention difficulties are not discouraged or overwhelmed by the amount of text on the page. Simply increasing the font and/or margin size can help to visually split the test into multiple chunks or pages. This approach helps students to focus their attention on fewer questions or shorter texts from page to page, prompting them to limit their focus to one question at a time.

Testing Accommodations

Testing accommodations should help students two-fold. Accommodations should provide support for students to access material and demonstrate mastery, and they should also foster a sense of confidence and boost students’ ability to advocate for themselves. When students feel successful, especially on an assessment, that confidence is magnified and motivates students that may have been discouraged by their learning differences. It is likely that students who struggle with a learning disability look unfavorably at their ability to test well. This does not have to be the case. With testing accommodations, students can reach their full potential and truly thrive.

Executive Functions Disorder:

Of course, accommodations should be tailored to each learner’s specific needs—that is why plans are called IEPs, or individualized education programs. These tools are tailored to each individual student, as there are certain accommodations that are known to assist certain styles of learners better than others. For students with executive function difficulties, testing accommodations can changes testing woes into wins.

Because students with executive functioning disorder struggle specifically with tasks involving higher-level thinking skills, testing accommodations remove unnecessary obstacles so that students can demonstrate an accurate picture of their knowledge. For example, some students may lack confidence when it comes to multiple choice questions. It is not that he/she lacks the knowledge or skills to arrive at the correct answer, it is simply that the ability to eliminate incorrect answers becomes a major distraction.

Provide students with three answer options as opposed to four—this makes the task of elimination less daunting.

Prompt students to physically cross or scratch out the answers that they know are incorrect; reminding them of this test-taking strategy can sometimes be all the help students need.

Allow students to mark or bubble their options right on the test booklet, as opposed to transferring them to a Scantron or bubble sheet. This eliminates the possibility that they will bubble the wrong answer or unintentionally skip questions.

Encourage students to highlight, underline, or mark certain parts of the question or answer options that stand out as crucial to the question. For example, if a question asks “What is not one of the author’s purposes for writing the text?” prompt students to recognize and mark the word not to reinforce the fact that they are looking for a non-answer.

Practice explicit, direct instruction of common testing terms such as analyze, organize, complete, develop, process, etc. These concepts are difficult for all students in the sense that they require abstract thinking. However, for students with executive functioning disorder, these types of cognitive skills are the precise functions that they struggle with specifically. If a test question asks them to “assess the use of the term” consider rewording the question or providing a footnote to explain what you mean by assess.

If students are asked to organize a paragraph in response to a prompt, provide them with a graphic organizer. This small modification helps students to get the ball rolling when constructing their response. They are still tasked with writing the response; however, the intimidation factor is eased by the fact that they have a scaffold form which to work.

Similarly, providing students with sentence frames in addition to a graphic organizer can help ease the stress of a written response. Since executive function disorder is often marked by the inability to or difficulty with organizing thoughts and conveying them in written form, sentence frames provide students with a starting point and allow them to show that they have mastered the concept without the cognitive output interfering.

Teaching Inclusion in the Classroom

General education teachers are tasked with keeping many balls in the air, which is half the fun of working in a classroom—there are so many constantly moving and evolving pieces for which to account. One of these essential pieces to ensure equitable learning for every student is inclusion. Of course, this term is nothing new to educators—we work to create an inclusive environment on a daily basis. What might be new, however, are the many ways in which we teachers can look at inclusive practices. Since every child is different, we must continue our exploration of strategies and practices that best suit the needs of all students.

One best practice that supports inclusion is to vary the output of information. By this we mean that teachers should relay content and instruction in different ways. Some students, especially those with auditory processing difficulties, find that verbal instruction is hard to grasp. To ensure inclusion for these students’ special needs, teachers should try to present information in visual or tactile ways, in addition to the verbal instruction. Depending on the class or lesson, this might take the form of a demonstration, video, or hands-on activity. Some skills or lesson objectives may even lend themselves to a more kinesthetic or tactile approach. Even students without an auditory processing deficiency would find it confusing to listen to a verbal explanation of cursive letter formation. A demonstrated approach to writing using clay, beads, shaving cream, etc., makes more sense.

Similarly, when teachers are introducing concepts like grammatical conventions or figurative language devices, an audio or visual approach might work better than a written explanation of how a properly formatted sentence should sound. Teachers should also practice inclusion by encouraging students to demonstrate their learning in various ways. This means that, not only is the presentation of information different for each child, but the means by which a student exhibits mastery should be individualized, as well. Some students might prefer to write a formal, organized research paper to convey their knowledge of a subject, while others might feel most comfortable presenting a visual demonstration of their topic. The key is to provide multiple opportunities for students to display their knowledge so that everyone’s learning styles are being incorporated.

Another way to look at inclusion is to utilize multiple means of engagement. For students with attention issues, memory difficulties, or other learning disabilities, engagement in the classroom can make all the difference. Engagement might mean listening to music to identify metaphors, similes, or narrative voice. A film study might help students understand a new culture or part of the world. An analysis of a slow motion field goal might help students understand kinetic energy, velocity, or other properties of physics. The point is, when students are engaged, learning not only flourishes, but behaviors and attentiveness increase, as well. Engagement also assists with moving information from short-term memory into long-term memory. Inclusion, with regard to engagement, means that teachers are not only teaching with methods for each type of learner, but also appealing to each learner, so that memory of the information or skill can solidify. In order to provide engagement, there must be a level of interest on the student’s end. As different as each student’s learning style may be, so may be their interests.

This is where building relationships with students becomes essential for inclusion. Cultural inclusiveness provides students with a platform to express themselves on a more personal level. This also promotes a positive classroom environment, one in which students feel heard, understood, and accepted. Cultural inclusion allows students to see beyond themselves, as well, which fosters perspective-taking.

Autism Awareness Month: Advice for the Classroom

April is Autism Awareness Month. One of the more mysterious developmental disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder presents itself in many different ways from child to child. In an effort to raise awareness about the many learning styles of students with autism and effectively support them, it is important that educators receive valuable, current information and strategies to help empower students in the classroom. With diagnostic data indicating a rising rate of more than 1 in 70 births, it is likely that this information is vital for parents and educators.

No two students with autism are alike. This disability is unique in the sense that it manifests differently from person to person. The age of onset varies, as well, with most children exhibiting symptoms by age three. However, there are some consistent findings: boys are almost four times more likely to have autism, and language regression and sensory sensitivity are often the first reported signs or symptoms.

Because early intervention is paramount for treating and managing an autism diagnosis, students in your classroom that are affected by autism are likely to have certain routines or practices already in place. The key then becomes streamlining the successful practices and strategies from home into the classroom environment. Be proactive when asking parents about successful strategies that they implement at home. Be sure to make contact with families early in the school year to ensure that the classroom transition is smooth. As much as possible, reinforce the successful practices from home in your classroom. The more consistency that your students experience, the better. Parents are a teacher’s greatest assets when finding ways to best serve your students.

Plan to maintain consistent and positive communication with parents of your students with special needs. Parents of a child with autism may be hesitant or anxious about their child’s acclimation to a new classroom environment. This is 100 percent understandable, as some past experiences may have been unfortunate or stressful for the child. Put parents at ease by maintaining a communicative relationship—one based on positivity and growth. Of course, weekly reports may vary in positivity, but remember to lead with the pros. What did the student do well this week? What growth have you seen of late? What social milestones did you witness in class or at recess? And so on.

Since students with autism frequently experience a sensitivity to sensory stimuli, teachers should be sure to maintain a calm and consistent environment. This is much easier said than done, however. A classroom of 35 boisterous children does not necessarily lend itself to calm and consistent. In an effort to best accommodate your students with special needs, consider keeping a cozy corner or quiet spot in the classroom. Use cushions, pillows, and bookcases to create a somewhat private “cool down” area if a student is experiencing stress from the classroom. Bright lights or darkness, loud noises, commotion, or unexpected changes in the routine, like a fire drill, can totally throw students with sensory sensitivity for a loop. Students on the spectrum are most comfortable when routines are maintained and expectations are met. So consider giving your student a heads-up if the daily norm is going to be disrupted. Knowing what is to come is immensely helpful for students that rely on continuity.

Be careful about praise, criticism, and sarcasm. Generally speaking, sarcasm should be avoided in the elementary classroom because of the students’ inability to read those cues. However, with students on the spectrum, sarcasm and dry humor can be even more confusing or misleading. Similarly, comments of support, praise, or reassurance may actually come across quite differently, depending on a student’s social perceptions. Be careful when recognizing a student’s achievements. Some may loathe the limelight and attention. If you know that your student is particularly shy, consider writing him a congratulatory letter, or recognizing his accomplishment in a small group of his friends.

Tips to Improve Reading in the Classroom

Not surprisingly, reading is one of those activities that students either love or loathe. As much as it can be difficult to get a bookworm to put the book down for a second, it can be equally challenging to get a reluctant reader to pick one up. So how can we improve reading skills for both our avid and unenthusiastic readers? The strategies and methods are just as different as the students themselves.

For Reluctant Readers:

Allow reluctant or struggling readers to use digital aids to improve comprehension and ease the stress correlated with fluency and decoding. Listening to audiobooks is a proven method to encourage and boost struggling readers. Explain to students that they must follow along while listening to the text. Many audio tools also allow students to highlight, mark, or pause the reading in order to define difficult terms or make notes along the way. This process allows students to actively engage with the text without relying solely on their own reading skills. While some argue that listening to books on tape is not actively reading, educators know this to be false. These digital tools, such as the audiobook, are simply scaffolds to allow for different avenues of comprehension. Yes, students are following along, but the audio also acts as an added support for comprehension, which can be very encouraging for struggling readers.

Make sure that the Lexile level matches the ability of your reluctant readers. Many students find reading to be discouraging, especially if the level of the text far exceeds their ability to comprehend. Numerous educational applications are available now to help teachers sift through texts and find appropriate levels for all readers. Some apps even provide variations of the same story or article for on, above, or below-grade level readers. This allows all students to read and comprehend the same text, so participation is not an issue.

Appeal to individual interests by providing student choice. As much as possible, students should be provided with texts that engage them and relate to them personally. Yes, the end goal would be for students to embrace reading as a means of exploring new things. However, for reluctant readers, it is all about the incentive to buy in. Charming their interests is a great way to bring enjoyment to an activity that they don’t necessarily love.

For Avid Readers:

Encourage students to explore texts that challenge their current level of comprehension. Voracious readers embrace the opportunity to increase their own vocabulary by encountering more challenging texts. Not only do unfamiliar terms pique their interests, but the complexity of sentence structures or plotlines also helps to stimulate learning and engagement for strong readers.

Allow strong readers to take creative liberties with their writing assignments. Since writing and reading abilities are reciprocal, a strong reader will likely flourish in writing, as well. Provide enrichment by having strong readers extend a novel, poem, or short story. The idea here is that fanfiction not only boosts writing skills, but also encourages advanced reading skills such as close reading, mimicking voice and tone, making interpretive predictions, etc.

Provide time for reading and exploring new texts in class. Obviously, avid readers are happy any time they are able to indulge in their favorite hobby during class. But, more than just silent reading for the sake of it, small bits of class time devoted to reading for pleasure is a great way to foster literature circles or book talks. Socializing over a beloved novel is a way for advanced readers to dig deeper into inquiry-based methods and learn to analyze texts on a more progressive level.  

International Ask a Question Day: An Educator’s Observation

March 14th marks the somewhat underrated “holiday” devoted to asking questions. Suitably falling on Albert Einstein’s birthday, International Ask a Question Day is meant to encourage the practice of seeking knowledge. In the world of education, questions are paramount in the learning process. In my own experience—and I think most teachers would agree—our job in the classroom involves asking, answering, and clarifying questions.

True story: Purely out of my own curiosity, I decided to tally the number of questions I was asked during a random school day. Any question counted—from, “Can I go to the water fountain?” to, “Should I underline the title of an article?” By the final period of the day, I knew I had a significant number of hash marks, but the exact amount of questions that had been asked far exceeded what I had anticipated. The number of questions was somewhere in the 300’s—and it was an early-dismissal day.

The point of this anecdote is to express the extent to which questions drive our work in the classroom. Students expect to get answers. Many may quantify those answers as learning. However, the real learning occurs when questions are formulated. To drum up a question, a student must first separate what he knows from what he does not know. This practice of sifting through knowledge and categorizing skills by competency takes a great deal of reflection. The saying “You don’t know what you don’t know” is thought to ring true for many students, yet in my observations, students are somewhat experts at recognizing what they do not know.

So, how can we use this almost innate penchant for curiosity and inquiry to best benefit our students?

Encourage your quiet students to “speak up” by allowing multiple ways of asking questions in class. This could mean keeping a question box or post-it notes available for students to jot down questions that they may be too shy to ask. You could also take a similar digital approach using Padlet or Google Classroom. Students are able to post questions to an online forum or webpage; they can also respond to others’ posts as well.

When reviewing for an assessment, have students create practice questions that they would anticipate seeing on the test. Have students submit or swap questions so that students can practice answering each other’s questions. If questions are well-written and relevant, use some student-derived questions on the actual assessment. This is also a way for teachers to gauge the students’ preparation for an upcoming assessment.

Play the well-known party game “just questions” in which students are only able to communicate using interrogative statements. This improv theater exercise encourages students to practice consciously phrasing and rephrasing questions. Students must think on their toes and apply knowledge of appropriate word choice and sentence structures in order to continue the conversation.

Provide students with broad or general questions like, “What is the setting of the story?” Then have students kick that question up a notch by adding another component or more complex level of inquiry. For instance, they might change the original question about setting to, “How does the setting affect the conflict that the character faces?” This practice allows students to add a layer of deeper analysis to a general question. Furthermore, this activity allows for plenty of differentiation depending on student ability.