Alternative Questions (Dillon)

Alternatives to questioning during discussions
(an excerpt from J. T. Dillon’s article[104])

Seven alternatives to questioning can be recommended for use at a particular juncture in the discourse. Let us suppose that the teacher has said something – even asked a question – and a student has just said something in turn. At that juncture, instead of asking a question the teacher may choose one or another of these techniques. Each is designed to stimulate further student thought and discussion, and to teach appropriate discussion behavior.

  1. Declarative statement. Instead of asking a question, express your state of mind by declaring your thought, opinion, feeling, experience in relation to the previous speaker’s contribution or the issue under discussion. The statement in mind is that one which immediately precedes a question, the pre-question thought. Contrary to what might be supposed, declarative statements are indeed responded to and can be expected to receive longer and more complex responses than questions.
  2. Reflective re-statement. Summarize your understanding of what the previous speaker has just said. The effect is to signal to everyone the importance of listening carefully to someone’s contribution and the difficulty of appreciating it rightly – especially before reacting to it or, worse, ignoring it. The re-statement also gives the speaker an opportunity invariably taken – to clarify or elaborate, properly inferring that what he thinks matters some. The result is to encourage participation as well as to facilitate discussion of real rather than imagined meanings.
  3. Declaration of perplexity. If in truth you are perplexed by what the student is saying, so inform the student: “I’m confused about what you’re saying.” The information can be expressed in a mixed declarative-interrogative phrasing (cf. “indirect question”). “I was just thinking about whether that would make any difference,” “I’m trying to remember if X- or Y is the case,” “I wonder what happens under those conditions.” It is useless to tiptoe around with such phrases if they do not reflect your state of mind; and, if they do, it is useless to ask a question, for you are not yet in a condition to ask one.
  4. Invitation to elaborate. If in truth you would like to hear more of the student’s views, say: “I’d like to hear more of your views on that.” The request can be phrased as a mixed declarative- imperative (cf. “softened imperative”). “Perhaps you could give an example to help us understand,” “I’d be interested to know the reasons behind that.” Such delicacies of phrase are more inviting than “Define your terms!” or “Why do you think something like that?!” Responses of students to a student question are both longer and more complex than to a teacher’s question.
  5. Class questions. By various means, permit and invite students to raise a question about their classmate’s last contribution or about the issue at hand. Responses of students to a student question are both longer and more complex than to a teacher’s question. Hence to evoke student questions has the effects of encouraging inquiry, of enhancing discussion, and of promoting student-student interaction. By contrast, the more the teacher asks questions, the fewer questions will students put, and the shorter and simpler do responses become; while student- student interaction and voluntary contributions disappear as everyone begins to talk only to the teacher and only when asked.
  6. Speaker’s question. When a student is confused or is having difficulty expressing self, let that speaker formulate a question. That way the speaker gets precisely the needed help or provides a new question for all to consider. By contrast, if the teacher starts in with a series of so-called diagnostic questions, the discussion muddles ever more and the student’s thinking becomes even more confounded in an inevitably protracted, distracting hit-or-miss exchange (“Do you mean this? Do you mean that? What are you trying to say? What is the price of tea in China?”).
  7. Deliberate silence. Say nothing at all. This is the most intriguing technique and one of the most effective. It is the simplest yet hardest to practice. When a student stops at the (ostensible) end of his or her remarks, maintain a deliberate, attentive silence for 3-5 seconds (perhaps with a murmur and nod or two). Once everyone has become accustomed to such odd teacher behavior, invariably the original speaker will resume or another will enter in. Not only will the contribution therefore become longer, it will almost certainly exhibit more complex thinking. Hence the teacher’s deliberate use of silence can encourage student participation, thought and response. By contrast, the teacher’s question at that juncture only closes the floor and forestalls expression of thought.