How Quality Questioning is Transforming our Classrooms

By Dianna Ritter
Instructional Partner
Muscle Shoals (AL) City Schools

What if someone told you that with just a few tweaks and changes, you could begin to transform your classroom climate and culture into one where dialogue between students is on the level of adult conversations, and in many cases even better.

A classroom where students can agree and disagree without someone’s feelings being hurt. Where waiting to respond and really listening to what others are saying is the norm. Where students are being challenged to really think and use other’s thoughts and responses for their own learning.

And what if I told you that this classroom is filled with first or second grade students. Would you believe that it is possible?

Quality Questioning

Those of us who have been in education for a while know when we see something that’s being recycled and revamped and making its way back around the professional learning circuit for teachers and schools. If we haven’t said it ourselves, we’ve heard a colleague say something like, “it all comes back around eventually.”

So when we see and learn about something that really is new and exciting, it often grabs our attention. Quality Questioning (QQ) is that new and exciting piece. Quality Questioning is what we are seeing transform some of our first and second grade classrooms into the one described above.

Many of the QQ concepts are not new, but the training our teachers have received, and will receive, is fresh and powerful. And the strategies, ideas, and concepts brought back from this training have transformed classrooms like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Teaching kids to have quality conversations

This past summer, two teachers I work with joined me and several others for the Quality Questioning Institute led by Jackie Walsh and facilitated by the Alabama Best Practices Center. Mrs. Ownby and Mrs. Ellis absolutely could not wait to get back and start planning how they would launch QQ in their first grade classrooms.

Within just a few weeks after school started, it was amazing to watch was happening. No longer were students raising their hands to answer a question. No longer were the teachers having to constantly remind students to listen to each other. No longer were students giving a simple yes or no answer or not explaining why. And maybe the thing that impressed me the most, no longer were their first graders worried about not giving the “right” answer or upset if someone disagreed with them.

Six-year olds could lead discussions themselves using vocabulary that teachers had taught them such as, “I agree with _____ because, I disagree with _____ because, I agree with _____ but want to add.” It was a natural part of their conversations like they had never known anything else.

Now their students are really listening to each other because they need to in order to respond when it’s their turn to speak. In several instances I’ve even noticed students counting on their fingers to allow enough wait time for others to think before they started to speak. It’s amazingly fluid.

In the video below, you’ll see students from these two teachers’ classrooms discuss questions posed by the teacher with the language and ease we described above.

Mrs. Ellis describes the transformation she’s seen with her students since beginning QQ in her classroom this way:

“Using quality questioning in my class has definitely helped my children to become better listeners and thinkers. I love how they listen to each other and respect each other’s ideas. It has been incredible to see shy students and lower achieving students share their ideas with confidence, without any fear of saying something wrong. I tell them all the time that they can learn so much from each other and I believe that they are truly understanding that.”

Mrs. Grider uses these posters when she’s first introducing Think Time 1 to her students.

The climate in these two teachers’ rooms has always been one where students feel loved and safe. The training associated with Quality Questioning is helping to further magnify that caring environment. Mrs. Ownby says that QQ has not only strengthened academics, it has profoundly affected the climate and culture of her class.

“It has also transformed my classroom into a more respectful, kinder and accepting environment. I have virtually no tattling in my classroom this year. By having daily conversations, the students are learning about each other, their feelings, and even their backgrounds. They look forward to spending time with a partner and learning to work as a team on a common goal.

“They have learned good conversation skills, such as looking at the person speaking, not interrupting when someone is speaking, and respectfully agreeing or disagreeing. I hear this happening throughout the day even in conversations at lunch, and during play.”

How QQ looks in second grade

Another teacher I work with, Mrs. Grider, has been using Quality Questioning in her classroom for a few years. She doesn’t see how she could ever go back to her previous style of asking quations in class.

Students use the QQ strategy of Think Time 1 and Think Time 2 with ease and confidence. She started using the techniques in her first grade classroom and now she teaches second grade. Here is how she describes the effects:

“Quality Questioning has completely transformed my classroom, my students, and my way of thinking. Students are more motivated, engaged, and persevere through rigorous tasks which prepares them to equally excel outside the classroom.”

In the video below, you can see her sharing with a group of first and second grade teachers who came to observe her during one of our Observe Me days. Listen to what she has to say about using Quality Questioning and how she makes it work in her room.

The word is getting around

It’s so refreshing to see good news traveling fast. The excitement Mrs. Ellis, Mrs. Ownby, and Mrs. Grider have about Quality Questioning is not only spreading rapidly among other teachers in our buildings but from other buildings across the system as well.

Quality Questioning has now become my number one request for teachers to see during our Observe Me days. Teachers are so curious, in fact, that I can’t fit them all in every time. They sign up continuously to see our students using Quality Questioning strategies in their classrooms.

After witnessing what’s happening, teachers want to know more. They want in on this training. They want to transform their own classrooms.

Mrs. Ownby with her first grade students.

In this time when so much communication is by social media and text messaging, it’s essential that students learn how to have respectful conversations with each other face to face – to learn how to respond when someone doesn’t agree with you or wants to hear what you have to say. These are life skills that will carry them far as adults.

In addition, we have to teach students to think. To really listen. To see the value in learning from what others know and have experienced, and how to use that new knowledge to help themselves grow.

We are extremely excited about where the Quality Questioning approach to teaching and learning is heading in our schools and I’m look forward to seeing the impact this has as even more of our teachers bring QQ into their classrooms and the learning strategies and “soft skills” begin to spread up through our grades and across our schools.

Dianna Ritter has been an educator for almost 16 years. She is currently the Instructional Partner at Highland Park and Webster Elementary Schools in the Muscle Shoals City School District. She is in her third year in that role and has previously taught kindergarten, first, and second grades. In addition, she worked for five years at the University of North Alabama as an AMSTI Math and Science Specialist. You can follow her on Twitter @Dianna_Ritter. Also see Diana’s ABPC Blog post about lesson studies.