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Do Your Students Know How To Ask Questions?

By Craig McKinney, AVID Elective Teacher and Staff Developer
This painting was created for Craig by his students: Kavina Hsu, Amy Wang, and Sara Watters.

As I walked into school yesterday morning—the day of a big test in my Humanities class—I found a small group of students in the hall, who had arrived at school early and were studying with one another prior to attending the before-school tutorial session in my room. Sounding like an overly cheery teacher in a 1980s high school sitcom, I said something stereotypically teacher-y like, “Wow, you’re up early and studying hard already.”

One of the students looked at me with a confident smile. “I’m helping them study, and I’m not even in this class. …But it’s okay, I’m in AVID. I know how to ask questions.” This brief exchange reminded me of one of the things that I love about AVID: the AVID Elective class teaches students how to ask questions.

If you’ve never been to an AVID tutorial—which occurs twice a week during class time—you need to contact your school’s AVID Elective teacher and ask if you may stop by sometime. What you’ll see will restore your faith in the ability of students to take ownership of their learning.

Students are usually grouped at tables by subject area, though all students in a tutorial study group might not be enrolled in the same course or level of course. At each table sits a trained AVID tutor—often a college student or a helpful adult—whose job it is to oversee the tutorial and keep students on track. The tutor’s job is not to instruct, but instead, to let the students guide the learning.

One student will step up to a whiteboard with a completed Tutorial Request Form (TRF) in hand and will explain a question that she has about something she is studying. The question may be a specific problem from an assignment, a concept that she’s having trouble grasping, or a question that she has come up with on her own about what she is having trouble learning.

The student is not allowed to be completely helpless and say she knows nothing about the topic. Instead, she has to explain what she does know, the resources that she has to help her, and the efforts that she has made. All of this is leading up to the Point of Confusion (POC)—the place where the learning breaks down, the true trouble spot.

Once the tutorial group is up to speed on what the student knows and where she is struggling, the table springs into action. The students take turns asking her questions to help her work her way through solving her problem:  “Is this process similar to a process that you have done earlier?” “Have you combined like terms?” “Does the rule about _____ apply here?” “Do you have anything in your notes that tells you what a theme is?” “Does the glossary of your textbook have a definition?”

Like a massage therapist focusing on that one knot of tension in your back until the muscle relaxes, the study group works through the Point of Confusion together. It matters very little whether the students in the group know how to solve the question itself or whether they know anything about the subject at all; they have learned how to ask the questions that can help the student break past the POC using her own brain power and the resources available to her. The AVID tutor exists as a safety net and a guide, in case students lose their way or need a few more well-worded questions to reach the breakthrough.

The long-term goal of the AVID tutorial is to empower students to troubleshoot their own learning challenges so that Points of Confusion cease to be points of paralysis. The students will internalize the Socratic questioning of the AVID tutorials and be able to coach themselves through solving academic problems.

Even though we may not be implementing the entire tutorial process, those of us who teach things other than the AVID Elective still have the opportunity to infuse inquiry—the “I” in AVID’s WICOR—into our daily lessons. By helping students learn to ask questions about their learning and the learning of others, and by resisting the urge to swoop in and save the day by providing a ready answer to every student question or challenge, we show them that the answer is not the most important thing. What’s most important is the ability to ask the right questions to stimulate the thinking that leads to the answer.

I’d be pleased to eavesdrop someday on one of my students telling another teacher, “I was in Mr. McKinney’s class. I know how to ask questions.” Then, my job would be done.

Want to read more blogs from Craig? Check these out!
Loaded Questions
Your Teacher WICOR Summer Homework
A Brain-Based Paradigm Shift
In the Classroom: Setting House Rules
Giving Thanks: A Reminder

Craig McKinney teaches Humanities at Shepton High School in Plano, Texas. A Dallas-area native, Craig attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where he received degrees in English and Sociology. He earned his master’s degree at the University of North Texas. During his 22-year teaching career at Shepton, Craig has taught English, Humanities, Latin, and the AVID Elective. As part of his contribution to Shepton’s AVID site team, Craig spreads AVID strategies schoolwide through staff in-services and by writing a weekly Wednesday WICOR email. When he’s not teaching ninth and tenth graders, Craig works as an AVID staff developer. He also bakes a mean loaf of sourdough bread, serves as an officer of his university’s local alumni association, and loves herb gardening, attending cultural events, and playing board games.

For more on AVID, visit http://avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx.


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Reader Comments (2)

Quite possibly the best description regarding AVID Tutorials...great frontload info for new AVID Parents and Students.
I'll be using this blog with my first year AVID Students as we revisit Day 20 WAGS for Grade 7 about questioning. Thank you for mirroring the language in the CSS about AVID Tutorials taking place biweekly!
Awesome insight into the realm of AVID Tutorials!

November 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSchnitzel

I've just forwarded this blog entry to our school's newest AVID Elective teacher. Thanks for making the process and the benefits of Tutorial so clear, Craig.

November 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Froess

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