How can teachers’ questions contribute to the co-operative classroom?

Yael Sharan explores the ways that teachers’ open-ended questions promote the exchange of ideas and knowledge among students, and form the basis for an engaging co-operative classroom

Rarely is a co-operative learning classroom quiet. Group members talk. One student may be explaining a mathematics problem to a peer; others may be discussing answers to a question or planning how to investigate a topic. This type of talk is possible in a classroom where students and teachers have learned to listen to one another and respect one another’s ideas, thus replacing the pervasive game of “ping pong” between the teacher’s questions and individual students’ answers. How can a teacher create such a co-operative classroom, where all students have a voice?

What we know
● In engaging co-operative classrooms, teachers ask open-ended questions and listen to answers non-judgmentally.
● Teachers model the relevant kind of verbal behaviours to promote the voicing of students’ ideas and questions.
● Weaving students’ answers and ideas into the fabric of the lesson validates their contributions.
● Teachers’ constant reflection on their own verbal behaviours ensures effective practice.

Ask, invite, listen, reinforce

Ask questions, invite questions, listen, and reinforce what students say. Teachers play a key role in promoting the kind of behaviours that ensure interaction and exchanges among group members.

Sharing ideas, challenging perspectives, and discussing alternative answers before reaching agreement are not behaviours that necessarily come easily to students. That is why teachers’ questions make a substantial contribution – they play a crucial part in facilitating effective communication both among group members and in the class as a whole. Teachers in effect establish a new contract with students that defines the type of questions they ask.

Ask questions with more than one possible answer, not to hear the answers you know but to learn what the students know or think. For example, instead of asking your students to name five cities built on the banks of a river, ask “Why do you think cities are built on the banks of a river?” Then listen nonjudgmentally to the answers.

For their part, students learn to trust that they may say what they know or think about a topic without being told it is wrong or inappropriate.

The “Aha!” moment

As teachers and students gradually live up to the terms of this new contract, classrooms are filled with a richer variety of answers and ideas. Often teachers experience an “Aha!” moment when, after they may have asked for three answers, groups come up with five or more answers, including some that had not occurred to the teacher.

This moment may be a turning point for many teachers, convincing them of the inherent heterogeneity of any classroom and of the potential contribution each student can make to learning, based on his or her understanding of the world and interest in learning about it. This small step does not involve a major change in classroom organisation, yet it is significant for setting the stage for co-operative learning.

Asking questions that have more than one answer, listening non-judgmentally to students’ answers, and reinforcing their readiness to say what they think are among the most basic of a teacher’s verbal behaviours in a co-operative learning classroom.

Teachers help learners take an active part in the learning process when they:

  • Ask open-ended questions that call for students to say what they know or think about a topic, and listen respectfully to their answers.
  • Comment favourably and reinforce what students say without repeating their words.
  • Ask students to react to what a classmate said before the teacher does so.
  • Ask how students understand a concept before sharing their own understanding of the concept.
  • Ask students to elaborate on their initial responses.
  • Allow students wait time before answering a question; Think-Pair-Share is a helpful procedure.

Exercising these practices can be done individually and as part of a whole-class lesson, with pairs of students and with small groups.

Modify teacher’s centrality

Gradually teachers will notice a shift in the emphasis in their teaching from the traditional transmission (recitation) mode to a more transactional one that fully engages students in the learning process. When in the course of a lesson teachers invite students to discuss a point, or to exchange ideas or information, they are legitimising interaction as a vehicle for learning. The message is clear – the teacher is no longer the major source of knowledge and ideas in the classroom. When students interact with their peers, who all along have been sitting in the same classroom, they begin to view one another as sources for learning and not as potential competitors for that elusive commodity called knowledge.

Incorporate students’ answers in the lesson

After inviting pairs of students to discuss the answer to an open-ended question and report their ideas to the class, it is a good idea to point out the diversity in their answers and emphasise how all answers enrich the understanding and learning of the class. This is the teacher’s opportunity to validate the importance of students’ contributions, especially those from shy or withdrawn students. Weaving the appropriate answers into the fabric of the lesson – and suggesting that other answers be discussed at a later time – provides further validation. This approach will convince students that you are sincere when you invite them to offer and exchange their own ideas.

Model the kind of questions you want students to learn to ask

In essence, by carrying out the above verbal behaviours, teachers demonstrate the kind of behaviours they expect of their students. As research shows, students easily adopt new ways of thinking and talking by listening to how teachers model them in their interactions with students.

Teachers who acquire these behaviours and implement them in their classrooms note visible changes in their pupils’ learning patterns. Teachers find that students give longer responses, initiate conversations, and learn to contribute to, challenge, and extend one other’s statements. Students of all ages benefit from sharing their understandings with the teacher and with fellow students in a climate that encourages expression of and respect for diverse viewpoints. The teacher benefits as well; by learning how students negotiate meaning, it is easier to plan how to continue to support their learning.

Teachers’ training and reflection

There is no doubt that teachers have a central role in creating a learning context that values students’ active engagement in the learning process. There are many programmes that offer explicit training for teachers to help them acquire the relevant verbal behaviours. How, then, can teachers make sure that they continue to mediate effectively students’ interactive verbal behaviours?

Reflection is an important tool for directing and controlling teachers’ practice and helping them check whether they are using questions effectively. For reflection to inform practice we again turn to the use of open-ended questions such as: What did I do well? What was difficult for me? What will I do next time to improve my questions and my students’ verbal behaviours? By reflecting on what one does and on students’ reactions, the teacher is better equipped to formulate questions that are best suited to creating and sustaining an engaging, co-operative classroom.

About the author

Yael Sharan conducts co-operative learning workshops for teachers, teacher trainers, and educational consultants worldwide. She has authored and co-authored articles and chapters on co-operative learning. Her book Expanding Cooperative Learning Through Group Investigation was published by Teachers College Press.

Further reading

Gillies RM, and Haynes M (2011), Increasing Explanatory Behaviour, Problem-solving, and Reasoning with Classes Using Cooperative Group Work. Instructional Science, 39(3), 349–67.

Watson J (2001), Social Constructivism in the Classroom. Support for Learning, 16(3), 140–46.

Rothstein D, and Santana L (2011), Teaching Students to Ask their Own Questions. Harvard Educational Letter, 27(5), 1–2.

Tharp R, and Gallimore R (1991), The Instructional Conversation: Teaching and Learning in Social Activity (Research Report 2). Santa Cruz, CA: The National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.

Sharan Y (2015), Meaningful Learning in the Co-operative Classroom. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 43 (1): 83–94.


December 2015