Getting teachers to talk less and students to talk more

Effective classroom discussions: Getting teachers to talk less and students to talk more

Moguel, David

Let’s face it: every day we try as hard as we can to get students to participate in good classroom discussions and the effort falls flat. We ask tons of questions to get things going, the same few students try to answer all the questions, but most others do not. Occasionally something fires up the students for a few seconds or minutes: the hands go up, the students get excited, everyone wants to make a comment, and then…back to reality. We are unable to sustain intense discussions, the students slump back into their chairs, and back we go to long stretches of flat, boring discussion. And we wonder once again, how can we make more of those moments happen – how can we get more students to participate?


In the late 1970s, researchers studying classroom interactions in great detail found that the typical pattern of classroom instruction was a three-part sequence of teacher initiation, student response, and teacher evaluation they labeled the IRE (Mehan, 1979; Cazden, 1988). In the IRE, a teacher initiation (I) is followed by a student reply (R), followed by an evaluation of this reply (E) by the teacher. As an example, consider the following.

Teacher: What was the year the Declaration of Independence was signed?

Student: 1781?

Teacher: No, but pretty close.

The basic I-R-E sequence can be extended if, for example, an initiation is not immediately followed by a reply. Mehan shows how the teacher, the initiator, normally employs a number of strategies, such as prompting, or repeating or simplifying the question, until an expected reply does appear. In the above example, the IRE would simply start again by repeating the question, asking if anyone has the right answer, asking what actually happened in 1781, then restating the original question, etc.

Researcher Courtney Cazden found that the IRE pattern was actually “the most common pattern of classroom discourse at all grade levels” (1988:29). She pointed out the implication of the IRE pattern for teacher talk: the IRE is proof, not just that teachers talk most of the time, but that they talk two-thirds of the time, since the Initiation and the Evaluation components are spoken by the teacher. Cazden suggested a label from the language of computer technology: the IRE is the “default” pattern – what happens in a classroom “unless deliberate action is taken to achieve some alternative” (p. 53). This may be the most damaging aspect of the IRE – it is virtually the only type of instructional sequence used. Though it sometimes performs a valid instructional service, particularly in checking for student understanding of facts and concepts, its overuse precludes the use of other instructional methods.

The IRE often leads to unrewarding, boring, and flat classroom discussions. Dillon calls such discussions recitations, pointing out that they include short Q & A exchanges that demand only brief, factual responses from students. Students perceive their teachers’ questions as attempts to test them rather than solicit their ideas. Thus, while the IRE and recitations may serve some legitimate pedagogical functions such as checking for understanding, they do not challenge students, limiting their thoughts and responses, and encourage then to tune in and out of boring discussions.


Of all the factors that affect classroom discussions, the questions that the teacher asks are one of the most crucial. Cazden returned repeatedly to teacher questions as the critical component of the IRE-recitation (1986, 1988). She pointed out that the Initiation component of the IRE is almost always a question, agreeing with Dillon’s observation that teachers primarily talk in the form of asking questions (1983, p. 15). Questions can make or break or discussions; promote but also inhibit student learning.

Some examples are necessary. Consider the questions that a couple of teacher candidates in my social studies methods class wrote into their lesson plan to address a particular California content standard.

Seventh grade, content standard 7.7: Students compare and contrast the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of Meso-American and Andean civilizations. In particular, students will 3) Explain how and where each empire arose and how the Aztec and Incan empires were defeated by the Spanish (History-Social Science Curriculum Framework and Criteria Committee, 2000, p. 97).

The questions that were to drive the lesson included the following:

* How did the Spanish arrive in Meso-America?

* What took place upon their (Spanish) arrival?

* What did the Spanish bring with them?

* How were the Spanish welcomed by the Native Americans?

Most social studies teachers with even a few days of experience could accurately predict that common student answers to the questions would be the following: a) by ship, b) they burned their ships and fought with the Aztecs, c) horses and guns, d) like gods. Of course some students might volunteer more, but for the great majority these answers would be enough, and our message should be clear: inadequate questions easily lead to inadequate student responses.

So what do we do about our questions? Below are three approaches for improving teacher questions and questioning methods. Rather than detailing categories or types of questions (an approach critiqued at the end of the article), the following are broad, general approaches that are much easier to remember and learn, to experiment with and practice.

Authentic Questions and the Socratic Method

The problem addressed here is that teachers often ask “test questions” to which the teacher already knows the answer and only asks the question to evaluate the students’ answer (Cazden, 1988; Heath, 1982). While there is often a need for questions designed to check for student understanding, these are relied on to excess. Authentic questions, on the other hand, are more compelling and interesting because the questioner is personally perplexed and seeks information.

Authentic questions build on the intellectual legacy of Socrates: systematically questioning another person with the goal of achieving fundamental definitions of ideas, on the way to achieving truth and knowledge (Tredennick, 1954). The Socratic method encourages teachers to develop discussion-opening questions, which are authentic, non-test question that has several plausible, defensible answers (Gray, 1989, pp. 16-23). Gossard (1998) introduces the notion of “serialized questioning practice” in which a new question is based on some element in the student’s previous response, and the answer to that question determines the next question. The purpose of this aspect of Socratic questioning is to help students explore their own thoughts about an issue and build a response, “not to elicit a ‘right’ answer.” Knowledge is not contained in any single response but built progressively through several responses.

For example, consider the following questions as an alternative to the ones cited on the previous page.

* What possibly could have driven a young Spaniard to give up all his family, friends, country, and everything else he knew, to embark on a journey of unknown destination and consequences?

* What factors may have led the Spanish to hope for a friendly encounter with the Aztecs, and which may have led them to expect a hostile encounter?

* Aside from weapons, what physical and mental resources might an explorer and soldier have needed to first conquer, then settle, a foreign land?

* How could the Aztecs have made such a terrible mistake of thinking the Spaniards were gods, and why did it take them so long to realize their error?

It should not be difficult to predict how much more rewarding, interesting, challenging and engaging the class discussions and other lesson activities would be if based on these authentic questions, instead of the traditional “test” questions cited earlier.

Silence and Wait Time

In the I-R-E, silence often follows a teacher question as students do not respond immediately or respond with very short answers. The usual teacher reaction is to fill the silence with teacher talk. Some teachers are embarrassed by silence, or want to rescue students from an uncomfortable situation, but in doing so may be giving up on some students and inadvertently teaching that the easiest way of reacting to a teacher’s question is to make no response.

Teachers typically wait one second or less for students to reply to a question they have asked. Rowe (Cazden, 1988, p. 60, Rowe, 1986) has found that when teachers wait more than three seconds, resisting the urge to “move on,” that teacher’s responses are more flexible and there is greater continuity in the development of ideas, teachers ask fewer and more complex questions, teachers become more adept at using student responses because they listen more carefully to what students have to say, previously “invisible” students speak up, and students no longer restrict themselves to simply responding to the teachers’ questions.

Student Questions

Finally, a third approach has the teacher refrain from asking all the questions and instead have the students generate their own questions about the reading or the issue at hand. Doing so is an alternative way of assessing or determining what the students know or understand because a good question performs two functions at once. On the surface it tells us what the student does not know and seeks to find out. But underneath the surface it also shows how much the students know, how much they have thought about the subject, deeply enough to consider a perspective of which we were not aware, to see an angle previously unseen.

Dillon (1983, p. 36) suggests the following: “When a student is confused or is having difficulty making a point, ask that student to formulate a question. By having the speaker formulate a question, he discovers precisely the matter at issue and can get the help he needs…By contrast, all goes awry when the teacher asks a series of “diagnostic” questions: ‘Do you mean this? Do you mean that? What are you trying to say?’ Although intended to help the student deliver a stalled thought, these questions confuse the student even more. When faced with such questions, the student is required to disengage from the struggle to formulate his own thoughts and must search for answer that is satisfactory to the teacher.” Knowledge of a subject matter “is reflected not in the answers but in the proposition that the answer and question form together. The teacher comes to know a student’s understanding by first seeing the questions that the student has derived from the subject matter.” (Dillon, 1983:15, citing Collingwood, 1939, following Aristotle).

A related approach has students ask each other questions, since “peers more readily engage in question-and-answer exchanges with each other than with superiors, and student responses to fellow students are longer and more complex than responses to the teacher (Boggs, 1972; Mishler, 1978).” Anecdotally, we see the effects of this when one class of students is asked to formulate a test for another class, producing difficult and challenging questions. Another example would be having one group of students produce a list of questions that must be answered by another group.

What Not To Do

A common but unproductive approach is to focus on the different “types” of questions we use in the classroom. For example, one classification scheme developed for the Coalition of Essential Schools reform effort (The Educational Technology Journal, 1997) recommends a fundamental set of Essential Questions, and supporting categories of questions: subsidiary, hypothetical, telling, planning, organizing, probing, sorting & sifting, clarification, strategic, elaborating, unanswerable, inventive, provocative, irrelevant, divergent and irreverent questions. Other examples are classification schemes based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Cazden, 1986). Each of the six levels of thinking (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) generates its own types of questions, and individual researchers add to the list as they see fit. Wolf (1987), for example, recommended five additional types of questions to support Bloom’s six levels: inference, interpretation, transfer, prediction, and reflection questions.

The trouble with these schemes is that few of us can remember these complex categories, and in the end they constitute futile efforts to handle the unpredictability of classrooms. Stevens (1912) warned against any attempt to prepare a rigid and inflexible list of questions before a class lesson, as “it is impossible to anticipate the crossroads and the byways through which the teacher may be obliged to journey in order to guide his pupils to a camp ground for the day. Any teacher who attempts to follow a rigid sequence of questions is hopelessly lost, and all spontaneity is swallowed up in method” (p. 5). Steven further cautioned against attempts to produce formulas for preparing questions, saying “It is impossible to say that a Why question will always be a better one than a When or a What question, because there are other elements besides form that enter into the consideration of quality and worth” (p. 72).


A set of three approaches to questions and questioning methods seems much more practical and useful than a long list of types of questions.

1. Replace “test” questions with authentic questions.

2. Extend your wait time for student responses.

3. Have students formulate their own questions and ask questions of each other.

I encourage you to try even just one of the three approaches, and to seek me out at the next CCSS conference to tell me how it has worked out for you. I think you will find, as many of my methods students have, that your class discussions become more engaging and stimulating, leading to deeper student understanding of the subject.


Boggs, S. T. (1972). “The Meaning of Questions and Narratives to Hawaiian Children,” in Cazden, C. B. John, V. P., and Hymes, D. (Eds). (1972). Functions of language in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cazden, C. B. (1986). Classroom discourse. In Wittrock, M. C. (ed.) (1986). Handbook of research on teaching, (3rd edition), pp. 432-451. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Cazden, C. B. (1988). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann Educational Books, Inc.

Collingwood, R. G. (1939). An autobiography. Chap. 5, “Question and Answer.” Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dillon, J. T. (1983). Teaching and the art of questioning. Bloomington, Indiana: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Dillon, J. T. (1985). Using questions to foil discussion. Teaching and Teacher Education. 1:109-121.

Gossard, J. (1998). Various handouts for Socratic Seminar held August 3-7, 1998, Center X, University of California at Los Angeles. Materials prepared by Los Angeles, California: Socratic Seminars Los Angeles, adapted from materials developed for the National Center for the Paideia Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Gray, D. (1989, Fall). Putting minds to work: How to use the seminar approach in the classroom. American Educator. New York: American Federation of Teachers.

Heath, S. B. (1982). What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school, Language in Society 11, 49-76.

Mehan, H. (1979). Learning lessons. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mishler, E. G. (1975). Studies in dialogues and discourse: II. Types of discourse initiated by and sustained through questioning. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 4:99-121.

Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education 37:43-50.

Tredway, L. (1995, September). Socratic seminars: Engaging students in intellectual discourse. Educational Leadership.

David Moguel is Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at California State University, Northridge. He teaches social studies methods in secondary education (though this article is based on research conducted at the elementary level) and coordinates the secondary student teaching program.

Copyright California Council for the Social Studies Spring 2003

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