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Two-Footed Questions

Excerpted from Ellen Weber's book, MI Strategies in the Classroom and Beyond: Using Roundtable Learning, 2005, Pearson Education Inc., New York: NY. Reproduced by permission.

by Ellen Weber

In spite of all the talk about engaging students, what do we see when we walk down any high school hall, where classroom doors are ajar for airflow to keep students awake? One teacher in my book club asked me after the meeting last week, "Why have we stopped looking for answers anymore at the secondary level?" I'm not sure we have, but it seems to me that, the key is to challenge and engage students without diminishing or shortchanging them. To do this, faculty can create safe, and at the same time challenging, circles using what I have termed the two-footed question. Each prong of the two-footed question, as described in the next section, increases curiosity to learn more about a topic, and each moves thinking along toward a doable resolution.

Two-Footed Questions
In roundtables, the best questions become two footed so that one foot relates to students and one steps into the lesson topic. For example, faculty might ask, "What happened in the civil war that affects you and your family?" Or in math class, a two footed question would inquire, "How might these graphs influence your life today?" A science question which is two footed may ask: "What lives in the river near you?" Or in English, the question could be, "If you were Pablo Neruda, what poem would you write about your government's role in Iraq?" This harmonious learning environment motivates students of all ages, and propels new ideas as people feel validated to use their unique abilities in concert with others to orchestrate knowledge that impact life as they know it.

Whenever faculty ask questions that disregard students' interests and abilities, they disconnect their learning goals from their students' motivation to achieve these goals. For example, if one asks: "What happened during the Civil War?" many students will reply, "I don't care." If, however, faculty disregard the foot that probes their content areas deeply, they decrease many students' chances for successful achievement. For example, ask: "How do you feel about the Civil War?" and students will cascade their emotions and ideas without much attention to historic facts. If one asks on the other hand, "What happened in the civil war that affects you and your family today?" you bring a sense of immediacy and meaning to the topic. In so doing, you create a brain compatible opportunity. For this reason, expect to see engaged students who will use their talents as tools to discover deeper understanding, and at the same time will apply new insights to their current situations. They will relate what they learn to similar events they encounter in their own worlds.

Faculty at our center work in roundtable projects, which tend to turn into fireside chats, where we all teach and at the same time we all learn. Looking to carry these chats into their classrooms, the teachers discuss often how they achieve successful learning circles in a variety of difficult settings. At times they explore barriers that we all face, and they discuss how these obstacles hold students back at one time or another. And then they look for ways to move past learning barriers in order to achieve creative opportunities. Barriers for these teachers, and for most of us, often look surprisingly similar, and yet teachers too often face isolation as they try to move beyond their particular blockades.

Challenges and Rewards from Diverse Circles
Resistant students, pressures from parents, too much text to cover, and high-stakes test demands often top their expressed list of difficulties. In fact, roundtables are ideal settings for raising the most difficult barriers up to discussions so that faculty can find and share real solutions to their own tough walls. In this article you will find several guides to create your own best solutions, regardless of topics you teach.

Following eighteen months of working with and learning from Inuit teachers, I piloted several new programs that applied successful roundtable learning activities and teaching strategies. Whenever I introduce roundtable learning approaches within a variety of ages in order to create projects together, people ask how it is possible to work with so many different entry points. Circles tend to work best when they integrate a variety of different ages, interests and abilities. In addition, roundtable ideas, at their core, enhance interactions in formal classroom settings as well as in more active classrooms where students are used to learning alone as well as in teams. Whether on campus or online, roundtable learning presupposes inquiry as a collaborative process.

Create a Tone That Nurtures Thought
Students enjoy an opportunity to create positive communities where new ideas are evoked and where they take time to look at facts through the eyes of others. In this section you'll find a list of criteria that will guide a secondary or college class to build tone that fosters safe and yet challenging circles. Using the list of criteria below, have students create quotes that describe their groups' mission for a positive learning climate. Each quote created should encourage all students to find opportunities in the roundtables in order to express their ideas and relate these to new facts learned.

Display quotes on a large poster or bulletin board as daily guides to:
· feel free to express their minds, in respect and without any attack in response
· expect the best from others concerning topics raised, but accept imperfections
· contribute freely to ideas and feel valued in small teams and in class
· look forward to engaging peers in thoughtful ways for diverse responses
· show positive attitudes to others' different ideas, even when they disagree
· state specific supports that agree or disagree with issues raised in class
· apologize whenever offence is taken by any member of the group
· think deeply and then state ideas so that others can learn from them
· laugh at themselves, and shake off personal offenses when they come
· maintain a careful tone, that affirms people and leads with creative ideas
· learn skills to report insights so that others benefit from the solutions
· take the risk to lead, and don the humility to be led by others in the group

You may also wish to create your own criteria to replace poor tone observed in your circles, and build a stronger learning community in your class. Nothing can substitute for good tone and it takes an entire team to create and sustain the positive qualities that promote success for an entire group.

Sarcasm and debate for the sake of argument help less in this process, as they tend to shut out voices that might otherwise be heard. It takes skill and a daily resolve to build positive contributions that characterize the best circles. In fact, building tone is a daily endeavor that lights warm flames and inspires higher visions for the team.

Collaboration Among Students, Teachers, and Community
Faculty who learn alongside their students, who guide discussions, facilitate problem solving, and instigate reflection, encourage interactive learning at its best. They create dynamic inquiry beyond mandated agendas set by boards or imposed by outside forces. Ideas spring into life from many perspectives. The best of these ideas remain after facts filter through the group's sieve of common understanding and shared vision.

When I taught on Baffin Island, Inuit students' and teachers' personal and traditional stories created course content that encompassed Inuit culture and heritage. Eventually, we compiled students' stories into a text for our social studies course. Stories we had shared in our talking circles provided our supplemental information for such lessons as, How Do Inuit Children Learn Best? The idea was to integrate traditional Arctic knowledge into the required McGill course outline. The students' personal experiences in High Arctic living, were added to their course content. Teamwork was based on the following assumption about learning: just as we hinder learning whenever we ignore a culture's unique past knowledge and experiences, so do we move toward shared outcomes when we include students' past knowledge at the most basic levels.

Traditional Inuit stories proved to be relevant, participatory, and inquiry driven. Motivation grew for each lesson, as students talked to elders, collaborated with one another, and interviewed former teachers. Within each storytelling roundtable, narratives ranged from how Inuit boys bond with their fathers to how Inuit girls speak out about changing female roles in the community. Stories promoted humor, gave rise to debates about what was then and what should be now, and at times simply informed us about the Arctic way of life in the past and Inuit dreams for their future. Stories are especially relevant among aboriginal peoples because they sometimes rely more on oral transmission than on written accounts.

Roundtable learning with two-footed questions, presents an ideal forum for encouraging an entire community's active involvement. Because of its interactive approach, the circle provides a less hierarchical or threatening structure for parents or extended families who have not felt welcomed at school. Outsiders feel less threatened when learning includes their own probing questions and personal stories. Personal stories about one's cultural heritage can supplement textbook information in a cooperative roundtable setting.

Students from minority populations sometimes describe feeling put down when teachers deliver a one-sided view of any topic, since they cannot find their experiences in the content. They resent the bias that usually accompanies any single perspective. And minority groups are not alone. As a student I felt that my personal faith was often compromised. In high school and university I felt forced to express the atheistic views held by my instructors in order to do well in their classes. At roundtables, such subtle coercion is less likely to occur, since each participant brings her past knowledge and experience into the construction of new knowledge.

Listening Activities Ensure Participation
According to secondary students we talk to, few of their teachers question or listen well, and yet they also describe teachers who fostered deeper understanding through a variety of students unique perspectives. Teachers are busy people who often feel they lack the resources they need to make positive changes in their classrooms. Invariably I am asked to suggest hands-on tools such as the questioning and listening activities similar to those included in my latest book, MI Strategies in the Classroom and Beyond: Using a Roundtable Approach. When asked, I often suggest that faculty start with the extravagant resources that enter their classes daily, their students' mental capabilities. Why not create a fireside chat in your next class, and watch students dip into deeper pools of their natural potential to discuss your lesson topic through rich new perspectives. Then ask a two footed question, and students will so enjoy the insights that follow that by the next lesson topic, they'll be ready to generate their own questions.

With two footed questions, and with the unique perspectives these spark, students gain new confidence, and you'll have the honor of leading your learning roundtables to higher grades for happier teens.

About the author

Dr. Ellen Weber is currently Founding President and Director of the MITA Brain Based Renewal Center, author of several books and many articles related to secondary and university renewal through MITA (Multiple Intelligence Teaching Approaches) learning and assessment approaches. Weber collaborates with leaders looking for higher motivation and achievement for their students, based on current and emerging facts from the cognitive sciences, and developed and applied MITA methods in several university settings within the US and in diverse developmental and cultural backgrounds in places such as Monterey, Mexico, the High Arctic, Chile, SA, Canada, and Chongqing, China. She facilitate faculty and leaders to implement MITA in education and leadership courses, and works with other PIs to develop the on-line faculty development program on integrating MITA. Contact and web site info:

Ellen Weber, Ph.D. 421-3656
CEO, MITA Brain Based Center
P.O. Box 347
Pittsford, NY 14534

Daily tips at Ellen's blog:

© 2004

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