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  • Pam Koutrakos

Two Magic Words For Students: Part 2

In part two of my post Two Magic Words: What Else?, I’ll share some ways I ask students the “what else?” question in order to cultivate openness and deep thinking. This approach works with learners of all ages and even in your personal life.

Here are a few examples of times I regularly ask students, “What else?” in order to stir up critical thinking and decision making:

When students create projects: I often ask learners what else we might do, what other decisions people might make, or how else we might create a product. This leads to the best ideas-—ones I had never before considered! By inviting students to envision what else, I am fostering shared responsibility in the decision-making involved in learning. One example is when I rethought assessment in word study by infusing more authentic ways to check in on student learning. When I asked my students,”What else could we do to show off our learning?” their ideas wowed me! Soon, students created their own screencasts to teach and support others, made their own meaning and spelling based word ladders, and even created coding games that demonstrated their word learning. Students were immersed in these experiences and I gleaned more instructional information than I ever dreamed possible.

When students have conversations: Asking “what else?” is a powerful conversational teacher “tick” in the best sense of that word, because it opens up the discussion and reminds students it is more than safe to speak up. These two words send the message that you have an insatiable appetite for their ideas. “What else?” also encourages learners to move beyond dualistic thinking, consider other ideas, and enrich their perspectives. When meeting with fiction-based book clubs, I might encourage a group member to ask, “What else might the character be thinking? What else could the character have decided to do? What else do you think might happen? What else could you do to find out?” or “What else will you carry with you after reading this story?” When meeting with informational book clubs, I might encourage students to wonder, “What else did you learn? What else are you thinking? What else is included that shows author bias?” or “What else might you do as a result of learning about this topic?”

When students think through next steps: We worked. We approximated. We practiced. We learned. And then I’d say, “Now what else are we going to do with this learning?” For example, one year after the class engaged in research-based inquiry work around pollution in New Jersey, the students decided to create podcasts to share with family members. They also spoke at a school assembly and shared ways all of the students could take tiny steps to make a big difference. Another class used their newly acquired addition knowledge to help select some of the books that would be purchased with some of the grant money. The students researched the price of coveted books and found the total cost. When the books finally arrived, the students couldn’t wait to start reading.

When students are ready to think more, say more, share more, or write more: These two simple open-ended words “what else?” nurture endless possibilities. For example in a recent conferring conversation during a historical fiction unit, a student was glossing over the importance of the setting. I asked the student, “What else do you know about how the setting impacted the story?” After some thought he replied, “I think I am realizing that the antagonist in every historical fiction book I have read IS the setting. So many of the characters we THINK are villains are actually just a product of the setting.” WOW, right! He then went on to explain this idea in such detail.

When students are ready to try new lines of thinking: Sometimes we all make choices to act or say something that we later realize might not have been the best decision. It’s part of being the flawed, wonderful humans that we are. Asking “what else?” is a powerful way to nudge a learner to deepen and broaden her thinking in many academic scenarios. I also use these two words to help students become more empathetic people and skilled problem-solvers (possibly even problem-preventers). The question works so beautifully because it is a question—rather than a chastising statement like, “That was wrong, or never do that again.” which almost entirely inhibits constructive reflection. “What else could you/we/I have done in that situation?” is so impactful because it invites the naming of new strategies, brings about reflection, but doesn’t shame the student.

By nurturing a habit of reflection and asking students “what else?” I became a stronger and more confident educator. By sharing this gift, I help others to entrench themselves in a world of choice-making and conscious competency. As a result, learning STICKS! Not only that, because of the consistent metacognitive thought and ongoing reflection this question yields, students know how to transfer and apply learning to novel situations.

I encourage you to ask, “What else?” each day and see how things change. I would love to hear about the choices you make and how these two seemingly simple, yet incredibly substantial words shape the learning community you are a part of! Tweet them at me at @Pamkou.

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