Effective Things My Teachers Do: Ask "What Else?"

Posted on September 9, 2010

I’ve been taking lessons again, and one of the interesting results from that process is that I’m noticing things that my teachers are doing which improve the learning process. This post is the first in a series that will discuss these simple but effective techniques that I’m experiencing as a student.

This post is about the question, “What else?”

When I was teaching, after I’d posed a question to a class, I was inclined to ask “what else” when I hadn’t yet heard the specific answer I was seeking. I eventually figured out that wasn’t a very useful approach.

But as I student, I’ve noticed that this question can be powerful when:

The key to asking “what else?” is that you’re encouraging the students to explore the topic. After you do this a few times, students will recognize that you’re not playing a game of “guess what the teacher wants to hear.”

I had a professor in college who used this technique exquisitely. He would play a piece of music and ask the class what they noticed about it. No matter what the answer was, he would first agree with the student’s perspective, thus making sure it felt like a safe environment. He would then elaborate a little bit on the students answers, allowing his perspective to enter the class’s attention in a very subtle way. Then he would ask, “what else?” and wait for another answer.

A current teacher of mine uses the technique to see how I’m assessing myself. She will ask about my work in the week between meetings, and after I answer, she’ll respond, “yes, and what else?” If I answer “I don’t know” too quickly, she won’t accept it.

When implementing this technique as a teacher, there may be long pauses while the class considers the question. Allow yourself to be comfortable in the silence. Wait through it a few seconds longer than you think you need to. Sometimes the moment you feel ready to move on is the moment a student is ready to say something insightful.