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Improved Open-Ended Communication Inspires Learning Communities

John Hunter is a fourth grade teacher, and he’s one of the best around. Watching his Ted Talk, I was in awe at how he expertly communicates with children. He truly believes that informed parents, engaged communities and better schools arise from high quality communication. If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s well worth your 20 minutes. One of the most impressive strategies he implements is his ability to ask open-ended questions. As a teacher, I have practiced rigorously on the best way to engage students, and being open-ended is a huge help. There’s no doubt being open-ended helps bridge the gap between parents, schools, and communities.
I overheard a conversation at Panera recently that reaffirmed the importance of being open-ended. Here’s the actual conversation:
“How was your day,” the adult asked. “Good,” the child said. Then, the adult asked, “What did you learn today?” “Ummm…Math,” was the rather uninspired answer.
Being open-ended reinforces and revitalizes. At the end of a busy day, kids are tired. Some kids don’t like questions in general and are hesitant at sharing information. But mostly, kids find closed-ended questions restricting. Open-ended questions can get kids to talk in a free-flow manner, hitting on elaborate ideas that even the most ardent question-asker didn’t even know the kids had in them.
If you want to have a fun, communicative experience, the rule is simple. Basically, don’t ask kids questions in which the answer could be yes or no. I’ll illustrate an example. I asked my nephew once, “Do you want some vegetables?” I bet you can guess his answer. It was a resounding N-O. The fault was all mine though, because what kid would want a vegetable at 3:30 in the afternoon when dinner was a few hours away? After all, he’d be getting some on veggies on his plate at that hour. So, the next time I picked him up after school, I had learned my lesson. I rephrased the question.
If you could have any vegetable in the world before you get to eat this chocolate s’mores bar (showing him the chocolate s’mores bar) what would it be?” I had him. He went silent, and thought for a few seconds, running through his list of vegetables. He smiled, and said watermelon. Well, not bad. But watermelon is a fruit, I said, but I’d take it since he’d be getting some good sources of vitamin C before he had his snack of choice. We then went on to have a fun conversation about fruits that look like vegetables. And then fruits that taste like vegetables. Remember, none of this would have been possible with my first question, because it was closed-ended. But, open-ended questions opened up an opportunity for so much more inquiry. Now, I have even this printed out for those busy moments when I forget to think of my own open-ended questions. When we communicate with our kids, they communicate back to us. That’s the lesson here. And they never cease to amaze, according to Hunter, and every teacher probably ever!
Another thing I admire about Hunter is that he encourages open-ended communication to foster inquiry far beyond our expectations. When he’s teaching his inspiring “World Peace Game,” he assigns one of the most important (and challenging) books written of all time – The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. To fourth graders! When we arm our students with these opportunities, and communicate our objectives in clear, open-ended ways, the sky is the absolute limit in what we are be able to get them to speak, write, and create. Kids want to share their positive experiences in school, but too often readily engage in negativity and gossip.
Again, open-mindedness trains them to think in successful terms. Involved communities leads to better schools, and what better way than sharing success stories? Next time you ask how their day was, it would be wise to turn that statement around and ask them ways in which tomorrow could be even better.
After all, that is the goal of excellent communication, making tomorrow better than today, and being open-ended adds another quiver in your arrow. At The School Communications Agency, we believe 100 percent in providing opportunities for success through the power of positive communication. If you are interested in learning more about what we do, please contact us for more ideas today. We would love to help in your efforts in building your community and improving education.

 

About The Author

Chris Coomey is a teacher, writer, and community engagement specialist. When not working with students or writing about education, you can find him on his bike, on the basketball court, or out on a long hike on the incredible Colorado trails.