Guess what's in my head?

by Derek Featherstone

Ben Stein, the Economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, teaches us an important lesson about the types of questions that we should be asking from the stage when we're speaking or when we're in a classroom teaching.

Watch the embedded video above or watch it directly on Youtube (short clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) and then come back.

Ben Stein plays the Economics teacher. In this clip he asks questions. Fill in the blank type questions, that are essentially serving as his "interaction" with the class. It isn't really interacting though. Yes, he's asking them questions, but he's not really doing anything to engage them or make them think. He's asking them "guess what's in my head" questions. Questions that the students have no way of possibly knowing the answer, but he's really just hoping that someone answers the questions with the word he's looking for. And then accepts that as evidence of them understanding.

What kind of questions do you ask?

So what do you do when you have a captive audience? Do you ask questions at all that make them think? Do you not ask questions at all? Or do you ask "Guess what's in my head" questions that your students or the audience have no way of knowing the answers?

What should you do?

Look for ways to ask questions that make people think. Questions that aren't "fill in the blank" or "guess what's in my head." Questions like:

  • "If we know this concept is true, does that apply here? Why is this different than that previous case?"
  • "Predict what will happen the next time you... "
  • "Here's the results of this work. Why do you think we got this result?"

Use the answers to those questions as your test to determine if your participants are understanding.