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Problem-Solving Prompts for Teachers

Have you ever had a student answer a question with answer that caught you off guard?

Or, have a student answer with a lot confidence...and then give the wrong information? (And you're scratching your head thinking, "how in the world did they think THAT was the answer!?")

Have you wondered how to get your more reserved students to open up more?

If so, welcome. I've got you covered.

Here are 5 nonjudgemental and unbiased phrases you can use to help students understand their thought patterns and problem-solve. (As a bonus, if you're a psychology nerd like me, these phrases can also help students untangle complicated emotions and identify negative thought cycles in an emotionally healthy way).

1. Tell me more

This is one of my go-to phrases for teaching.

"Tell me more" prompts the student to expound upon their previous statement, which reveals their line of thinking. It clarifies how their thoughts get from Point A to Point B. When you understand HOW they think, you can determine where their thinking has been misguided or gone off course, and help them see the correct solution.

"Tell me more" is especially useful for more reserved students. Often, shy students are afraid to offer their opinion or answer a prompt out of fear that they'll be wrong (and therefore feel embarrassed or otherwise uncomfortable). But, if you use the phrase "tell me more," it invites a student to think/process out loud without feeling like their previous response was somehow wrong or invalid. That creates connection, safety, and belonging, which strengthens the overall culture of your class.

2. What if...

"What if" is an excellent way to offer a hint or otherwise point the student in the right direction.

As a "fixer," when my students don't understand a concept, my first instinct is to "fix" it for them. But offering them the right answer (or giving your opinion when it wasn't asked for) is a slippery slope best avoided.

The phrase "what if" could be followed by a variety of prompts. Some examples:

  • What tried it this way?

  • What thought of the problem/issue in this light?

  • What reframed [negative thought] into [learning opportunity/more positive outcome]?

In a situation where compassion, empathy, and understanding are needed (as in, the student is needing emotional, not intellectual support), try these:

  • What if...the worst thing happened? [Have the student be specific and detailed in their response, which allows them to see that they will indeed survive the worst-case-scenario]

  • What if...the best case scenario happened? [This one is fun because it can catch students off guard; they spend a lot of mental energy worrying about bad results that they don't think about what GOOD can come out of a situation!]

3. Would you agree?

"Would you agree" does double-duty. For one, it invites the student to be a part of the conversation and solution, because you're asking them to actively participate.

For another, it helps you summarize what you as the teacher are hearing and repeat it back to the student. Often, when a student hears me summarize a lot of complicated ideas or feelings, it shows them how flawed their thinking has been.

Here are a couple of scenarios of this phrase in action:

  • Teacher: What note is that?

  • Student: C natural

  • Teacher: [knows it's the wrong answer] Would you agree that there are 2 sharps in the key signature at the top of the page?

  • Student: [sees the mistake] Oh yeah! I forgot about that. It is a C#

Another scenario:

  • Teacher: Are you excited for your audition coming up!?

  • Student: No. I'm really nervous, feel like I'm not going to play anything right, and that people will think I suck.

  • Teacher: Would you agree that auditions aren't the only measure of your abilities as a musician?

  • Student: Yeah, I guess.

  • Teacher: Me too. Let's tackle those fears one by one, remembering that the audition is ONE moment in your playing, and not the base for the entirety of your self-worth.

4. How does that sound?

By asking "how does that sound," you're letting the student take ownership of their thoughts and take actions. You're inviting them to participate in the learning process, which gives them a sense of autonomy.

As much as you may think an 11 year-old who forgets their backpack half the time doesn't need to have more personal responsibility, inviting the student is important because it allows them to feel in control. And in a world where 99% of things seems to operate outside their control, this sense of autonomy is priceless.

Instead of saying:

  • go practice 30 minutes a day this week and come back more prepared next time

Try saying:

  • We didn't have productive practice this past week. Now that we have new goals for the coming week, let's aim for 30 minutes of practice every day. How does that sound?

I'm essentially saying the same thing: go do the work! But the way I'm saying it matters. The first example is a command. The second is a benediction: it states a fact, redirects the focus to the present goal, and then invites the student to take an active role in this plan of action.

5. What does that say about you?

This phrase is one you want to use when you have built a solid relationship with the student, because it requires them to be vulnerable with you.

"What does that say about you" is a question often asked in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. The goal is to identify negative beliefs, and challenge them with positive statements.

Therefore, this question is especially useful to help students face their self-deprecating thoughts and shift toward a more positive mindset.

For example, let's say a student struggles with stage fright. The conversation surrounding that might sound something like this:

  • Teacher: Why are you so nervous to playing by yourself?

  • Student: Because I don't like people watching me. It makes me feel like they're judging me

That statement of "I feel like people are judging me" may feel real to the student, but it's not true. Here's where we get to the core belief:

  • Teacher: What does that say about you?

  • Student: That I feel like I'm not good enough

There it is - the core belief is "I'm not good enough." Now that we know that negative thought, we can start to challenge it by reaffirming with a positive statement like:

  • I am working to the best of my ability

  • I am still learning

  • It's ok that I want to be exceptional. It's also ok that I'm not where I want to be yet but am working toward it

Cheers to being compassionate and empathic while guiding students toward their own solution.


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