Quickly being able to praise, correct or work with the answers you get from audiences — especially children — is an essential skill for informal educators. However, offering this feedback to learners who are strangers, in public, is an emotional minefield. In this section, we’ll discuss some tips for safely managing their replies and some of the most common scenarios which crop up.
Praising them appropriately
When you are praising correct or thoughtful answers, it’s important to do so warmly and in a manner that is believable for that person and that audience. In general, the younger the child, the more overt and emphatic your praise can be. This is one of those nuances which you can only hone through interacting with different ages and observing the reaction of the audience.
It is easy for a novice educator, with the best of intentions, to patronise their audiences by over-praising. This can apply to surprisingly young audiences, but for groups from upper primary school onwards, excessive approval can be particularly counterproductive. Teenage boys, especially, may resent being singled out for acclaim among their peers. Giving them your attention and subtle nonverbal rewards can be more effective here.
The generality of the advice in the preceding two paragraphs reflects one of your biggest disadvantages as an informal educator — unlike their teachers, you don’t know the ability, confidence and circumstances of each child who answers. Admittedly, sometimes this ignorance can be useful, when it stops you having unhelpful expectations about their potential. But, most of the time, it makes giving personalised feedback to individuals difficult. You need to be able to read each child who answers quickly and work out, as best you can, how to acknowledge their contribution in a way which supports them.
Dealing with incorrect answers
One of the reasons asking questions takes so long is the amount of time you need to invest in sensitively dealing with wrong answers, without damaging the self-confidence of the respondents. This is also important if you want to preserve the play bubble (4.2) and to encourage other people to answer in future. Making a mistake or having their ignorance exposed in public makes the person who answered extremely vulnerable. Your attitude in responding to them, in this susceptible state, is critical. It reveals your inner character to the rest of the audience.
How robustly you manage incorrect answers depends on two main factors — the age of the audience; and how much the audience trust you. If the audience is younger or your trust bank is low, the safest approach is normally to avoid saying “no” outright. It is better to soften the correction, e.g.
- find a way of praising the effort and thought they put in, rather than the answer;
- if appropriate, acknowledge it was close to the correct answer;
- if it involves a common misconception that you once had, admit “that’s what I used to think too, but…”;
- ask if other people were thinking that too, and reassure them that many others share that misunderstanding;
- take their answer and talk aloud your thoughts — appearing to puzzle it out for the first time with them — as you work from it to some consequence that they can all see is false;
- use a survey approach where you quickly take suggested answers from several people without judgement and then reveal the correct answer at the end — this means the individuals who got it wrong don’t feel as singled out.
For older audiences or when your trust bank is high, you can reduce the need to be so gentle about your corrections. This saves time and makes the audience feel as if you are treating them in a mature way. So, the sooner you can get any audience to trust you, the more questions you will be able to ask in the same amount of time.
Giving helpful prompts to rescue an answer
When you’re faced with an answer that is partially correct, try to examine it for “ways in” which you can use to guide them towards rethinking their response. Through a series of directed questions and answers, help them to arrive at the correct reply. This means they can experience the sense of empowerment of publicly being right. There is an art in being able to give such prompts subtly so that it is not painfully obvious to everyone what you are doing.
The repetition of a wrong answer
Once a young child gets an answer into their head, they often don’t lower their hand even if someone else suggests that response without success. They are so excited and determined to give their answer, they often don’t hear what else has been said, so you need to remain patient in how you respond to their reply.
With older audiences, if this happens regularly, it may be a sign that you have not been amplifying answers by repeating them clearly.
The series of incorrect answers
Hearing one wrong answer after another to the same question gets dispiriting for the audience and completely kills the pace of the presentation. If you’re caught in such a cycle, don’t be afraid to tell or show them the answer directly. If you don’t reveal any traces of restlessness or disappointment during their replies, they are much less likely to feel uncomfortable.
Whenever this happens, try to work out what it was about the question, the level it was pitched at or the way that you delivered it that confused them.
In my first year as an informal educator, I learnt an invaluable lesson about how not to encourage pupils to volunteer answers. In an outreach show at a small primary school, the group were struggling to answer my questions correctly at the start of the presentation. This was almost certainly because I did not pitch them properly for this age group.
However, their principal was becoming increasingly embarrassed by the responses to each of my failed questions. Her tutting grew louder, until she could bear it no longer. She stood up and berated her pupils for several moments about how they had just studied this topic last week and that, surely, they must know the answers. Without actually saying it, she made it clear that they were letting down the whole school in front of her visitor.
Not surprisingly, this intervention only made things worse. Much worse. The audience sat there, paralysed with fear, in case anything else they answered was wrong. Holding high expectations for your learners is a well-proven strategy, but making them feel guilty about making any mistakes will shut them down completely.
The inaudible or unclear response
This common occurrence has multiple causes, e.g. the distance from the stage; the volume of the reply; audience noise; accent, diction or second language difficulties; or echoing venues like school gyms. After giving them an opportunity to repeat their answer, you can consider moving closer to the audience or looking to their friends or a teacher to help you. Always accept responsibility for you not being able to hear the reply, rather than letting it look like their fault for not being clear.
The unexpectedly advanced answer
Reasonably often, you will get a response from a younger child which is extremely sophisticated, given their age. Parents and teachers find these moments charming. Many presenters will make a big deal out of praising the child, e.g. asking for a round of applause or gently teasing them by asking if they want to take over the rest of the show.
In empowering that child, though, try not to go so overboard that you disempower the rest of the learners, especially those who have answered earlier in the presentation. One way of doing this is to ask the child if they are particularly interested in that topic, so their peers are less likely to feel bad for not having that detailed knowledge. Also, high-ability children tend to be aware of their aptitude and can find excessive displays of praise patronising.
The long-winded response
Some children, and adults, can take a long time to get around to answering your question when they reply. You can sense the audience getting restless during these circular, rambling answers. Normally, it would be seen as rude and impatient if you were to interrupt an answer. For the sake of the pace of the presentation, however, you need to find a way of stepping in here to sensitively refocus the respondent on the question you asked. The audience will understand why you are doing this. For instance, one technique is to thank them during a pause in the answer, paraphrase part of what they’ve said and then scaffold their future responses by asking a series of short, closed questions to guide them to the desired conclusion more quickly.
The child storytellers
Young children love to share their knowledge and experiences with you. They will sometimes raise their hands — whether or not you may have asked a question — and treat you to a personal thought or story that has just popped into their head. These stories can last some time and may have no obvious relevance to the content of the presentation. They matter greatly, though, to the child.
This behaviour can appear endearing at first, but beware — it is more contagious than chickenpox. It is therefore best to try to close the story down as soon as you can by interrupting them and politely inviting them to tell you more about it after the show.
The reply with grammatical mistakes
Spoken grammar has a strong relationship with your social background, regional dialect and culture. And assuming you are not giving a presentation about grammar, your primary interest is in the value of their answer rather than how they expressed it. Therefore, it is safer to avoid overtly correcting someone’s grammar when they reply. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should repeat the mistake when you paraphrase their answer in your own words.
The delayed response
Sometimes learners will make themselves vulnerable by speaking their thoughts aloud when answering or calling out, without any editing. These exclamations can uncomfortably reveal that they are several steps behind what the rest of the audience have already worked out. They may have missed an earlier point, been confused by a misconception, or have a learning difficulty.
As an educator, these are sobering moments. They remind us that we never quite know what our learners are thinking. Everyone in our audience is unique and they will each have their penny-dropping moments at different times. It is crucial to avoid doing anything which embarrasses the person in this case. Deal with that answer as you normally would, had it been given earlier in the routine.
The comically wrong answer
This is subtly different to the previous scenario, because the person volunteering the answer usually realises their obvious mistake or the humour of the response when their friends start reacting around them. It is safer to let the audience “get” the humour first, before you comment on it. Make sure, as far as you can, that the respondent does not feel humiliated by how you or the rest of the audience react. But, equally, don’t be afraid of laughing with them if they have made a genuinely funny slip.
Can you share a memorable and instructive story about what happened when you used any of these questioning tips in one of your presentations? I’m compiling a collection of stories and examples of hooks from readers for HOOK wisdom, a future free resource to complement this book. You can find out more and submit your stories about using any hooks here.