Gail Brown: Learning to ask the right questions
Dr Gail Brown


Gail Brown: Learning to ask the right questions

October 8, 2020

For Dr Gail Brown, a two-time graduate of Macquarie (BA 1978, MA 1994) and past lecturer, it’s all about the love of learning. Specifically, understanding how we learn, so she can help others learn too. It involves asking good questions, a lot of practice and a fair dose of perseverance, but she believes success is within everyone’s grasp.

In a way, it all started when her son was struggling with reading in primary school. It triggered an inquisitiveness about how children learn, and why some grasp concepts quickly, yet others find it more difficult.

Gail says, ‘That was what prompted me to do the Masters in Special Education at Macquarie University; I was trying to help my child. He had the same parents, came from the same household as his brother, yet the instruction wasn’t right for him.’

Gail had already graduated with a Bachelor of Economics from Macquarie University in the 1970s, which she quickly followed with a Diploma of Education externally from the University of New England. Then, in the 1990s, she enrolled in the Masters. She remembers, ‘It was a wonderful feeling to come back to Macquarie; such a different experience to my undergrad days.

‘It was familiar, and yet I saw everything through new eyes. Not only had the campus changed and grown over those twenty years, but I had changed too and was now a parent of school-aged children.

‘Special education was a whole new field for me, but it consolidated everything I was interested in and had been working toward,’ she says. ‘It was a pivotal time in my life.

‘Greg Hotchkis, Mark Carter and Kevin Wheldall each taught me different things that still stay with me now. Their mentoring laid a strong foundation for my doctoral research, which I went on to undertake at Western Sydney University, and it continues to influence how I learn and design effective classroom instruction.’

Asking the right questions

Gail has worked as an independent education consultant for over 12 years, and her work focuses on the comprehension part of reading, in particular questioning and answering.

‘We know that outcomes for children who can’t read aren’t as strong as for those who can; that’s why it’s so important to get the basics right, like comprehension. Focusing on the ‘wh’ words – who, what, where and when – sounds simple, but if you don’t have that, you can’t get to higher-order thinking,’ she says, her enthusiasm and genuine desire to help shining through.

Indeed, questioning is a skill that is often taken for granted; we assume it just comes naturally, especially to children. And yet, like most things, it takes practice. But it is worth it, as mastering this skill will help across all curriculum areas and at every level of schooling, including the HSC and beyond.

According to Gail, ‘Asking questions is the jumping off-point for being curious and creative; it’s where our ideas come from. But especially in today’s environment – whether you are searching for information or interpreting the media landscape – it’s never been more important. We need to teach kids how to ask the right questions, how to be clear in what they are asking to achieve their purpose, and of course, understand the answer.’

It sounds simple, but how – pedagogy aside – do you help children learn such fundamental skills? Gail lights up in response: ‘Confidence comes from success – and success breeds success, so we set children up to achieve by improvement through practice.

‘That’s how we all learn – anything from reading to driving a car or a musical instrument or a sport. It’s about being a lifelong learner. Teachers that display this openness to continual learning send a strong, positive message to children too,’ she says.

‘If you’re struggling with something like reading or writing, the important thing is to persevere, to keep learning. I’d encourage students of every age as well as adults to persevere.’

Learning from life

Gail speaks from experience. She remembers, ‘I did struggle to complete my undergrad, and had to go back to finish the final two subjects. I am so glad I persevered and finished that degree though. I learned a lot about my studies, but also about life, and without that undergraduate degree, I couldn’t have gone on to any other further formal learning.’

Persistence is a skill that has seen Gail through the pandemic, too, as she adjusted to the changes in her business and personal life. ‘Before lockdown, my focus was on working with teachers face-to-face, or one on one, and I’ve had to learn how to work in different ways. As a result, I’ve learned a lot, about myself, and technology.’

Most importantly, she has used the time to work on what she describes as her legacy – upgrading the program that came out of her Masters and Doctoral research, and turning it into a blended program using online and print materials, which she is hoping to launch at the beginning of the next school year.

‘I’m also writing academic papers again with lecturers from two universities, volunteering for ALEA (Australian Literacy Educators Association) and working with an academic overseas to support students learning to read.’

But it was the desire to understand the changes in her personal life during this time and impart some of this wisdom to school-aged children, which resulted in her becoming a published author for the first time.

Gail explains, ‘Before COVID, I was caring for my young granddaughter regularly. We both enjoyed those days so much. I was watching her grow and helping her learn when lockdown changed everything overnight.

‘Living alone in self-isolation was difficult,’ she remembers. ‘I managed to get through that period by finding something new and different to work on. I co-authored an article for Teacher magazine with Dr Carl Leonard from the University of Newcastle on the transition back to school, which has been well received, and have also written a book that helps parents and teachers to support children through the pandemic.

‘The book came about as a result of a conversation with an American academic friend about how much I was missing my granddaughter. I was challenged to write a novella for her, and the book is the result. I imagined the discussions I would have with her if she were older and at school. I thought school-aged children would be asking lots of questions and thought it might help them.’

It seems the many threads in Gail’s professional and personal life are coming together. She says, ‘I enjoy creating learning for myself, and for teachers and their students. All of this has been an important part of what makes me the person I am today, and thanks to my time at Macquarie, my life is richer and more fulfilling.

‘I will be forever grateful for the opportunities that came from studying at Macquarie and those that came afterward. It has been so rewarding creating learning for students with additional needs, and their teachers.

And what became of her son? Gail says, ‘He went on to be successful, and graduated from Macquarie too, as did my other son. They were very proud moments watching my children graduate from Macquarie, both as a parent and as a past graduate.’

Then she adds with a smile, ‘You can achieve whatever you want if you persevere and keep learning throughout your life.’

‘COVID-19: How teachers can help students transition back to school’, Teacher magazine

 COVID Conversations: Helping children understand what’s happening

Words: Megan English


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