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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Right Way to Ask Questions in the Classroom

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Updated 10/2013

Have you ever thought about how silly we teachers can be? When we get in front of students, we present ourselves to be the ones with all the answers, and then after we talk to the students, we start asking questions as if we don't know anything we just talked about. No wonder students get confused!

The Goal of a Question

On a more serious note, as teachers, we need to come to grips with the fact that we really do not know everything, and there is no reason to assume that the students know nothing. But perhaps the most important question to ask is, "What does a teacher asking questions of a class expect the class to learn from the questioning process?"

There are a number of things to consider in this scenario. Some teachers might answer that the reason to ask questions is to check for understanding, which benefits the teacher more than the student. Ostensibly, after we have taught a principle or concept, we could ask, "Does everybody understand?" Even though we all realize that students not answering -- or even answering in the affirmative -- may not really understand, we still ask it. Are we aware of how many times we ask this useless question during a day of teaching?

What we really end up telling the students when we ask this sort of question is, "Ok, here is your last chance. If you don't ask any questions, then you understand completely, and I am free to go on to the next subject. Because I asked this fair question, and gave you a fair chance to answer, I am absolved from any lack of understanding on your part."

The fallacy with this thinking is that sometimes the students do not understand that they do not understand, and if they do not know what they do not know, there is no way that they can ask a question about it.

The other element about this question is that it is a yes-or-no question, and we all know it's all too easy to guess what answer the teacher wants to hear, and does not push the students into the higher-order-thinking stratosphere.

How do we then go about appropriately checking for understanding?

We ask specific questions! Great, you may be saying, but how do we do that?

Typically, these are the questions that are thrown out to the class as if they were tantalizing treats to be snatched up by all of the eager students. The reality is far different.

Classroom Observations

If we look at the dynamics of any classroom, it doesn't take more than a week for students to figure out who is smart, who is not, and who doesn't care. What is worse, studies show that after fourth grade, students know how they are perceived and play their roles accordingly. So, here comes one of those hook-laden questions bobbing about the classroom: "Class, if you could stretch string from here to the moon, how many balls of string would it take?"

The students who know they are not smart are not going to take the bait, and neither will the students who do not care. This leaves the smart kids as the only ones interested in answering, and almost before the question is finished, they have their hands up with an answer, right or wrong. The other two groups of kids are perfectly fine with this routine. Most likely, they will complacently say to themselves, "Let them answer the questions so I don't have to."

A teacher may defend this practice because the motivated student who answers will help the whole class to learn the answer. That might be true if the whole class were listening, but, when the teacher starts pacing the room and stops to ask a question, if the students know that the question will be open to the entire class, then most likely two-thirds of the class will not even pay it any attention and continue doodling or daydreaming.

I spent the day as a first grader, a third grader, a fifth grader, a sixth grader, and a ninth grader. I followed these students to all their classes. One astounding thing that I discovered is that some students went through a whole day -- maybe even weeks and months -- and never answered a single verbal question!

Once again, I ask, do we realize how many general questions we throw to the air in the course of a class period? We would be astounded at the results if we simply assigned a student to tally how many of these questions we actually ask each class period. Old habits are hard to break, but the students would love to help you break this one.

Let's say we notice this problem and decide something has to change. "Jeffry, What do John the Baptist and Kermit the Frog have in common?" Several hands slowly recede and all eyes are on Jeffry. Well, some eyes are on Jeffry. The rest of the students just breathed sighs of relief that their names were not called. The question asked is not their problem, and neither is the answer.

Some teachers may say that while Jeffry is thinking of the answer, the rest of the students are, too. Wouldn't that be nice? Once again, maybe one-third of the students are thinking about an answer, but the rest are just glad it wasn't them.

So, how do teachers ask a question the right way?

A Simple, Effective Approach

Most of us have been exposed to the questioning strategies researched by Mary Budd Rowe. She proposed that teachers simply ask a question, such as "What do you call it when an insect kills itself?" pause for at least three seconds, and then say a student's name: "Sally." By doing this, all the students will automatically be thinking about an answer and only after another child's name is said will they sigh in relief because they were not chosen.

Creative teachers accompany this technique with a system to make sure that every child gets to answer questions in a random fashion. If it is not random, then once they answer a question, they think they have answered their one question and are done for the day. I did some online research on questioning and found these questioning and discussion resources from UMDMJ useful.

So, if we are not planning to use total physical response (TPR) to have all the students answer questions at the same time, then at least we should be asking a question, pausing for three seconds and then saying a student's name in order to get the most effect out of questions. However, if we are satisfied with only some students paying attention and learning in our classrooms, then we can continue as usual.

Any questions?

What innovative strategies do you use to make sure every student gets a chance to ask and answer questions?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (155)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tina:

I was wondering if anyone would pick up on the actual questions. "5th grade humor never dies", or maybe I should say that I have not progressed beyond it, as my wife reminds me.

The answer is that they both have the same middle name---"The".

I find that including humor, brain teasers and questions that include problem solving help students to stay sharp and keep a lively feeling tone in the classroom.

If that was your only stumper... you are pretty good!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tina:

Way to go! You got it! But I made you think a bit, didn't I.

Only one more left... (well I added three more in one of the replies to my posts above)

How many balls of string?

Enjoy!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Cindy K's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This goes hand in hand with Jackie Walsh's Quality Questioning and her QUILT framework. The neat thing about this book is that it not only mentions the Wait Time 1 that is referred to in this article. It also suggests that teachers give Wait Time 2 AFTER a student has responded. This is a book that I recommend for you to add to your list of professional reading~

rollo tomasi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a 17-year veteran teaching Middle School Social Studies and High School History, I have learned that asking good, relevant, and meaningful questions of your students which are directly tied to your lesson is a talent learned through trial and error.

To end a lesson with "Now, are there any questions?" is probably not worth the breath of air it took to say it.

Asking questions of the material the students are learning, and having them being able to provide answers, should be on-going throughout the lesson.

I have found that many teachers lack the technique at asking questions in such a way that students should have a chance to answer it correctly, or at least to the point where the teacher can lead other students in providing related details until a final and correct answer has be given.

During a lesson, if the teacher simply expects a regurgitation of details when asking questions then these are the wrong questions to ask.

Would I like my students to know that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7th 1941?.....sure. But most importantly my lesson and the questions I ask will focus around the who, what, when, where, how and why of that event; the cause and effect; the immediate and long-term outcomes along with its over all significance.

Wow, sounds like a tall order...and it is, that is why I start with what I call "breadcrum questions." This line of questioning starts off small which checks for a very broad understanding; then I will ask a series of leading questions at different levels of difficulty until the students have eventually provided the who, what, what, when, where, how and why of the event.

I equate the art of asking good questions to the peeling of an onion. You start with the outer layers which are thin and easy to peel. Then the more you peel the thicker each layer gets, the deeper you go the closer you get to the core.

To only teach and ask questions at the surface layers is easy which many students may find as safe and fomfortable along with their teachers. However, true learning and knowledge comes from eventually pushing beyond the first layers, digging deeper which will require students to really think about the information they should be learning and ultimately realizing the importance to and behind that information.

To add to all of this, is that in order for a teacher to ask good questions they themselves must have a firm understanding of the content they are teaching. Teachers should always be developing a deeper and broader knowledge base of what they are teaching.

brian o'connor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kermit and John ... they both have the same middle name: 'the"

Tina Simons, NBCT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey Ben!
I totally agree about the humor! I'd be lost without it!
I had posted my first response because I hadn't tho't of anything.... went out and pulled weeds in my yard and, in the middle of yanking a dollar weed- it hit me! DUH! My dad was king of those jokes! I should have known it!
Thanks for injecting the humor into your blog~ I tend to zone out if there's not some fun in there somewhere... my students know to watch out- never can tell what she'll do!
Tina Simons, NBCT

Molly Myers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you Ben and Elizabeth (and others) for sharing your ideas. I have learned a lot from this blog entry/comments and will encourage others to seek this blog out as a resource. Bookmarked!

whitesharkt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How do you get all students involved in answering the questions?

whitesharkt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The best way to answer questions, especially difficult questions, is to get discussion groups to talk. The teacher can walk around the room and listen to discussions and talk to kids who aren't talking or seem to be struggling. This is a great time to engage in a better tailored set of questions for kids who struggle. Listening for answers as I walk around the room, helps me realize the ideas I want the class to hear. Then I can ask a student to repeat that idea in large group and also check the class randomly. Adding a timer is nice. Then think time is guaranteed.

Response boards are great. Ask a question, all write. Have the class stand up. Select students randomly and have students read answers aloud. Students with similar ideas can sit down allowing the hearing of all ideas in the class.

Technology is a great tool in the classroom. As teachers we should all dream of the day when we can have all students respond on their computers and we can read their responses giving kids feedback immediately. Eventually I envision a key pad with questions prebuilt for these kinds of learning discussions, so teachers can respond quickly and effectively to all of the ideas in a classroom. It would be like a live forum of discussion.

What it boils down to is that questioning provides a thoughtful education, where ideas are honored, not spoon fed down your throat so that test scores go up and teacher pay is increased. Let us all hope that education should be about the pursuit of the well being of mankind, so that in the end education helps to promote good for the good of all. Thinking would definitely be required, and I think Socrates Socratous would agree.

Ana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It has been a new epiphany for me but I find that realizing students "don't know what they don't know" can be frustrating for all parties involved. Finding ways to ask effective questions in the classroom is something I have been trying for the entire 9 years of my career and I am sure that I will continue to work on this. More importantly, it is something that I was never "taught" in college.

It is so true that the students already know which group they fall into and play right into it. These are things I had never thought of but whole-heartedly agree with now that I have read this article. The approach for effective questioning in this post is great. We tend to want answers right away but pausing momentarily gives all the students an opportunity to think through the answer. Once the class knows that questions are not answered voluntarily, it will motivate the usually quiet students to begin thinking about the answers for fear that they will be called upon.

But what do you do with students who are so painfully shy that they would be mortified answering in front of the class (whether right or wrong)?

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