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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

My first year teaching a literacy coach came to observe my classroom. After the students left, she commented on how I asked the whole class a question, would wait just a few seconds, and then answer it myself. "It's cute," she added. Um, I don't think she thought it was so cute. I think she was treading lightly on the ever-so shaky ego of a brand-new teacher while still giving me some very necessary feedback.

So that day, I learned about wait/think time. And also, over the years, I learned to ask better and better questions.

Many would agree that for inquiry to be alive and well in a classroom that, amongst other things, the teacher needs to be expert at asking strategic questions, and not only asking well-designed ones, but ones that will also lead students to questions of their own.

Keeping It Simple

I also learned over the years that asking straightforward, simply-worded questions can be just as effective as those intricate ones. With that in mind, if you are a new teacher or perhaps not so new but know that question-asking is an area where you'd like to grow, start tomorrow with these five:

#1. What do you think?

This question interrupts us from telling too much. There is a place for direct instruction where we give students information yet we need to always strive to balance this with plenty of opportunities for students to make sense of and apply that new information using their schemata and understanding.

#2. Why do you think that?

After students share what they think, this follow-up question pushes them to provide reasoning for their thinking.

#3. How do you know this?

When this question is asked, students can make connections to their ideas and thoughts with things they've experienced, read, and have seen.

#4. Can you tell me more?

This question can inspire students to extend their thinking and share further evidence for their ideas.

#5. What questions do you still have?

This allows students to offer up questions they have about the information, ideas or the evidence.

In addition to routinely and relentlessly asking your students questions, be sure to provide time for them to think. What's best here, three seconds, five, or seven? Depending on their age, the depth of the material, and their comfort level, this think time will vary. Just push yourself to stay silent and wait for those hands to go up.

Also be sure to vary your tone so it genuinely sounds like a question and not a statement. When we say something in a declarative way, it is often with one tone and flat sounding. On the other hand, there is a lilt in our voice when we are inquiring and questioning.

To help student feel more comfortable and confident with answering questions and asking ones of their own, you can use this scaffold: Ask a question, pause, and then invite students to "turn and talk" with a neighbor first before sharing out with the whole group. This allows all to have their voices heard and also gives them a chance to practice their responses before sharing in front of the whole class.

How do you ask questions in your classroom? What works well with your students? Please share with us in the comment section below.

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Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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Comments (45)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kimberly Formisano's picture
Kimberly Formisano
Co-founder of a project based learning institute

These questions connect very nicely to the work of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) which use similar questions to prompt thinking around a displayed image. Work worth checking out!

Holly E.'s picture
Holly E.
4/5 teacher in multi-age classroom in Charter school in Los Angeles

I LOVE these questions! Another to add to the list that a friend shared with me is: when a child answers, "I don't know", ask them, "What would you say if you DID know?". I always get amazing results from this line of questioning!!

Judi Pack's picture
Judi Pack
Life long early childhood teacher and administrator.

My guideline as an early childhood teacher was, "Don't ask them anything I already know." Learning should be conversation, not interrogation.

Alireza Sadreddin's picture
Alireza Sadreddin
English language teacher

Good questions, no doubt about it. I always try to help my students think. Simple questions get them nowhere, but there is a problem.Sometimes answering such questions need background information, if they don't you get no feed backs, what do you think?

KillionLaura's picture
KillionLaura
Pre-Service Early Childhood and Special Education Major

I wonder if these strategies would work for students with severe learning disabilities, or if more structured questioning would be more beneficial?

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
Blogger 2014

Hi Laura,

I am not a special education expert though I say give it a try. An accommodation you could make would be to write the questions large on poster paper or on the white board. Another accommodation might be to let students answer a question with a partner, and to provide the pair with sentence starters:
I think that ____________________
I also believe ____________ because _____________
etc.

Let us know how it goes!

Best,
Rebecca Alber

Mark Collard's picture
Mark Collard
Playful adventure educator, author, founder of playmeo.com

Great example of learner-driven learning, as distinguished from teacher-driven learning. Sure, there are times when a teacher should simply impart knowledge, but the most powerful strategy for life-long learning is to draw the learning from our students through a process of discovery. And these questions do that well.

A simpler version I use with my work as an adventure educator is the What? So What? Now What? series of questions:

1. What? Asking what type questions simply asks my students to observe what has happened. It gets them talking, and it's safe because no one has to apply any meaning or feelings yet.

2. So What? - this is where the conversation goes a little deeper, and facilitated by a series of 'what does this mean?' type questions, the students are able to draw learning from the experience, connected to their feelings and interpretation of the events.

3. Now What? - the final and most critical step in terms of causing a change (which is what education is about, right?) - asking a series of 'what are we going to do with this info' type questions. It's about applying this new found knowledge to something useful, relevant or topical.

For further conversation on this model, go to http://www.playmeo.com/how-to-run-a-debrief

Mark Collard - playmeo.com

KillionLaura's picture
KillionLaura
Pre-Service Early Childhood and Special Education Major

[quote]Hi Laura,

I am not a special education expert though I say give it a try. An accommodation you could make would be to write the questions large on poster paper or on the white board. Another accommodation might be to let students answer a question with a partner, and to provide the pair with sentence starters:

I think that ____________________

I also believe ____________ because _____________

etc.

Let us know how it goes!

Best,

Rebecca Alber[/quote]

Thanks for the reply Rebecca ! I think that I am going to try using the sentence starter idea this week when I work one on one with a student struggling with reading. I am hoping that I will be able to get her to share her thoughts and help her come to her own conclusions as we read.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music
Blogger 2014

To answer your question @Killion, these questions feel like manna from heaven on my brain. Ah... the clarity! I don't have learning disabilities, school was easy, but I'm ADHD. Ask me the wrong kind of questions and I'm all over the map. These listed questions are wonderful. I'm guessing they would work well for ADD individuals of all ages also.

To answer "what questions do you ask?"

Asking boys what they "think" and girls how the "feel about" opens the most doors in my experience. Precise wording can make all the difference. I have two sets of questions I use, different for males and females. This sweet trick also helped me raise two boys with very little grief.

I write songs for kids--all ages. Whichever student I'm writing my new song for is always included in the process. "Do you think the melody should could here or here?" "Do you like this word or is this other word better?"

Sooner or later, my students are brave enough to write their own songs. Questions do seem to open more creative doors than "here's how it is done."

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