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

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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Comments (49)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

R. Wilder's picture

I think we tend to ask questions in the classroom and do not allow enough wait time. Thanks for posting this. It is a great reminder to stop and allow them time to think and respond. I also like the idea of letting them discuss the question in groups at times to form a response.

Tierney Kennedy's picture

I like these questions in maths:
- What if we make a change? What changes and what stays the same?
- What patterns can you see?
- How come? (A good alternative to "Why?" as it is less threatening)
- How are these kind of the same?
- What do you think it might look like?
- Can you see a problem? Which bit looks funny? How come? What do you want to do about it?
- What did you change your mind about? How come?
- Which question today made you think the hardest? Which part of your work do you feel proudest of?

Charlotte Mizener's picture
Charlotte Mizener
Professor of Music Education from Lamar University, Beaumont, TX

I add one more step to the question-answer routine. I ask students to write down a few thoughts in their class notes, even if what they write is "Haven't got a clue." Many students seem much more willing to read what they have written than to volunteer a response extemporaneously.

Growing Thinkers's picture

What is in a question?
Every thing.
It is a gap made in the brain which in turn works hard to fill it.
Answering back by a new question is even more teasing to the brain which practically helps the kids to think critically.
Day after day their thinking becomes deeper and this can be measured by the type of questions they start asking. These questions become more and more challenging and full of innovative ideas.

(1)
Swms's picture

I find myself asking my students the same question over and over as they ask questions that they don't need me to answer. "Is that reasonable?" This is my way of getting them to think through whatever they are asking about from content to procedural concerns they might have.

(1)
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

These are the kinds of questions I ask my students to answer when responding to the books we read. It's so much more interesting to read those answers than answers to the typical who/what/where/when questions! And it prepares them for text-based writing. I'll go out on a limb here, too, and say that the students are more engaged when we ask these questions. Much more interesting to answer!

(1)
Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

These remind me of the Habits of Mind that Debbie Meier and her faculty worked with at Mission Hill School and Central Park East

-The question of evidence, or "How do we know what we know?"
-The question of viewpoint in all its multiplicity, or "Who's speaking?"
-The search for connection and patterns, or "What causes what?"
-Supposition, or "How might things have been different?"
-Why any of it matters, or "Who cares?"

(1)
C Keller's picture

Thank you for posting this article. I agree that those are five great questions that are asked on a daily basis and need to be asked more often in many cases. What do you suggest for students who regularly respond with "I don't know" or lack the confidence to state their opinion on a topic. Many times I find that students get so used to avoiding having to answer questions by saying "I don't know or I'm not sure," that even when they do know or do want to share, that they lack the confidence do so...any suggestions?

Thank you.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Hi C Keller! I have found that students need this broken down into steps. First they might read in preparation for a discussion, but then they need time (and directions) for writing down their thoughts in response to the reading. That way, when I ask them a question, they can look down at their written responses before they speak. I teach them to annotate what they read by writing in the margins (comments, questions, connections, etc.). We practice this a lot, which helps them build those skills of thinking about and responding to what they read. Over time they get better at answering that question (What do you think?) because they have been writing those thoughts prior to being asked to voice them. Also, because I have them write their thoughts in the margins, they learn to refer to the text when I ask them "why" -- and that helps prepare them to cite from the text when they write.

(1)
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Hi C Keller! I have found that students need this broken down into steps. First they might read in preparation for a discussion, but then they need time (and directions) for writing down their thoughts in response to the reading. That way, when I ask them a question, they can look down at their written responses before they speak. I teach them to annotate what they read by writing in the margins (comments, questions, connections, etc.). We practice this a lot, which helps them build those skills of thinking about and responding to what they read. Over time they get better at answering that question (What do you think?) because they have been writing those thoughts prior to being asked to voice them. Also, because I have them write their thoughts in the margins, they learn to refer to the text when I ask them "why" -- and that helps prepare them to cite from the text when they write.

(1)
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Hi C Keller! I have found that students need this broken down into steps. First they might read in preparation for a discussion, but then they need time (and directions) for writing down their thoughts in response to the reading. That way, when I ask them a question, they can look down at their written responses before they speak. I teach them to annotate what they read by writing in the margins (comments, questions, connections, etc.). We practice this a lot, which helps them build those skills of thinking about and responding to what they read. Over time they get better at answering that question (What do you think?) because they have been writing those thoughts prior to being asked to voice them. Also, because I have them write their thoughts in the margins, they learn to refer to the text when I ask them "why" -- and that helps prepare them to cite from the text when they write.

(1)
Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

These remind me of the Habits of Mind that Debbie Meier and her faculty worked with at Mission Hill School and Central Park East

-The question of evidence, or "How do we know what we know?"
-The question of viewpoint in all its multiplicity, or "Who's speaking?"
-The search for connection and patterns, or "What causes what?"
-Supposition, or "How might things have been different?"
-Why any of it matters, or "Who cares?"

(1)
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

These are the kinds of questions I ask my students to answer when responding to the books we read. It's so much more interesting to read those answers than answers to the typical who/what/where/when questions! And it prepares them for text-based writing. I'll go out on a limb here, too, and say that the students are more engaged when we ask these questions. Much more interesting to answer!

(1)
Swms's picture

I find myself asking my students the same question over and over as they ask questions that they don't need me to answer. "Is that reasonable?" This is my way of getting them to think through whatever they are asking about from content to procedural concerns they might have.

(1)
Growing Thinkers's picture

What is in a question?
Every thing.
It is a gap made in the brain which in turn works hard to fill it.
Answering back by a new question is even more teasing to the brain which practically helps the kids to think critically.
Day after day their thinking becomes deeper and this can be measured by the type of questions they start asking. These questions become more and more challenging and full of innovative ideas.

(1)
Garreth Heidt's picture
Garreth Heidt
High School Liberal Studies teacher, Design-minded educator, Forensics Coach

Oh, and one other thing. I'm just about finished a book called Think Again" by John L. Taylor. It's about philosophical thinking and reunifying the curriculum through PT. It's based in the English system, so it uses somewhat different terminology, but it's premise is sound and universal. All teacher interested in philosophy as a way to engage students at the HS level (9th--12th grade) will find much of the slim tome useful.

(1)

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