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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 (36)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Norah's picture
Norah
Early childhood teacher, writer, life-long learner

Thanks also for all the other comments on this blog. I have enjoyed following the links through to other posts: and interesting conversation.

Trevor Teter's picture
Trevor Teter
middle school science inclusion teacher.

my thoughts exactly. We get comfortable asking those questions and getting those safe answers, but that is not my definition of engaging. Think deeper teachers! Model the messy inquiry method. Work on logic puzzles. Answer questions that do not have a definite answer. Get out there!!! (I feel better) Have a great day/night!

Trevor Teter's picture
Trevor Teter
middle school science inclusion teacher.

So I was trying to add the question related comment to the very first comment-maker (her name escapes me (due to frustration)) as a reply. However, it appears in the general stream of comments to this post. Which I think is brilliant.! Just wish my comment appeared in her reply comment-box-space. ???

Trevor Teter's picture
Trevor Teter
middle school science inclusion teacher.

As for the rest of you. I think you are GREAT and FANTASTIC for reading this article and leaving comments to be known, This is a community that I would like to be more a part of. The Inquiry Club,
I'm in. I love the advice. LOVE it!!! The idea that we should give them 5-7 seconds is a bit disgusting if you stop and think about that some more... more than 7 seconds. PLEASE!! Let's consider the following..... stumble, stumble,trip. Sorry, I get so excited and nervous all at the same time. Kids are so important and we have to learn how to honor them as well as teach them to honor themselves by honoring others. PEACE

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

I'm moving to a new position as a HS teacher next year after 20 years of crafting a curriculum unique to my district's middle schools. My position at the HS is in the English department but the vision for the class is, according to the superintendent, "Different, deeper learning, more critical and creative thinking...."

Ok then. So one of the first things I thought of, given its importance to all students, is to start with the Philosophical theme of "Who are you?" I've readings from David Eagleman's Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (chapter 1, "There's someone in my head and it's not me."), Pink Floyd (of course), The Matrix (of course), David Levithan's novel Every Day, studies of language and words and how thought and words define us (some Wittgenstein in there), an episode of Radiolab called "Words", and studies of Carol Dweck's work on Growth and Fixed mindsets.

Mike, this is a tremendous question and I really like how you present it. Any ideas you have for me would be greatly appreciated. Obviously such and essential question as this will last more than just a unit. I've tried to sketch out other areas of exploration (and I'll be soliciting student interest for these units) on "My Community", "My World", and "Other Worlds." No matter what, though, it will all come back to the question of "Who are you?" and the attendant question, "How do you know?" (Hello Descartes.)

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

Garreth, that sounds like a GREAT class. My favorite essential question ever was "What really matters?" Much like your question, it lends itself to all kinds of content and connections. Can't wait to hear how your class goes!

(And, as an old Forensicator myself, I'm also happy to see you include that in your profile!)

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

Hey Laura, Are you associated with the Waldorf school program at Antioch? For a few years I was considering Waldorf school training. There's a great one near me in Montgomery County, PA.

Thanks for the kind words. As with any new endeavor, it's a bit frightening. We'll see how it goes. I'm prepping a lot for it.

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.

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

Hi Garreth, I don't teach in that program but we're part of the same department. It's a very close-knit department, and the Waldorf folks are dear colleagues and friends. I think Torin Finser, our chair and head of the Waldorf program, was just in Montgomery County, but I'm not sure. You should come visit!

It's good to be scared sometimes, right? Even though it's...you know...scary. :-)

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.

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