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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.

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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Comments (30)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Melanie Eisen's picture
Melanie Eisen
Assistant director of professional development, YUSP

I have always had these questions posted in my classroom because a wonderful group of teachers teaching Every Day Counts, about 16 years ago taught me that this is how my students would learn. The more I asked the questions, the more my babies had to reflect on their knowledge, both prior and new knowledge. My babies were in Kinder- imagine how these questions could validate the thinking of all your students.

Jim Doherty's picture

A great post and, for me, great timing on finding it. Saw this tweeted out this morning after writing the following post http://mrdardy.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/questions/ last night. There is an additional question / questioning technique I'd add. When I am trying to get a good conversation started in my math class I am trying to get myself to remember to do the following. Student A might offer a comment. I will then ask another student if they can summarize what they think student A just said. I stole this idea from Ben Blum-Smith's blog (http://researchinpractice.wordpress.com) I find it is a great way to hear what students think that they understand and a way to emphasize that they should be listening to each other as well as listening to me.

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

So simple, yet so good. Thanks for sharing Jim. This idea is going straight to my blog, to benefit tons of experiential educators out there... http://blog.playmeo.com

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

This is a great article and the questions are very effective ones for extending thinking, learning, and thinking about learning; all slightly different things. Sometimes it is easy to ask "Why do you think that?" when an incorrect answer/explanation has been given, and ask "How do you know that?" when a correct answer/explanation is given. This can alert the student (and others) to the appropriateness of the response. I think that if the "thinking" question is asked for all responses, students are asked to provide more information which may either clarify to the teacher where the misunderstandings are, or help the student to explain and clarify their own understandings.

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

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