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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

Comments (65)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Rebecca,

I applaud your five questions! Let me add another layer, if I might: I find one of the key driver/indicators of a deeper learning classroom is one where the students are asking the questions. Creating this environment is tough for many teachers; we are used to being the Socratic provocateur. But if we can resist the urge to ask questions, to wait for the students to think and drive that level of inquiry, we see them taking greater agency in their learning process. Some questions prompts ask our students to seek out: "How might we...?" and "What if...?" are my favorites as they allow for expansion, not just finding a known answer. No one better than this that I have found than Jill Gough (@jgough) who helps math teachers to build this capacity amongst their students in what is arguably the toughest subject for student-led inquiry.

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Have found two cheap and easy tools that promote whole-group questioning amongst students (as well as everyone else!): post it notes and writing walls. Why do students sit in their desks, many nodding off, while one student answers a question? Why can't they ALL be answering the question in visible ways? It is the one thing I look for when I go into a classroom to give feedback on now to build student engagement: are we maximizing the opportunities for students to BE active, engaged questioners and "answer-ers"?

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Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

Yes, questions are the answer to raising student involvement... so are these questioning strategies taught at teacher training colleges? I ask this question because this is a skill that I most frequently have to teach teachers.

I enjoyed the range of applications in these postings, they give teachers ways of selectively increasing involvement; sometimes partners, sometimes one student, sometimes all. The examples gave me simple parameters for generating more ways of asking the questions, and that's a useful tool for a teacher- coach.

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

My sense is that no, teacher training does NOT center at all on the role of questioning; another failing in our teacher education system. From what I can tell at my many school visits, the teachers who are often viewed as the "best" teacher at the school are masters of teh Socratic method: they do engage students by asking questions that demand a response, and often responses that require some thought. I think that is good, but not great. Real engagement comes when the students are the one's asking the questions; the teacher is there to facilitate their pursuit of answers. It is uncomfortable for teachers to be quiet and NOT talk; to wait for the students to ask the questions, but once it happens, from what I have seen, it opens a floodgate that represents real student engagement.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program
Facilitator

Grant, you are so right that "It is uncomfortable for teachers to be quiet and NOT talk; to wait for the students to ask the questions, " I often joke about this during my classes, when I ask the question and then pause and wait. As the silence lingers on, I'll whisper "Appropriate wait time...appropriate wait time..." as a way to pointing out that the silence is intentional and appropriate. I also work really hard to help teachers understand that there's an ebb and flow to real conversation and that silence is an important part of the process. It's not easy though- we're sort of culturally programmed to fill the quiet moments, aren't we?

Bradley Foust's picture
Bradley Foust
Title I Facilitator/PLC Coach- Bartlett Elementary School; Adjunct Music Instructor, Troy University eCampus

I love the straightforward and simple nature of the questioning protocol used in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS):

- What going on (or what's happening) in this picture?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- What more can we find?

These questions can be modified to fit many situations. For instance, I have taught music teachers to use the first question when engaging students in listening to and analyzing recorded music. The second question can be used as a follow-up in class discussions when Simply ask, "What makes you say that?" It's a simple, powerful question that requires the commenter to reason and provide evidence. I've begun using this question in conversations with adults, and I'm often surprised by their responses. Finally, "What more can we find?" is similar in application to "Can you tell me more?" It requires students to think deeply and look for more information.

While VTS is a worthwhile teaching tool in its own right, the questioning protocol used therein can extend beyond the viewing of art images, illustrations, and photos.

Brad

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

Grant, Laura,

How true--we are impatient inquisitors. I've been itching to dig through the rest of Make Just One Change, by the people at the Right Question Institute. I started it last year but things just piled up. If you're not familiar with their work, I highly recommend it.

Another thing I've employed in my classroom for over 20 years is something called the Touchstones Discussion project (touchstones.org). Based upon the methods used at St. Johns College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, the project uses excerpts from texts of the great books of the world to help students learn not just what's going on in the texts (in fact, the texts are secondary to student experience at first) but more so to learn how difficult it is to develop the skills that allow us to have deeper, more meaningful discussions without the interaction of a teacher leader.

One dynamic that always rears its head with each new group of students is that the males are far less patient with silence than the females are. We've had several meta discussions this year to focus on the issue of silence and what to do when silence occurs. Of course, one thing to do is to ask their own questions about the text, but getting them to that stage isn't easy, for it's not easy to ask good questions. So most students just wait for the teacher. Learning not only how to develop good questions but also how to recognize that the chaos that often comes from heated discussions is actually less productive and generative than the chaos that's born of silence.

The dynamics of each group are different, but their progress through this stage is always downright difficult but so worth their struggle.

Laura...weren't you at Educon this year?

Ibrahim Ibrahim Ibrahim's picture

I have tried this strategy a few weeks ago ,when my students felt bored and asked for a break during an hour and a half period.I refused then ,but when I went home home ,I thought of their request and found out that they may have a right . The following day ,I told them that I agree to give them a five minute break ,but not for chit chat or gossip . It will be for "An Unusual fact".When the five minute break started ,I asked them : can anybody of you tell us an unusual fact ? I was really surprised when I found one student raising his hand saying a very unusual fact I have ever heard of .at that time I, I found my self asking the other four questions of Rebecca's "Why do you think so ,How do you know,Can you tell us more about it ,What else do you want to know about it? It was a marvellous experience.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program
Facilitator

I was! Were we in a session together? I so get your point about folks having different levels of comfort with silence. I've experimented with mandatory wait time (no one can talk for 5 seconds) as well as talk tickets (you get three turns so use them well).

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

I'm pretty sure we were in the one on language and how word choices are important. It was run by a girl from a school in...I want to say New Hampshire/Vermont.

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.

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Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Have found two cheap and easy tools that promote whole-group questioning amongst students (as well as everyone else!): post it notes and writing walls. Why do students sit in their desks, many nodding off, while one student answers a question? Why can't they ALL be answering the question in visible ways? It is the one thing I look for when I go into a classroom to give feedback on now to build student engagement: are we maximizing the opportunities for students to BE active, engaged questioners and "answer-ers"?

(1)
Ravs's picture

Similarly to Swms "Is that reasonable" is the question "Does that make sense?".
Working out a textbook problem on the board in Year 11 Physics during my final Prac placement last year, I stepped back after finding the 'answer' and looked at it. I then asked the class "does that make sense?".
The maths was 'solvable' but the solution did not work when put back in a real world context.
Asking this question made the students think about the meaning of the activity, and took them back into the use of what they were learning.

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Michael Cady's picture
Michael Cady
Teacher of history and critical thinking with over forty years of experience.

Asking good questions is a fundamental requirement for the class to really connect to the subject matter. Simple recall questions are not interesting, to us or to the student. Find questions that you would also find interesting. Questions that require reflection can get the ball rolling. Wait time is critical. If students realize that by sitting quiet you are going to do the work for them you will not get a good discussion. Instead ask a question that they can answer one that is curriculum related but not specifically on the curriculum. For example: "Does power corrupt?" "But, does it always corrupt?" "Have you seen examples in your own life?" From this you can get into a discussion about the need for "checks and balances" in democracy. Another point - instead of asking "what do you think?" you can ask, "how do you know?" That can be a much more fruitful discussion. Take an event from history, or something they "know" today and examine "how they know it is true, how could it be tested, does everyone agree with the facts - if not, why?" This is a fundamental of the Theory of Knowledge Program in the International Baccalaureate Program.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program
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?"

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