5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The humble question is an indispensable tool: the spade that helps us dig for truth, or the flashlight that illuminates surrounding darkness. Questioning helps us learn, explore the unknown, and adapt to change.

That makes it a most precious “app” today, in a world where everything is changing and so much is unknown. And yet, we don’t seem to value questioning as much as we should. For the most part, in our workplaces as well as our classrooms, it is the answers we reward -- while the questions are barely tolerated.

To change that is easier said than done. Working within an answers-based education system, and in a culture where questioning may be seen as a sign of weakness, teachers must go out of their way to create conditions conducive to inquiry. Here are some suggestions (based on input from question-friendly teachers, schools, programs, and organizations) on how to encourage more questioning in the classroom and hopefully, beyond it.

How to Encourage Questioning

1. Make It Safe

Asking a question can be a scary step into the void. It’s also an admission to the world (and more terrifyingly, to classmates) that one doesn’t know the answer. So teachers must somehow “flip the script” by creating an environment where questioning becomes a strength; where it is welcomed and desired. The Right Question Institute, a nonprofit group that teaches inquiry skills in low-income schools, encourages teachers to run group exercises dedicated entirely to formulating questions (no answers allowed!) -- with clear rules and guidelines to ensure that students’ questions aren’t judged or edited, and that all questions are written down and respected. There are many variations on this type of exercise. The second-grade teacher Julie Grimm uses a “10 by 10” exercise, in which kids are encouraged to come up with 10 great questions about a topic during a 10-minute span. But the bottom line is, designate some kind of safe haven in the classroom where all students can freely exercise the “questioning muscle.”

2. Make It “Cool”

This is a tough one. Among many kids, it’s cool to already know -- or to not care. But what if we could help students understand that the people who ask questions happen to be some of the coolest people on the planet? As I discovered in the research for my book on inquiry, questioners thought of many of those whiz-bang gadgets we now love. They’re the ones breaking new ground in music, movies, the arts. They’re the explorers, the mavericks, the rebels, making the world a more interesting place -- and having a heck of a time themselves. How cool is that? 

3. Make It Fun

Part of the appeal of “questions-only” exercises is that there’s an element of play involved, as in: Can you turn that answer/statement into a question? Can you open your closed questions, and close your open ones? There are countless ways to inject a “game” element into questioning, but here’s an example borrowed from the business world: Some companies use a practice called “the 5 whys,” which involves formulating a series of “why” questions to try to get to the root of a problem. Kids were practically born asking “why” questions, so why not allow them to use that innate talent within a structured challenge? Or, show them how to use the “Why/What if/How” sequence of questioning as a fun way to tackle just about any problem. Whatever the approach, let kids tap into their imaginations and innate question-asking skills in ways that make inquiry an engaging part of a larger challenge.

4. Make It Rewarding

Obviously, we must praise and celebrate the questions that are asked -- and not only the on-target, penetrating ones, but also the more expansive, sometimes-offbeat ones (I found that seemingly “crazy questions” sometimes result in the biggest breakthroughs). Help create a path for students to get from a question to a meaningful result. A great question can be the basis of an ongoing project, a report, an original creation of some kind. The point is to show that if one is willing to spend time on a question -- to not just Google it but grapple with it, share it with others, and build on it -- that question can ultimately lead to something rewarding and worthwhile.

5. Make It Stick 

If the long-term goal is to create lifelong questioners, then the challenge is to make questioning a habit -- a part of the way one thinks. RQI’s Dan Rothstein says it’s important to include a metacognitive stage in question-training exercises wherein kids can reflect on how they’ve used questioning and articulate what they’ve learned about it, so they can “pave a new neural pathway” for lifelong inquiry. As for the behavioral habits associated with good questioning, here are a few: Questioners train themselves to observe everyday surroundings with “vuja de” eyes that see the familiar in fresh ways; they’re always on the lookout for assumptions (including their own) that should be questioned; and they’re willing to ask questions that might be considered “naïve” by others.

So ask yourself this beautiful question: How might I encourage more questioning in my classroom? And how might I instill the habit of questioning in my students? After all, knowing the answers may help them in school, but knowing how to question will help them for life. I look forward to your thougths -- and questions! -- in the comments area. 

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Linda Keane AIA's picture
Linda Keane AIA
NEXT.cc Director, Prof Arch/EnvDes, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

In project based learning questions are key to getting started, investigating conditions and coming up with ideas. We created a QUESTIONS (http://www.next.cc/journey/tools/questions) journey to frame different types of questions. It is a great way to start a class.

On the first day I share photos from National Geographic and ask students to choose one of a natural environment and one of a built environment. Students tell why they chose the photos they did and then ask a question of the picture that they would like to know more about. This starts the 'need to know more' curiosity which is the ultimate driver for asking questions!

Then with the 'every picture tells a story' we combine the pictures in a 'telephone' type telling that connects people with pursuits and places and usually brings up a great deal of laughter. The photos serve as neutral ground that puts everyone in the class on the same playing field of comfort. It is a great way to get to know your students and their interests.

sci-tech team's picture

In science we are always trying to get our students to ask really good questions. The only way to get better is through practice. We decided to have the students peer edit each others lab reports. Before we would look at their lab reports through a google doc and ask them clarifying questions to help them see their mistakes or missing information. This year we taught them how to ask those kinds of clarifying questions to another group's lab report instead of fixing the mistakes for them. We model this in other ways during class. Our students quickly learn that we are not in the business of giving out answers. Instead we redirect them with questions to think about. When they come up with the answers and discover things on their own, they develop their own individual understanding which makes learning more meaningful.

Teresa G's picture
Teresa G
High school English teacher.

I love the idea of having students come up with the questions, but I want the questions to reflect the content of my lessons and to be text-based. I start by reviewing levels of questions (there are sites that explain this) and practicing identifying different levels. Then they apply this to the text we are reading. I want to take this to a new level and have them apply it to a student-driven topic. The idea of giving all questions equal import is difficult but it makes sense.

Eileen Gale Kugler's picture
Eileen Gale Kugler
Global speaker, author, consultant strengthening diverse schools

I work with parents with many different first languages and this issue is similar. I find the point about making it safe to ask questions (and to ask them with an accent or rooted in a shyness from insecurity about asking it 'right') so critical. Once they realize this is a safe environment and they are all in this together, they do become willing to ask questions that are deep and meaningful. What I love about working with a heterogeneous group of students, youth or adult, is that the questions and answers from the group enhance the learning of all because of their varied experiences and perspectives. In fact, research shows that students in diverse schools learn to question more because they realize that there is not always one simplistic answer to a question or problem.

Teacher007's picture

I will be honest, I have taught for several years, and rarely ask my students to formulate the questions. Maybe because I see the students in the role of proving that they are mastering comprehension, and not in the role of being the teacher. Switching roles will lead them to the higher order thinking, which is one of the ultimate goals of education. I am going to need more practice and preparation in the implementation of "student makes the question" strategy. Great article. Thanks :)

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Within a time limit, I ask my students who are in small groups to generate and write down questions pertaining to topic under study. I tell my students that only questions are welcome--no opinions or answers, no debating which questions are best; the idea is to just keep inquiring about the subject from different angles.

Dakota's picture

What a great idea! I have been looking for ways to make asking questions feel safe for my students. Having them play a game is one of the best ways for them to learn I think. It engages them in ways that they are used to and as stated it can have a "silly" aspect to it. Any other great question games out there? Maybe an app?

Scott Bedley @scotteach's picture
Scott Bedley @scotteach
Teacher, Creator, Un-Maker, Foodie, Global School Play Day

Hey Dakota,
I think a great game to help kids work on question creation is called Mystery Skype. Kids face off against another class somewhere around the world trying to figure out each others locations by asking questions (Think the 20 questions game). Once both classes have found each others locations, classes then ask each other questions to learn more about each other. It can also be used for Mystery Number, Mystery Element, History Mystery and more. If you search Mystery Skype or Mystery Location you'll find a huge number of resources out there to help you get started. I hope this gives you some ideas.

Coach Christopher's picture
Coach Christopher
Curriculum Designer at Courage To Core

Nice reminder that questions are often more valuable than answers. A good question by a student can mean they are deeply engaged and drilling down towards some essential concept. An absurd question can be an expression of complete confusion, a shot in the dark or a plea for help! Either way, questions demonstrate engagement (or the desire for it) and represent an opportunity for other students or the teacher to engage by answering, or asking follow up questions. I'm a big fan of small group collaborative work in high school math, in part because students learn to ask and answer questions of each other. Thanks for the article! www.couragetocore.com

Scott Bedley @scotteach's picture
Scott Bedley @scotteach
Teacher, Creator, Un-Maker, Foodie, Global School Play Day

Hey Dakota,
I think a great game to help kids work on question creation is called Mystery Skype. Kids face off against another class somewhere around the world trying to figure out each others locations by asking questions (Think the 20 questions game). Once both classes have found each others locations, classes then ask each other questions to learn more about each other. It can also be used for Mystery Number, Mystery Element, History Mystery and more. If you search Mystery Skype or Mystery Location you'll find a huge number of resources out there to help you get started. I hope this gives you some ideas.

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

I love the opportunity for children to ask questions. Children are born asking questions. Even before they can use language, their intent is on finding out how the world works and how they can get it to work for them. Sadly, many children learn early on to not ask questions; and to only learn the answers to things they didn't even want to know. As I read your article Warren, I was thinking back to another one I read earlier today (http://goo.gl/lWVYBn). It too was about encouraging children to ask questions and it made reference to two useful books, both of which I ordered as a result. One of the books is 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein' and the other is 'A More Beautiful Question' - by yourself! No wonder I was agreeing with everything in your article. I am so looking forward to receiving your book. :)

Nivedita's picture

Thanks for the insightful piece on questions. I teach a very heterogeneous group of students. The challenge is not only to get students to think of questions but to get them to over come their lack of proficiency in English and their diffidence about communicating without being judged. Some of the students speak English very fluently while others can barely string sentences together.

Randy Rodgers's picture
Randy Rodgers
Director of Digital Learning Services, Seguin (TX) ISD

If you haven't read Mr. Berger's book, A More Beautiful Question, do so immediately. It is a truly fascinating and change-inspiring work. We are a profession obsessed with ANSWERS, when the truly great minds of yesterday, today, and tomorrow are obsessed with QUESTIONS.

One simple idea I've shared with teachers this summer is to put up a "Question of the Day" bulletin board. Recognize students' great, action-prompting questions at first, then leave it up to students to nominate one another as they become more comfortable and skilled. And another--as an extension of the Genius Hour idea, devote specific class time regularly to students' questions. The Right Question Institute (which I learned about through Mr. Berger's work) has some great strategies for doing this, and membership is free.

Dale newton's picture
Dale newton
High School Home Economics Teacher

Great blog. Thank you for posting. School reopens on the 1st September for me. Can't wait.

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Today I instituted something awe inspiring, history making, and totally unique in the annals of addled teachers thinking up new stuff. It's the new Wiggly Plucked Chicken Award for Class Participation.

If this invention increases my student's class participation and at the same time saves the world from evil, bad manners, certain local and national TV news anchors, muffin tops, Lewis Grizzard impersonators, and lack of global harmony, I'd like to be given full credit on TV after a buffet dinner with all the world's leaders.

Successfully received by its participants? Oh, what a happy day.

Written up on the board this morning as they ran into The Cozy Room of Learning was: Introducing a New Award...The Wiggly Plucked Chicken Award for Class Participation. Good Cluck!

Some got it. Some didn't.

I wiggled the chicken above my head. Its head and neck and legs were flapping around and making sounds. I was squeezing its belly, which feels nice when you do that. I said...the chicken asks you are you asking questions. Are you answering questions? They don't have to be correct, but are you trying? The chicken politely asks are you paying attention. The chicken asks if you're offering up discussion questions. You aren't asleep are you, the chicken is wondering.

Levon asked, while I was still wiggling the chicken above my head, if it was edible. Is the chicken edible.

No. And please do not lick, bite, or gnaw on the chicken. Don't fry it--boil, bake, broil, grill, roast it, or microwave it. Don't bar-b-que it. Don't massage it. Hugging the chicken is okay since you've earned it. But please don't kiss the chicken. They laughed like hell. With real and genuine joy.

Todd, how to we obtain the chicken?

Wonderful question. For those who pep up your class participation I'll chuck the chicken to you and you'll get to keep the wiggly plucked chicken on your desk and allow it to be your friend until someone else does better than you then I'll give the chicken to them. At the end of class, the last two people who possessed the chicken will have their ongoing class participation grade increased by three points as well as have the pleasure and the pride-inducing feeling of getting a piece of candy. Any questions about the awesomeness happening in the world right now?

Debbie said she felt like she was in first grade.

I went over to Debbie's desk and tried to poke her with the beak of the chicken. The chicken, you would suppose, is dead, but its eyes are open. Like I said, a creepy quality to doing better in class. The beak is half open. The chicken looks like it's about to scream something.

Debbie juked her head from side to side and I never could get her with it. Plus, Principal Lurlene roams the halls all the time and looks into your door window and this would not have been a good scene for Lurlene to comprehend.

I went up to the front of the class and made another pronouncement: never question the chicken. I wiggled it one more good time, and then said it again. Never question the chicken. Don't cluck with the chicken. The chicken is always right and correct and omnipotent and plucked. On my desk in the front of the classroom I placed the chicken on top of a book: Understanding Flannery O'Connor.

Debbie rolled her eyes and flopped her entire upper body onto her desktop.

We accused Debbie of being glum in the face of wiggly plucked chicken happiness.

After a few minutes of education, I discovered something: when a wiggly plucked chicken is at stake, boys class-participate a whole lot more than girls. I'm pretty sure that means something mildly revolutionary.


Todd's teaching memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," at corkscrew turns hilarious, heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, will be published this fall by Stairway Press.

chris_gall's picture

I lead every year, every class, with an exercise that serves three purposes: 1) It gives me a writing sample; 2) It gets kids comfortable with me, and my background; and 3) It lets them know that in this room, it is okay to ask questions, that I'll always answer their questions, and that those questions can seem to be random and off - the wall.

I tell the kids that they will ask questions of me for a given length of time (typically 10-15 minutes), and that those questions cannot be related to the class, classroom policies and procedures, etc (we'll get to those when we talk about the syllabus). I will answer their questions completely honestly, and on the off-chance that they get too personal, I will simply tell them that, rather than making up an answer. But, they are free to pose any question they choose. Their goal is to write a brief biography of me, based on the notes that they take during the Q & A. If kids seem hesitant, or don't know what types of questions are okay, I give examples (favorite food, siblings, where I grew up, children, etc) to help them get started.

I then collect the writing samples (the notes are not necessary, and I encourage kids to go ahead and trash them), and now have a feel for how my kids write in terms of grammar, spelling, and syntax, all independent of what they know about the class itself, and they know that its okay to ask questions, and that they'll get honest answers from me (or acknowledgement of ignorance, as the case may be).

Its a great ice breaker. Because I teach a lot of 9th graders, coming from two different feeder schools, they are intimidated by just about everything, but too cool to admit it. Once they feel like they know me, then the bridge of trust has begun and I get many, many questions over the course of the year about literally everything (asking for advice, the appropriate bell schedule, further information or resources for a topic, you name it).


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