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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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Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom
Discover tips for empowering students to create their own questions.

Comments (21) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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.

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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

Sarah Donahue's picture
Sarah Donahue
1st/2nd Grade Teacher, UCDS, Seattle

A month before I graduated college, I has a conversation with a coach who shifted the way I considered questions with one sentence- "Smart people ask questions." It was so simple and instantly made so much sense once he said it. It also was the exact opposite perspective I had operated with during the sixteen years of schooling that preceded the conversation. I had always tried to hide or minimize my questions and publically project confidence in my answers.
As a teacher, question asking is a value in my classroom. It's expected of my students and we practice it regularly. However, there is still a cultural bias against questioning that this article so astutely calls out. The article offers some great concrete suggestions to help facilitate students towards asking questions. However, the work is also bigger than individual classrooms. Spreading this mentality and making inquiry a value across educational institutions is needed so that students receive this message throughout their school careers.

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