Inquiry-Based Learning

Teaching Through Asking Rather Than Telling

High school teachers can promote active learning by strategically replacing some direct instruction with questions that produce thoughtful conversations.

July 13, 2023
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Does much of your teaching resemble the lectures you and 20 or 50 or 400 of your closest college friends received from a “sage on the stage”? Are you frustrated that most of your students won’t remember much from the fascinating information you just delivered to them for 15 or 30 or 55 minutes? If so, maybe it’s time to implement more ARTT—Ask, Rather Than Tell—into your teaching.

I freely admit that I did a lot of the former during much of my early career, and yes, most of my students did well and some even learned a lot. I also admit that most of my students learned more and with deeper understanding when I better incorporated more of their thinking, reflecting, conversing, and revising while tackling a topic rather than in the aftermath of what I thought was a well-organized lecture.

I started doing a lot of asking in order to help students make connections, establish common baseline understandings, and identify knowledge gaps or areas of misunderstanding, rather than telling them information. My lectures then evolved into more meaningful conversations.

Two examples from my own teaching

Marine Biology class: Instead of diving into notes and telling my students about  “characteristics of mammals,” I asked the question “What makes a mammal a mammal?” and then used their responses to confirm what they were correct about, clarify what they were a little unsure about, and fix what they were wrong about, and then added more depth and new concepts to their understanding.

AP Statistics class: Rather than rattling off a list telling students about different kinds of data with examples of each, I asked, “What are some examples of data you could collect about various cars in the school parking lot?” I used their generated list to then ask the question about how those examples were similar to and different from each other. That was followed by asking them, “What are some types of data you already know about?” to which most replied “Quantitative and qualitative (categorical),” to which I added the statistical terms of nominal, ordinal, interval, ratio, discrete, and continuous. I followed that by going through their examples and asking them which examples were which type of data.

What this might look like with other subject areas

Photography: Instead of telling students about the rule of thirds, show them pictures with and without that principle applied, and ask what they notice is different and whether that has any relationship to the appeal of the image. 

Music history: Rather than telling students how classical music differs from baroque music, play classical music after a baroque piece, and ask them to describe as many differences as they can detect between pieces of music from each period.

Language arts: Instead of telling students the types of literary devices in poetry, have them read several poems that employ different literary devices, and ask them how the poems differ in how they convey their message. Then provide the terms assigned to those different devices, which students are to learn and later employ themselves.

Math: Instead of telling students the names and characteristics of a new collection of polygons they are about to learn about, have them look at the new collection and ask them how the polygons are similar to and different from the previous polygons they’ve already studied.

Does the second part of these scenarios sound like what you do? If yes, keep up the asking. Does the first part of these scenarios more resemble your teaching? If yes, can you identify one or more “telling” lectures in your own practice that you can turn into an “asking” conversation? If you’re concerned that you’ll get the same results as the Economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’re not alone. And if you have experienced the silence and blank stares before, you’re also not alone, and that stops many people from continuing to use questioning strategies. You can avoid that problem if you structure your asking strategies for success from the start.

What might a conversation-starting successful asking structure look like? One of the more common ways I and others build on the collective knowledge in a class of students is to do the following:

  1. Have students quickly write down some of what they know on their own. 
  2. Share verbally in small groups of three to five students (often established table groups) to build an agreed-upon set of ideas and revise as needed.
  3. Cross-pollinate by shuffling members among groups and repeating what they did in step 2.
  4. Lastly, have the students reconvene in their original groups to generate a final understanding.

You can then use that collective information to confirm, clarify, and build onto by utilizing a variety of share-out strategies. You’re now in more of a compiler, supplementer, and quality control role than the role of the sole fount of knowledge. You’re no longer lecturing at students; you’re a part of a learning conversation with them.

This allows students to actively engage in the content, reconnect with previous knowledge, solidify understanding by explaining it to others, and then have a framework to incorporate new information. At this point, you can use “tell” to its greatest effect and increase the likelihood of students leaving class with new and lasting understandings.

Instead of telling you that you should adopt more of the ARTT approach, I will ask,  “Are you convinced that ARTT can improve learning and engagement in your classroom?”

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  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • 9-12 High School

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