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The Importance of Asking Questions to Promote Higher-Order Competencies

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Irving Sigel devoted his life to the importance of asking questions. He believed, correctly, that the brain responds to questions in ways that we now describe as social, emotional, and cognitive development. Questions create the challenges that make us learn.

The essence of Irv's perspective is that the way we ask questions fosters students' alternative and more complex representations of stories, events, and circumstances, and their ability to process the world in a wider range of ways, to create varying degrees of distance between themselves and the basis events in front of them, is a distinct advantage to learning.

However, Irv found that schools often do not ask the range of questions children need to grow to their potential. In this column and the next, using the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, we can learn from Irv about how to improve our question asking so that students learn more from text and from the world around them.

In The Classroom

Tell: Tell children the story by reading the text or having them read the text. Directly refer questions they might refer back to the text: "Let's look closely at the words and see what they say."

Suggest: This involves providing children with choices about what might happen next or possible opinions they might have. One might say to children, before reading the story, "Goldilocks is a girl taking a walk in the forest and is getting tired. Do you think she might turn around and go home, stop at a house she sees to try to rest, or just keep going on with her walk?" After reading the story, one might say, "Do you think Goldilocks felt satisfied, frightened, or calm?"

You will note that by giving choices, you encourage children to consider alternate representations of the events, but these are prescribed by the choices provided in the structure of the question. Their distancing is greater than when they are told to "stay in the event" as presented.

Ask a Closed Question: These questions generally elicit yes or no answers. They can bring students to different temporal areas or elaborations of details, but the extent of this is structured by the question. For example: Do you think Goldilocks knew how the bears would feel about her action? Was it a good idea to lie down in one of the bears' beds? Were the bears frightened of Goldilocks? Do you think the bears will ever leave their front door unlocked again when they leave the house?

Ask an Open-Ended Question: These are the questions that open up the fullest range of distancing possibilities and open up students to the largest possibilities for accommodation of their thinking and elaboration of their existing understanding about what they are reading about or otherwise considering. For example: How would you describe the scene from Mama Bear's point of view? From each of the bears' points of view? How did Goldilocks' feelings change at each point along the story? What were all of the consequences of what Goldilocks did, positive and negative, for herself and for others? What other stories have you read that are like Goldilocks and the Three Bears in some way? What are all the ways that the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is similar or different from the story of The Three Little Pigs? From Chicken Little?

The Two-Question Rule: This means to follow a question with another question that probes for deeper understanding. For example, if you pass someone in the teachers' lounge and ask, "How are you today?" and they say, "Fine," the two-question rule would have you ask something like, "No, how are you really feeling today?" This second question demands a higher level of cognitive and emotional processing than the first question, which can be answered more automatically or in a safe way. That second question requires the person you asked to think about how they really are feeling, to decide if they want to tell you, and even if they do, how much they want to tell you.

For the story, here are some two-question rule sequences:

Would you have gone into the house they way Goldilocks did? ... What if you were really, really hungry? What do you think about what Goldilocks did after she broke the chair? ... What would you have done? How long had it been since the bears left the house?... How can you be sure?

Note that you don't have to use the two-question rule for every student or every question. Irv's research over the years found that by asking that second (or third) probing question even 10 to 15 percent of the time, students start to expect it and begin to think more deeply before they answer, anticipating that added question.

So you can see how the way teachers ask question, whether about what is being read in novels, nonfiction, or just about the actions observed in the classroom among students, creates deeper understanding and advances cognitive and emotional processing in all children, even if they are not actively participating. Here's a suggested read for this summer: Educating the Young Thinker: Classroom Strategies for Cognitive Growth.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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Mike Bethke's picture

This article reinforces my belief that questions must be planned ahead of time, no matter the level of professional experience. Flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants questioning usually leads to lower order questions (i.e. knowledge and comprehension in Bloom's Taxonomy).

CO teacher's picture

Thank you for the questioning techniques. I usually think of closed ended questions as being something to avoid; however, you make a valid point that closed questions can help lead learners to think differently or ponder the details. After a closed ended question, I would use your technique of the second-question to discover the child's deeper understanding. I was intrigued by your second-question rule; if used on a fairly regular basis, even young children might think more critically as they would know there is another question coming

Elizabeth Rubenstein's picture
Elizabeth Rubenstein
Art, Design and Creativity Teacher in the Bay Area, CA

I saw an intriguing presentation by a doctoral researcher from Berkeley last year-

Caren Walker's research focused on the value of open-ended questions and specifically on asking WHY?
When even young children were asked Why questions, their processing/retention and depth of understanding increased even if they didn't answer orally. (Kind of like getting kids used to the follow up question to get them thinking more deeply.)

Explanations became a way to learn by thinking, causing children to reorganize their previous knowledge as they connected it to new information, (vs. just describing what they see...)

So now I try to include "Why do you think...?" "Why do you say that?" "Why is that important?" amongst my other open-ended questions.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Some of my favorite questions are to turn around my student's questions. With appropriate facilitation support, many student questions can be answered by the student asking the question. If that doesn't work or it doesn't seem like the student knows enough, I turn to other students to reteach. It is not only a way to support the student in need, but also allows me to assess if another student has a solid grasp of the skill.

I often ask questions that have more than one answer. In my first and second grade classroom I get students to prove their answer. I want students to dig deeper and know the why, not just the answer.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

I also show my 1st and 2nd grade students the Abbott and Costello routine "Who's on First" early in the year to kick off a discussion about questioning and how to be specific when asking (and answering) a question. I often have to pause the video and let a second grade students try and explain what is going on, but watching young students do this is priceless.

Bon Crowder's picture
Bon Crowder
Math Mom & Education Advocate

I'm dying to memorize and do this skit with someone! (It's on my bucket list, it seems!)

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

I'm with you, Bon. It's one of my favorite comedy skits of all time. Kills me every time. :-)

Laura Davis's picture
Laura Davis
Teacher in Honolulu, HI

Hi Maurice,
I really enjoyed this article, especially the "second question" idea. Often I stop after just one and move on to engage a different student with a different question, but it sounds like it is worth it to stick with one student and engage them more deeply with a second question. Thanks!

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