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Questions Before Answers: What Drives a Great Lesson?

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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Girl sitting with two boys smiling at the camera

Recently, I was looking through my bookshelves and discovered an entire shelf of instruction books that came with software I had previously purchased. Yes, there was a time when software was bought in stores, not downloaded. Upon closer examination of these instruction books, I noticed that many of them were for computers and software that I no longer use or even own. More importantly, most were still in shrink-wrap, never opened. I recalled that when I bought software, I just put the disk into the computer and never looked at the book.

I realized that I did the same when I bought a new car -- with one exception. I never read the instruction book in the glove compartment. I just turned on the engine and drove off. I already knew how to drive, so I didn't need a book. The exception occurred when I tried to set the clock. I couldn't figure it out, so I finally opened the glove compartment and checked the book.

This pattern was and is true for every device I buy. I never read the book that comes with a toaster, an iPod, or a juicer unless I have a question. There are some people who do read instruction books before using a device, but with no disrespect intended, those people are a small minority. Our minds are set up to not care about answers unless we have a question. The greater the question, the more compelling it is, the more we want the answer. We learn best when questions come before answers.

The Need to Know

Too many classrooms ignore this basic learning model. They spend most of class time providing information and then ask questions in the form of a quiz, test, or discussion. This is backward. Too many students never learn this way. It is simply too hard to understand, organize, interpret, or make sense out of information -- or even to care about it -- unless it answers a question that students care about.

Lessons, units, and topics are more motivating when they begin with a question whose answer students want to know. Not only do great questions generate interest, they also answer the question that so many students wonder about: "Why do I have to learn this?" Finally, great questions increase cognitive organization of the content by framing it into a meaningful answer to the opening question.

There is a catch, though, in using questions to begin your lesson. The question must be connected to the content, so that the following learning activities actually answer the question. The question must fit your students' age, ability, and experiences. In addition, the question needs to provoke both thought and curiosity. In fact, it must be compelling enough to generate so much motivation so that students can't help but want to know the answer.

Have you ever forgotten the name of a song and spent hours trying to remember it? It gets under your skin until you no longer want the answer -- you need it. That's what a great opening question does for students. Compulsion more than simple curiosity drives them to learn the information that follows. It's what I felt when I finally wanted to read my car manual so that I could set the clock.

10 Questions That Motivate Learning

Questions this powerful are hard to find. I suggest collecting as many as you can (5-10 per year, for example), and after weeding out the ones that didn't work, eventually you'll be able to fill a notebook or computer file with them. I have been collecting these kinds of questions from teachers for years. Here's a sample of some great ones that worked with students in creating enough motivation to drive an entire lesson.

  • Middle school math: What does Martin Luther King have in common with algebra? (Answer: Both are concerned with equality.)
  • First grade science class studying particles: What is the smallest thing you’ve ever held in your hand? (Warning: Do not use this question in high school.)
  • Upper-level history class studying the Pilgrims: Is there anything your parents could ever do to you that would make you run away from home?
  • Elementary art: If humans could be a color other than any of the colors that they already are, what color would they be? Why do you think this? Draw some people of this color.
  • High school English: If Hamlet were a television sitcom, what would be a better name for it?
  • Elementary English: What is the best name for a book about your life?
  • Geography: Why does Israel have more fertile soil than other Middle East countries that share the same desert? (Answer: It has more trees to hold in moisture.)
  • Second grade reading: We are going to redesign the alphabet. What three letters can be eliminated? (Answer: C, Q, X)
  • Eighth grade physical education: Why is a soccer ball harder to control inside the gym than on the field? (Answer: Friction)
  • Middle school English: Why don't good and food rhyme? Given the definition of best, can you have more than one best friend?

Each of these questions was used by teachers to begin lessons that really motivated their students. Can you add any more to the list?

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Jeannele's picture

I agree. One of the first lessons I learned during my senior year in college (in preparation to teach) was to create an environment for learning, specifically, literature. Beginning the lesson with content related questions works.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Asking great questions is indeed the key to effective learning! AND it's important that we regularly self-assess when learning outside / beyond formal education. In as much as NO formal education can ever deal with all current knowledge, let alone - of course - the knowledge yet to be developed, learning the skills / habits of effective learning MUST be one objective facilitated through formal education.

I am a firm believer in the notion of consideration ( ) as the first steps in effective learning. This effort begins with well crafted question(s) for sure. And, in addition, the regular self-assessment is required: how reliable is the source, are there conflicting sources, how do I choose if there are, does this source writing about a different topic apply to my topic of interest, am I still keeping aligned with my initial starting question, ... to list just a few. And of course the final question is "have I done enough to enable me to successfully address that initial starting question or situation?" Consideration is only the initial efforts of effective learning. The apparent understanding developed must be "tested" through discussions with colleagues and teammates - and refined (or replaced by returning to the start) as appropriate!!!

I would hasten to point out that all effective problem solving must include regular, honest self-assessment / questioning. Indeed my personal problem solving procedure, with the acronym OSCAR, has as its second step, S, for speed-bumps: what learning do I need to accomplish (or added team members with specific experience) to proceed. One instance of self-assessment among many during the problem-solving process.

Sarah Z's picture
Sarah Z
Reading Instructor, Tutor and Blogger focused on improving education for struggling students

Thanks for a great post on questions that motivate students to learn. I especially appreciated the examples at the end. What you said about students' imaginations and sense of wonder and fantasy is so true. As educators, we need to learn to harness the power of those natural traits and use it, not fight against it as it sometimes seems we are expected to do.

Teaching students to engage with questions, by discovering answers, coming up with theories and formulating questions themselves, is when true learning takes place.

I'll never forget the most memorable morning circle conversation I had with a first grade class about the Mars Rover. I was inspired by a news article I read that morning to share it with my students (not the actual article of course, but the general idea of the Rover). I started by asking what kind of things they wanted to know about other planets; then what kind of devices and tools they would put on a robot they were sending to another planet. The students were so interested in the topic and excited to share their ideas (from the wacky-a fish tank so the robot wouldn't be lonely, to the insightful-a turbo shovel so it could dig to see what's inside) that it turned into a writing project with illustrations.

astankovich's picture

As the saying goes, "Inquiring minds want to know." Starting with an essential question is so powerful and gives value and purpose to the lesson that students are taking part in. Questions do so much to set the stage for the direction the learning may go. Posing that question that really makes students ponder, dig deep for the answer, and question more is an art. Taking the time to really develop essential questions makes us as teacher stop and really think about what the purpose in our lesson is and what we want students to walk away with as a result.

KtFolds's picture

This really makes me think about my lesson essential questions. I often will take the question straight from the math series and put it on the board. I love the idea of taking the essential question and really making it worthwhile to the student. What kid really is interested in how to multiply 2 digit numbers but if you were to phrase it in a different way it could definitely stir some interests. Suggestions???

Todd Grassman's picture

I am always looking for techniques to increase student engagement in my elementary classroom. Beginning a lesson with a question that student can connect prior knowledge to new content is an effective method in helping students make sense of the new topic. I have used this strategy in the past, but I have not put an emphasis on it. After reading this article, I will take a few moments when writing my lesson plans to contemplate what questions I could ask in the introduction of my lesson to motivate learning.

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

Teacher should ask questions that balance fact and reasoning. Teachers should try for higher level questions may lose interest in the bread and butter memory questions. Simple questions for challenged students are just as necessary as complex ones in all categories. If teachers use questioning effectively students will be capable of assuming major roles in their learning process.

JaynePynes's picture

In a unit using A Break with Charity to learn about the Salem Witch Trials, the students had to combine research with the novel to answer (by group) the question, What would the Puritan News Network report from this? What would the Enlightened News Network report? What commercials would run on these stations? Then they had to create the newscasts and commercials dependent on which network they drew. It was one of the most successful units ever!

Gustavo Ontiveros's picture

I gained a lot from this post. Now I know a method of engaging students. I am a college student who will be presenting a lesson to high school students. I presented one to elementary students last year and I struggled with capturing their attention and engaging them. I will present a question to the students before I present the problem and hopefully it keeps the students engaged and craving for answers!

Ms.Togs's picture
Robotics, Family Consumer Science, RTI,Physical Science

One of my favorite question starters is What if. This really gets the thinking juices sizzling.

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