When I did the research for my popular Edutopia article “5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners,” I spoke to a number of teachers but didn’t get to actually quote them in the piece (alas, no space). I also got some great comments from readers after the piece ran. So I thought it might be useful to expand upon the original story by offering up some of the insights and ideas that couldn’t fit in the Edutopia piece—but that are well worth sharing.
I’ll start with Joshua Beer, a middle school teacher based in Goshen, NH.
“I think a safe, positive and open environment is essential to getting ALL kids to feel comfortable asking questions in class,” Beer wrote to me. “So how does one create a safe environment? I don’t think there is a magic formula, however, the teacher must foster a classroom where students respect each other and feel that if they contribute their questions no one will make fun of them or snicker behind their back. I go out of my way to show students that asking questions is not a sign of weakness/stupidity but a sign of a hardworking student that wants to learn. Also, the teacher must encourage and invite questions and the act of questioning. I like to think that all teachers welcome and promote questioning, though I am not sure if that is always the case.”
Beer said that he uses the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) developed by the Right Question Institute (for my article on the RQI and QFT, click here). “All students are naturally curious and have so many wonderful questions (formulated and quasi-formulated) in their brains,” Beer writes. “However, due to a threatening classroom environment or simply the lack of an opportunity so often students’ questions are not fully articulated or expressed. I have found that the QFT cultivates a disposition to ask questions within my students and allows all students the opportunity to develop and express their questions. I use the QFT fairly regularly (1 to 2 times a month) in my classes and over time my students have become more inclined to ask better, more probing, insightful questions. And I believe that once a person becomes accustomed to asking questions they will continue to do so, and become better at asking questions.”
Josh added: “A constant refrain from teachers is that we don’t have enough time. Which is certainly true—however, I believe encouraging and valuing questions can simply become part of one’s classroom routine and culture. Successful classrooms have routines and expectations and if a teacher incorporates questioning into their classroom not only will students get used to asking questions but the teacher will get used to allocating time in the lesson plan for questions.”
Julie Grimm, a second grade teacher based in Hagerstown, MD, told me she conducts “interest inventories” to find out what her students are most interested in. She likes to “teach minimally”—so that there are more opportunities for the kids to teach themselves. For example, she takes books on the subjects students are interested in, puts those books on the table, and gives students time to explore the books themselves—”and that sparks questions about the books.” Once they’ve come up with questions, they do their own exploration (using iPads and other tools) to find answers. “I may guide them, but they’re doing a lot of it themselves, based on their own interests.”
Julie also does a question exercise called 10 and 10—in which students are expected to come up with 10 questions about a topic in 10 minutes. “Then they have to decide which of those questions are the best ones to research. They’ll use those questions to come up with a book they produce.”
Rilla McCubbins Chaney wrote in on Facebook with the following great tip. With every test, she recommends including this question: “Ask one more question you wish had been on this exam and answer it.”
Randy Rodgers, the director of digital learning services in the Seguin (TX) school district, commented that, “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 idea—as an extension of the Genius Hour idea, devote specific class time regularly to students’ questions.”
Megan Strople Daley writes, “I’ve heard of teachers using a scholar wall. During a lesson if a student asks a question that can’t be answered they write it on a sticky note and put it on the wall. At the end of the day, students can copy the questions and research them at home or during free time. The next days, students present their findings.”
I really love this idea contributed by teacher Chris Gall, who writes: “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, or classroom policies and procedures (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 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 it’s okay to ask questions, and that they’ll get honest answers from me (or acknowledgement of ignorance, as the case may be). It’s 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).”
Finally, as part of my research I contacted Dominic Randolph, principal of the Riverdale Country School in New York. I’d interviewed Randolph earlier for the book, and knew he was a big champion of student questioning.
In response to my asking about ways his school encourages questioning, he wrote: “I am just fascinated by your question and wanted to respond with a quick list of ideas, in no particular order, that we have been playing around with and thinking about:
- HOW CAN WE DEVELOP A QUESTION TOOLKIT? This would include understanding the difference between different categories of questions such as recall questions, analytical questions and evaluative questions
- HOW CAN WE SURFACE TACIT QUESTIONS? … so that students understand that questions lie behind much of what they are required to produce: essays, lab reports, and projects; however these questions are often tacit. These questions should be surfaced, made explicit and valuable by the students and teachers. Sometimes some of the most awkward essays are due to an attempt to answer a difficult question rather than just choosing an easier one. However, our grading systems often do not reward the intellectual risk-taker and more complex questioner.
- HOW DO WE PRIZE QUESTIONING / GIVE GOOD FEEDBACK ON QUESTIONING? Classroom cultures should support questioning with “question walls” where student can write up questions. Classroom discussion can be “mapped” to see how many questions are asked and if, most importantly, students ask each other questions. Oddly, so much of classroom discussion is about declaration rather than interrogation.
- CAN WE USE THINKING SYSTEMS THAT PRIVILEGE QUESTIONING? Using design thinking or your “why/what if/how” framework to privilege the asking of thorny and difficult questions with the potential of a systematic way to address the question. We have been embedding entire design thinking processes and parts of design thinking processes in the school program with faculty and students.
- HOW CAN WE DEVELOP A SET OF CORE/ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS AS THE CORE OF SCHOOL CULTURE? Using the concept of essential questions championed by Deborah Meier and the Coalition of Essential Schools . . . having questions that are tools across the curriculum and are understood as critical tools for understanding. This should be for all members of the community: students, teachers, board members, parents. Everyone should model good questioning.
- HOW CAN “WAIT TIME” HELP? “Wait time” is critical (there is interesting research of wait time in classrooms inspiring better thinking and questioning). Teaches who wait once a question has been asked support more inquiry-based educational outcomes.
- HOW MIGHT MORE PROJECTS AND MORE INTERDISCIPLINARY WORK HELP? More and more work throughout the school is project-based and interdisciplinary from Pre K-12 (you cannot just search for the whole answer on Google). The elementary and middle schools have dispensed with weeks of standardized tests and exams in favor of weeks of PBL. More students are teaching courses at the school—taking a question or set of questions and exploring it/them as a teacher with a group of interested participants.
- COULD AN ENTREPRENEURIAL MINDSET IN SCHOOLS PROMPT BETTER INQUIRY? Finally, I am also very struck by the idea of innovation, creativity and adaptation linked to questions that you bring up repeatedly in your book. I am less sure how to bring this into the curriculum, but have found some of our experiments with the co-curriculum, maker culture, robotics and experiential education to be promising.”