9 Great Ways to Encourage Students to Ask Questions

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The curiosity of a pre-schooler can sometimes wear us out as they question every decision we make and any new sights or sounds that catch their attention.

If you fast-forward to that same child when he is ten, however, you will most likely observe that much of that wide-eyed wonder has dissipated. In its place is a learned resignation to squelch curiosity so as not to displease any adults or call unwelcome attention to himself. Society has taught him that it is not his place to question; wiser people will supply him with the knowledge that he must retain.

Of course, when it’s described this way, few adults will support this type of suppression. We know that it is in the best interest of our 21st century children to raise them to be critical thinkers – and that means they must be skillful at not just asking questions, but at asking the right kinds of questions. However, traditional schools remain places, for the most part, where students are given information to retain. That information is generally selected by adults based on what we think future generations need to know. There is little room left in the curriculum for students to question because we are too busy supplying them with what we have deemed to be the acceptable answers. As a result, students learn that questions are not welcome, and eventually voice them less and less.

Educators are growing to realise, however, that questioning is a skill that we should develop rather than discourage. So, what can we do to maintain and develop that pre-school curiosity as our children grow older? Here are 9 ways that teachers can help their students ask questions.

01. Encourage curiosity with a “Wonderwall.”

Ask questions - wonderwall

Many teachers have begun to include bulletin boards like this in their classrooms, allowing students to use sticky notes as they brainstorm questions throughout a grading period or semester. Question collections like these can be jumping off points for independent research, Genius Hour projects, or even short class discussions. This is one way to give students a voice, while also learning about their interests and concerns.

02. Here’s the answer. What’s the question?

Ask questions - this is the answer

In another type of interactive bulletin board, the teacher provides an answer, and students brainstorm questions. This can be a great way to review, or as an introduction to a unit to find out how much students know. Once students learn some of the strategies for developing “great” questions that are described below, displays like these are good for practice and formative assessments.

03. Make Questioning Irresistible with Books

There are some books that just make it impossible to not ask questions.  For example, I think I had more questions than the number of pages in the book when I first read Alice in Wonderland.   When reading books out loud with a class, a parent or teacher can model questioning, and encourage students to share their own queries.  Let students see that it’s natural to have questions, and that these can lead to deeper understanding of the text.  Here is a great book list from Becky Spence to get you started.

04. Teach the Difference Between Thin and Thick Questions

It’s a big start to get students in the habit of asking questions, but it’s even more important to help them to identify the types of questions they are asking.  A simple distinction to use with younger students is, “Thin and Thick” questions.  In this day and age, a “thin” question might also be labelled as “Google-able.”  If you can easily find an answer in a book or the internet, or it’s just a matter of saying, “yes” or “no,” then it’s a “thin” question.  “Thick” questions require more thought and often don’t have one right answer.  They are great for discussion and research projects.  For more information on “Thick and Thin” questions, Kayla Kitterman has a short video that explains the difference.

05. Encourage the Use of Bloom’s Taxonomy

Teachers are often encouraged to raise the level of their own questioning by using question stems related to the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  But this doesn’t mean that students can’t use it as well.  This blog post from Socrative Garden gives some examples ways that students can use the above question stems to write their own tests or quizzes or as focus points for research.  If you and/or your students need practice incorporating Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom, “Stick Pick” is a great app for helping you to choose random stems for class discussion.

06. Invite Depth and Complexity with Kaplan

Dr. Sandra Kaplan developed the Depth and Complexity icons in order to help students go beyond basic understanding of topics, and the icons have become well-known to teachers who are expected to include “rigor” in their curriculum.  In classrooms where the Depth and Complexity icons are woven throughout the day, students become familiar with the meaning of the symbols and how they can be applied in different subjects.  It is not unusual for them to discuss the multiple perspectives of the Civil War or the ethics of Little Red Riding Hood.  One of the icons is, “Unanswered Questions.” From this blog post by Joelle Trayers, you can see that even children as young as Kindergarten age can think in deep and complex ways by coming up with unanswered questions about a photograph.

Once students understand the meanings of the icons and have experienced plenty of examples, older students can develop their own research projects using Ian Byrd’s Differentiator tool.  They can also be challenged to generate icon-related questions during class for their peers to answer.  

07. Promote “What if?” Questions

We are generally used to “what if” questions being silly or impractical.  “What if the rain floods our portable?” a student might ask on a particularly stormy day.  And I might respond reassuringly, “Don’t worry. That’s not going to happen.”  But, what if I decided to go along with that “what if?”  What if I said, “Well, how high would it have to be before we would need a boat to float out of here?”  Instead of dismissing the question, our class might suddenly have a valid mathematical problem to solve.

XKCD.com has a great “What if?” section where readers pose questions and the responder explains what would scientifically happen in that very improbable situation.  For example, this writer wanted to know, “What would happen if one tried to funnel Niagara Falls through a straw?”

A teacher named Carla Federman actually assigns her students to do research projects based on what if’s.  What if “The Army-McCarthy hearings had never been televised?” asks one student in her research.  Another student poses, “What if Albert Einstein’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt was intercepted by the Soviet Union in 1939?”  Students must consider the short and long-term consequences of their what if’s, while demonstrating their understanding of the historical contexts they cite.  This is an outstanding example of how student questions can be used create engaging and empowering learning activities.  For more information about “What if?” projects, see Larry Ferlazzo’s post, which includes even more resources.

We don’t always have the time to be side-tracked by those questions, but if we can pursue the answers every once in awhile we will demonstrate to our students the power of following through on those questions – quite possibly the type of questions that many famous thinkers once asked.

08. Conduct Socratic Seminars

According to Israel Elfie, in the book, Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussion in the the English Classroom, “The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly.”

I have seen Socratic Seminars conducted in a myriad of ways, but the most powerful is to allow the students to be in charge, with no particular leader.  In this type of Socratic Seminar, the students lead the discussion, which means that effective questioning must be used in order to stay on topic and provide deep and meaningful conversation.  This resource from Facing History gives a concise description of the planning and execution of a Socratic Seminar.

Another way to use Socratic Seminars in the classroom is to do something called a, “Socratic Smackdown.”  I’ve actually used this a few times in my own classroom with 4th and 5th graders, and they have enjoyed the process.  It helps them to identify the types of questions and responses that they should voice in order to advance the discussion.  This metacognition, I believe, is essential for critical thinking.

09. Give Plenty of Opportunities for Reflection

It isn’t only important to ask questions of others, but also to get into the practice of questioning our own actions and work.  Most teachers are familiar with the students who are quick to finish, yet have many errors.  Telling them to check over their work may buy the teacher some time, but is rarely productive if students haven’t been taught actual processes for evaluating their own products.  By giving students time and the tools for reflection, educators are teaching the valuable skill of self-assessment.  It is also important that teachers are careful to show that, although they do want assignments completed in a timely manner, it is more important to do quality work than to speed through it without any thought.  Below is a helpful reflection based on Bloom’s Taxonomy that teachers can ask students to consider when finishing work.

Computers are Useless

Pablo Picasso once said, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”  While computers have advanced quite a bit since Picasso spoke those words, his point is still valid.  One advantage that humans have over machines is that we wonder and we imagine what could be.  Computers would have a difficult time answering a “what if?” question.  They know the answers to the questions that have already been asked, but they do not know the questions for the answers yet to come.  It is our job as educators to guide our students to find ways to think beyond the computer so that computers will remain tools that augment exploration and learning rather than become life support for our brains.  For those who are uncomfortable with questioning, they should keep in mind this Chinese proverb, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

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Terri Eichholz teaches gifted students in Kinder through 5th grades in San Antonio, TX. She's been an educator for 24 years, and is a proponent of guiding students to create, problem-solve, and personalize their own learning. You can read more on her blog, "Engage Their Minds," or follow her on Twitter (@terrieichholz).

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