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How Can Well-Crafted Questions Improve Learning?

My 16-year-old son loves science. He is curious about how things work. He is also starting to think he knows everything, but he still wonders about what he doesn't know.

When he was younger, he loved math and often asked a lot of questions that at times could challenge his teachers' patience.

My high school seniors seem less curious, sadly. I want to change that.

Curiosity is an amazing phenomenon. Children are filled with it. Awe-inspired and desperate to know and understand the "why" of everything. Incessantly, they ask, foreheads scrunched, earnest with interest, and determined to find answers. At some point, however, that sense of longing seems struck out of them.

How can we bring it back as a lifelong quest for continued knowing?

Questions are a teacher's most readily available tool for opening a dialogue with students about any kind of learning and it is also a student's greatest tool for exploration and deeper understanding. So why then are we not teaching and using them as effectively as we can be?

Like all kinds of learning, there are levels of complexity with questioning, ranging from simple, closed questions that terminate in a resounding yes or no to others that can resonate with varied "right" answers driving exploration into the unknown. Regardless of the age of the student, we should strive to get to the latter.

Bloom's Taxomony teaches us the following levels of questioning:

Level 1 - Knowledge-based questions - these have rote answers

Level 2 - Comprehension

Level 3 - Application

Level 4 - Analysis

Level 5 - Synthesis

Level 6 - Evaluation

Although questioning does come naturally, we can't assume that kids or teachers know how to ask the best questions for the specific answers or exploration they are seeking. In our classrooms, we must scaffold activities to help students understand what to ask to elicit the answers they are looking for.

As teachers, we need to move away from lower-level questioning that focuses kids on concrete "correct" answers and move toward evaluation and synthesis that ask kids to explore and examine deeply the nature of life around them.

Teachers can easily set up protocols in their classrooms to foster questioning skills and develop better classroom conversations around any given subject.

For example, the Socratic Seminar is one tool a teacher can use. It sets the kids up in a circle and they are asked to put out open-ended questions that the rest of the group answers and then generate more questions to look deeply into a particular subject. This low-stakes activity gives even the most reticent student the opportunity to get involved as there are no specific answers that are "right" or "wrong".

Another way we can generate more questions in the classroom is to create an environment where being wrong isn't a bad thing. We must show every student that ideas are welcomed and questions nurture our understanding of a subject. There are no stupid or bad questions. No laughing at a student who doesn't get it right away.

Questions must be encouraged, so they can flourish. Think of it like water for vegetation - encouragement like water, brings growth. One way to help in making your classroom a safer environment is to admit readily and often when you don't know something or look information up in front of students. They need to see you as a constant learner too, even if an expert in your field.

We must cultivate conversation in our classrooms, real dialogue between more than just one teacher and one student, but rather strive to have the students talking to each other, with us as facilitators. We can scaffold this into our everyday practice, starting with think-pair-shares, writing activities, small group assignments, and then full classroom discussions where all students have something different to offer.

One way I have done this is with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Since the middle of the novel can be challenging to get through, I have each student prepare a chapter or two, they must read it closely, create a handout, and then we open class discussion for 2-3 days based on their personal work. I throw out an open-ended question and then sit outside the circle and watch.

We did this activity in November. By March when we read Hamlet, students deeply probed the text and explored each other's interpretation and Shakespeare's choices without having to direct them to do so. It has been a year-long expectation in the making for students to question everything. Since I've nurtured this, it is so creating a much richer learning environment with many perspectives than any classroom led by me alone would have ever yielded.

How do you use questioning in your classes? How have students surprised you? Share your thoughts.

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in July 2016


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