Teacher to Teacher: The Art of Questioning
By Lynne R. Dorfman
As teachers, we often feel like we should know the answer to every question. Often, we make sure that the questions we ask in our classrooms are questions we can answer. But is it necessary or even effective to ask these kinds of questions most of the time? What does a teacher asking questions of a class expect the class to learn from the questioning process? Can we learn from our students who just might have possible answers to questions that we have not imagined?
Good questioning skills are an important part of an inquiry approach and promote a spirit of natural curiosity and conjecture with open-ended questions. Teachers need to encourage student question-asking behavior and peer questioning to improve student engagement and to probe for misunderstandings in their inquiry process. Asking better questions gives all our students an opportunity for deeper thinking and provides teachers with a great deal of insight into the depth of student understanding. Questions of this nature engage students in rich discussions that expand student learning. Paul Black, a noted authority on formative assessment, suggests that “more effort has to be spent in framing questions that are worth asking: that is, questions which explore issues that are critical to the development of students’ understanding.” (Black et al., 2003)
Questions that ask students to compare/contrast, elaborate, justify, evaluate, and extend their ideas helps with metacognition – thinking about our thinking. They allow us to make sense of our world. These questioning skills are the most powerful tools we have for making decisions and solving problems, for inventing, changing and improving our lives as well as the lives of others. In our classrooms, it is not about the one right answer. It’s about being able to ask the right questions and explore myriad possibilities. The long and the short of it: Questioning is central to learning and growing.
Jacobson et al. (1993) discuss the critical role of questioning in effective teaching. In inquiry, skillful questioning allows the teacher to foster high-level discussions, either with the whole class, in small groups, or with individual students. Questions that call for higher-level thinking require students to manipulate prior information by asking questions such as:
“Why do you think…”
“Why do you suppose…?”
“What can you conclude from the evidence?”
Ask questions that require the solution to a problem. Involve students in observing and describing an event or object by asking questions such as:
“What do you notice here?”
“Can you tell me more about this?”
“What do you see as the catalyst to this situation?
Different types of questions accomplish different tasks and help us to build up our responses in different ways. If you ask many intriguing questions in your classroom, your students will be able to model their questions after your questions. Divergent questions lead students to develop a doable plan based on their goals and what they know about available resources. We must help our students understand the features of each type of question so they don’t grasp the first question which comes to mind. There are choices – some more appropriate than others (McKenzie, 1996). It’s really all about asking the right question – we can always find answers.
Probing questions provide opportunities to process information by justifying or explaining responses–dealing with the why, how, and the based-upon what aspects of a concept. Probing promotes reflective and critical thinking. Because it requires teachers to think quickly in the moment, it can also be one of the most difficult questioning techniques (Jacobson et al.,1993).
Divergent Questions are a central element of inquiry teaching, engaging students in classroom discussions that allow them to think independently, creatively, and more critically. These questions help them to take ownership of their own learning while also feeling a shared responsibility for the learning of the entire class. A teacher can ask divergent questions to elicit many different answers. Divergent questions allow a number of students to respond to the same question, encouraging student participation. Remember to give wait time after a question is posed. Then give wait time after each response. In this way, we can promote linking with each other’s responses and having a real conversation instead of just a Q & A. Redirecting questions will also help to increase the number of students participating in a discussion, but teachers need to make a strong effort to call on all students equally.
What are some of the possible consequences…
Imagine a place (community, government, world, etc.) where…
Operating from a cognitive perspective, we should try to design questions that stretch our students’ thinking and challenge their understanding. By asking appropriate, thought-provoking questions, teachers are able to engage students in learning experiences that emphasize the development of critical and creative thinking.
- Black, P., Wiliamcobson, D., Eggen, P. & Kanchak, D. (1993). “Assessment” in Methods for teaching; A skills approach (4th ed.). Columbus OH: Merrill.
- Jacobson, D., Eggen, P. & Kanchak, D. (1993). Methods for teaching: A skills approach (4th ed.). Columbus OH: Merrill.
- McKenzie, J. (1996). “The internet bandwagon: Adventures, skid marks and oil spills along the information highway.” From Now On The Educational Technology Journal, 6(1). Retrieved November 18, 2001 from the World Wide Web at http://www.fno.org/sept96/information.html#anchor116392
Lynne Dorfman is a 1989 PAWLP Fellow and a Co-director. She is currently writing a book on formative assessment with Diane Dougherty, also a 1989 Fellow of PAWLP. Lynne presents at local, state, and national conferences where she always meets savvy educators willing to share their ideas.
I agree that questions are an important part of the learning process and the questions we as teachers ask can help to guide our students; however, the questions our students ask and then answer can be just as beneficial to their learning. Recently, my school district has been having many in-service days to encourage the staff to have our students notice and wonder prior to reading, writing and even solving math problems. When the students formulate ideas and questions in their minds, not only is the information being connected to their background knowledge, but it is also encouraging them to predict and driving them to find focused answers to their own questions.
I’ve noticed that many of the questions I did ask of my students in the past were simply restating questions, not asking them to deeply think or to infer or to wonder. When I started asking them to notice and to wonder, the questions they were creating themselves were engaging and driven in a way I was not expecting and they enjoyed our lessons so much more when they were given the opportunity to formulate their own questions and to lead their own discovery and understanding.
Hello! My name is Samantha Smith and I am a graduate student at West Chester University. I was very intrigued by this post because of a trend that I have been noticing in classrooms. There is nothing that can make me more excited than a good, thoughtful question . . . and nothing that I find more frustrating than a student trying to gauge what the “right” answer is. Your post emphasizes the importance of higher order questions in learning, and I agree that this is central to improving our students’ as learners. Great post!