How to Help Students Ask Better Questions by Creating a Culture of Inquiry

Student inquiry is at the heart of student choice. When students are able to ask their own questions, they can chase their curiosity and tap into their own interests. They can build on their prior knowledge and build a bridge to new information that they are analyzing. But how do we actually do this?

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Students Should Chase Their Curiosity

I want classrooms to be bastions of creativity and wonder. I want to see students chasing their curiosity and researching answers. I love what happens when students solve problems that don’t have easy answers; when they become builders and engineers and authors and scientists and historians bent on finding out the truth. And yet, this doesn’t always happen in school. Often, we stick too tightly to curriculum maps and deadlines and students learn to value compliance above empowerment. And the result is a lack of natural curiosity.

About a year ago, I talked to a teacher-librarian named Glenn Warren. We’ve had a couple of great Google Hangouts and I highly respect his ideas on information literacy. He described what happened to students at various grade levels when he first introduced to the Ask Tons of Questions face of design thinking. The kindergartners asked so many questions, they couldn’t write every question down. By fourth grade, they were asking 3-4 questions. By middle school, they wanted to know if their questions were the “right” questions. They’re really focused on compliance and not curiosity.

I find this tragic.

My friend George Couros describes it this way, “If students leave school less curious than when they have started we have failed them.”

In many respects, the system has failed our systems. But that’s why teachers are the ones who can turn things around.

How to Help Students Ask Better Questions

We want to see kids asking tons of questions. This is how students grow into creative, critical thinkers. In an inquiry-based framework, it all begins with student questions. But how do we actually make that happen? The answer lies in a culture of inquiry. This includes everything from the trust that teachers develop to the way they reduce fear to the lessons they develop to the strategies they use. 

  1. Question everything. Make this your mantra! As long as a question is respectful, allow your students to question their world. This applies to analyzing mathematical processes, thinking through social issues, making sense out of a text or analyzing the natural world for cause and effect. Every lesson should include students asking questions to you, to one another or to themselves. You can even move beyond the classroom and encourage students to ask questions of the world through social media and personal interviews with experts in the field.
  2. Launch a Wonder Week. Take 3-5 school days to do a Wonder Week Project. Here, students chase their own curiosity and engage in research to find the answers. In the end, they share their learning through a multimedia presentation. It’s short and simple but it gives students a chance to own the inquiry process. The idea is that they can answer whatever question they want and share their answer with an authentic audience. If a Wonder Week takes too long, you can do a Wonder Day. These are great on those “throw away” days when you have fire drills, assemblies, and testing that derail your schedule. After practicing this a few times, students should be able to internalize the process and the Wonder Days become a great option when you have a substitute teacher.
  3. Give feedback on questions. Have students highlight one another’s questions in Google Docs and leave comments on their blogs with very specific feedback. Now, this might sound harsh to criticize questions, but it doesn’t have to be. When all questions are being analyzed, students learn that critical feedback is helpful. They begin to critique each other in a way that is helpful and positive by saying things like, “This question is deep, but it’s worded in a way that elicits a short answer response. Can you change it so that you draw a longer response?”
  4. Model the process. In the first week of school, I model the types of questions that require deeper thinking. This is something I do with graduate students where I teach and something I used to do with middle school students. You can do this during read-alouds as well as class discussions. You can model this as a problem-solving strategy in math or during an experiment in science. If you’re up for it, you can ask a bad question and follow it up by asking your students, “Why was this question awful?” Or when a student asks a great question, you can say, “Why was that a hard question to answer? Why did it make the class think deeper?” The goal is to get them to get students engaged in metacognition.
  5. Practice it often. I’ve had success with students doing mock interviews, fake press conferences, and rotating discussion zones. In these moments, they get the opportunity to practice the process of asking questions. This is a chance to make questions a part of the daily culture of the classroom. In math, they can ask questions about processes and problem-solving. They can ask diagnostic questions in order to figure out where they went wrong. In a social studies class, they might ask conceptual questions, theoretical questions, and questions that bring about multiple viewpoints and theories. 
  6. Spend more time playing. Wonder is both something we can promote in schools but also something we can allow – and the best way we allow this to happen is by promoting play. I find it sad that students often get blocks of play time only when they are younger but as they get older, it stops.Is it any wonder that younger kids are more likely to ask random questions?  Include blocks of time in your day to allow students to play, explore, and discover. I sometimes look back and cringe at those moments when I stopped creative play in my classroom, even though it was leading to curiosity. I jumped to conclusions about students being off-task and I even shamed kids or lashed out at a class and then had to come back and apologize. But on my best days, our culture of play led to a culture of curiosity. This relaxed nature actually led to deeper thinking and better work. 
  7. Provide support. Some students have a really hard time with questioning strategies. Providing sentence stems gives them a starting point. At first, I didn’t like the idea of helping students form their questions. It felt artificial. I thought that students would (and should) naturally ask questions and grow through accessing prior knowledge. Over time, I realized that some students struggled with how to ask questions. Sometimes, they struggle with the language. Other times, they have a hard time with critical thinking. When you provide scaffolding, you are making the thinking visible for students and giving them concrete examples that they can use as they engage in inquiry. 
  8. Explain and model the different types of questions. The idea here to teach students about clarifying, critical thinking and inferencing questioning. Often the process is messy and there are moments of overlap, but it helps students to have a general framework of the types of questions that exist. Eventually, it becomes second nature as they ask, “What needs to be clarified?” or “How does this idea relate to that concept?” or “Why is it that _______?” or “What am I not seeing here that I should be seeing?” From there, they can develop better questions. If you download the free design thinking toolkit at the bottom of this post, you’ll see a suite of assessment tools that includes sample questions that students can use. 
  9. Embrace student choice. It would be hard for me to generate questions about cars (not the movie Cars, because I have three kids and I have seen that movie hundreds of times) because I don’t really care about cars. Yeah, yeah, I get it. There’s a difference between a Mustang and a Lamborghini, but the only real difference I could identify is that one of them is easier to spell. For me, a car is a giant hunk of metal that gets you from place to place. But to someone who loves cars, each car is a work of art. And a student who is into cars will have an easy time creating tons of questions about cars. This is why I love Genius Hour projects. Students can engage in inquiry by tapping into their own prior knowledge. Notice here that the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to ask questions. Knowledge should make you more curious, not less. I’ve never seen a cosmologist say, “I’m done asking questions about the universe.” It doesn’t happen. 
  10. Use multiple grouping options. Encourage students to ask questions of the teacher, of their partners, in their small groups, and of themselves. Give students time to think and process and ultimately ask better questions. So, when students read an article summary, they start with individual questions but eventually move into small group discussions and a whole class Socratic Seminar. This constant integration of multiple grouping creates a climate where we are always asking questions.
  11. Slow down. I remember as a child feeling a sense of amazement at the ability to pull iron out of sand. We pulled out magnets and stuck them in all kinds of soil until it worked. The process was slow. We weren’t hurried. But this was precisely what led to questions. Often, these relaxed moments of wonder are precisely what students need to ask deeper inquiry questions. If we want a culture of wonder, we need to slow down.
  12. Follow rabbit trails. When I was a pre-service teacher, my mentor Brad said something so often it became a mantra for me. “We must seize the moment of excited curiosity for the acquisition of wisdom.”  Brad would say this all the time and slowly I memorized it and internalized it. He wasn’t sure where the saying originally came from, but the idea was that in that single moment when your curiosity is sparked, you should chase it. If you put it off until later, you miss something in the process. Those questions evaporate. But when you chase the curiosity in the moment, you end up asking better questions and learning more in the process. Yes, there’s a time for deadlines and it’s true that we sometimes need to get back on task. But there’s a place for going off-road and wandering in wonder. 
  13. Share your own questions. A teacher’s naturally curiosity infects the entire classroom in a really positive way. As a student, I loved to hear my teachers say, “Yeah, I’m trying to figure out __________” or “I’ve been exploring ___________.” Their curiosity meant that it was okay for me to be curious; that being geeky was a positive thinking. You can give your students that same gift: the permission to wonder. When you talk about your own curiosity and you share the questions you have, you create a class culture that values inquiry.
  14. Reduce the fear. Often when a student says, “I don’t know what to ask,” what they’re really saying is, “I’m afraid of sounding stupid.” If students have had to spend most of their time getting the questions right, it can feel unnerving to be told that they can now ask their own questions. One way to model this is through admitting that you don’t have all the answers. It can be powerful when students here you say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” When this happens, students realize that they have the permission to ask questions and admit that they don’t have all the answers. 

A Climate of Curiosity

This is not a comprehensive list. I’m sure there are many other ways to help students recover their natural curiosity. Sometimes it involves going out into nature. Sometimes they just need a Genius Hour, where they can pursue their passions. But ultimately, teachers can create an environment of curiosity, where students are excited about asking questions and discovering answers.

Looking for more? Check this out.
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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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3 responses

  1. Another great post, John. A thinking routine that teachers might use as they teach students to generate good questions is Question Starts (http://www.visiblethinkingpz.org/VisibleThinking_html_files/03_ThinkingRoutines/03d_UnderstandingRoutines/QuestionStarts/QuestionStarts_Routine.html). I’ve used this many times to help my students become better at asking deep questions. I even made a poster of the stems and have it hanging up in my room.

    1. I’ll check out that link for sure, Philip!

  2. I like the way you use this to show the posssibilities for creating a climate of ‘ student agency’ and ownership. So many teachers try to force this instead of cultivating the ownership as a natural disposition in the learning environment. Now following your blog…thanks

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