Letting Students Ask the Questions

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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How to Help Students Ask Better Questions

We want to see kids asking tons of questions. In fact, we are convinced that this is where learning begins. But how do we actually make that happen? Here are a few places to start:

  1. Question everything. Make this your mantra! As long as a question is respectful, allow 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—and the boldest of students will ask questions of the world through social media and personal interviews.
  2. Give feedback on questions. Students highlight one another’s questions in Google Docs and leave comments on their blogs with very specific feedback. It might sound harsh, but it doesn’t have to be. When all questions are being analyzed, students learn to write 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?”
  3. Model the process. In the first week of school, I model the types of questions that require deeper thinking. This happens during read alouds, but also during class discussions. Sometimes I’ll ask a really lame question and then say, “Someone tell my why that question sucked” or I’ll ask a deeper question and say, “Why was that a hard question to answer?” The goal is to get them to see deeper questions and to also think about why a question is deep or shallow.
  4. Practice it often. I’ve had success with students doing mock interviews, fake press conferences, and rotating discussion zones in the first week of school. Instead of spending time on ice breakers or excessive time on procedures, we spend time on learning to ask better questions.
  5. 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. 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.
  6. 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. I thought that students would (and should) naturally ask questions and grow through accessing prior knowledge. 
  7. Explain and model the different types of questions. I teach students about clarifying, critical thinking and inference questioning. Often the process is messy and there are moments of overlap, but it helps students when they can think, “What needs to be clarified?” or “How does this relate to life?” From there, they can develop better questions.
  8. Embrace student choice. It would be hard for me to generate questions about cars 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, a car is a work of art. And a student who is into cars will have an easy time creating tons of questions about cars.
  9. Use multiple grouping options. Students sometimes ask me questions. Other times they ask partners or small group questions. Still other times they ask the questions to the whole class. Thus when they do an article summary, they start with individual questions but eventually move into leading a whole-class discussion. This constant integration of multiple grouping creates a climate where we are always asking questions.
  10. 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 inquiry. Often, these relaxed moments of wonder are precisely what students need to ask deeper inquiry questions.
  11. Follow rabbit trails. When I was a pre-service teacher, my mentor said something so often it became a mantra for me. “We must seize the moment of excited curiosity for the acquisition of wisdom.” 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, you end up asking better questions and learning more in the process.
  12. Share your own questions. A teacher’s naturally curious infects the entire classroom. 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. 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.
  13. 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.

 

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If you’re interested in student choice, empowerment, and ownership, here are some next steps you might want to consider:

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