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From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal


Classroom Strategies to Engender Student Questioning

© 1986 by Jamie McKenzie, Ed.D.
and Hilarie Bryce Davis, Ed.D. all rights reserved.




Most of the strategies described below have been developed and tested by teachers in Princeton, Madison and elsewhere. They are offered as practical, effective activities that help shift the focus of classrooms from teacher orchestrated mastery and memory of information to student processing of information to create understanding and improve problem-solving.

As one of the primary goals of education is to develop autonomous but interdependent thinkers, students deserve frequent opportunities to shape and direct classroom inquiry. To fuel this inquiry, it is also essential that we validate the importance of curiosity in the process of learning. While curiosity may have killed the cat, there is no reason for us to kill curiosity. Return to Index

1) Beginning A New Unit (K-12)

If a class is about to spend several days or weeks studying a particular topic or concept, traditional practice and unit design gives the teacher primary responsibility for identifying the key questions and the key answers. The outcome does not have to be a didactic exercise in memory and mastery, if it uses students' curiosity through questioning.

Try starting a new unit by asking your class to think of questions that could be asked about the topic; "What questions should we ask about the Civil War? about stars? about dating? about nouns?"

If students are not used to this type of experience, they are likely to echo the kinds of questions they read at the end of textbook chapters or the kinds of questions teachers generally ask around memory of facts and generalizations. A self-check on the kinds of questions you ask is to try this exercise with your students - they will probably ask the same kinds of questions you usually ask.

If you ask many tantalizing and divergent questions in your classroom, your students are likely to model after your behavior for example, "What would have happened if Lincoln was shot in the first month of the war? Why did Lincoln only free the slaves in the rebel states? How did it feel to be a woman in the path of Sherman's army?"

If on the other hand, they are used to information questions, they may ask, "Which states joined the Confederacy? What were the six main causes of the war? What happened at Shiloh? Who was the Union commander at Shiloh? When did the war end?"

As students begin to suggest questions, it is essential that the teacher restrain judgmental cues. If is better to list questions without verbal or body language comments. Otherwise, students may play a game called "Please the Authority" instead of liberating their curiosity. This is a natural response to criticism whether it comes from the teacher or other students in the class. A key tool in eliminating criticism is brainstorming. The four rules of brainstorming:

1. all contributions are accepted without judgment;

2. the goal is a large number of ideas or questions;

3. building on other people's ideas is encouraged;

4. farout, unusual ideas are encouraged.

As students begin to generate questions in response to your initial question - "What could we ask?" - they will need to be recorded. New questions can come from old ones, as everyone reads them over when they are recorded on chart paper, newsprint or the blackboard. Questions can fly more rapidly than most of us can write, so it is advisable to delegate the writing to student assistants, dividing the blackboard into sections and keeping four students busy. This tactic keeps the pace fast and exciting. Younger children present a different challenge because they need the pacing even more yet cannot help with the writing. In this case it is helpful to enlist a parent volunteer or instructional aide.

Once the questions are listed and the storm of curiosity has subsided somewhat, it is often useful to go through an exercise of categorization, asking the students how they might group any of the questions. These categories can then provide the basis for organizing and structuring the investigation for the next few days or weeks. The list of categorized questions may not include all the original questions if there is overlap among them. This is an appropriate time for some evaluation to take place. Initial efforts may be somewhat clumsy if students are not familiar with the task of categorizing. Ask, "which ideas go together?" Questions about the Civil War may cluster into such groups as People, Causes, Politics, Feelings, Military Strategies and others which do not cover all possibilities or represent a complete set of categories. The skill of creating categories which are mutually exclusive and comprehensive must be taught over time. First efforts need not be precise. Eventually students will use the categorizing step to generate even more questions as they realize that they have omitted a parallel category or the process of categorization leads them to extend one of the categories.

In most cases, the categories students come up with as a result of this process will mirror the standard topics you would have chosen. The fact that they came from the students, however, adds intrinsic motivation for finding the answers. Just as in a teacher-designed unit, categories can form the basis for research teams or they can lead to a succession of class mini-lectures and discussions, depending upon your preference as a teacher. Reading of text can be structured around the categories rather than proceeding in a linear fashion, and it may become necessary to broaden available information beyond textbooks. Teacher and students can organize available supplementary information around the categories.

Once students have categorized questions, you might spend some time asking them to identify which questions seem most interesting and which would be the least interesting. Which questions are the easiest to answer? the hardest? Why? What is it about questions that makes some easy and some hard to answer? This kind of discussion should lead naturally to the development of a Taxonomy or Typology of questions for your classroom (the next activity listed below). Once students begin to label different types of questions, questions become powerful tools for thinking. Thinking about thinking and thinking about questioning both tend to strengthen the power for student thought. Return to Index

2. Class Taxonomy of Questions (K-12)

When students begin to label the different kinds of questions, they learn to select different kinds of questions to perform different kinds of thinking. No matter what the level of schooling, some kind of label can work effectively.

Teach students that questions are like tools in a tool box. They would not pull out a screw driver to saw a board. Nor would they use a hammer to unscrew a bolt. Jobs require a choice to tool. Thinking requires a choice of questions. For most students who have never thought consciously about how they think or question, the thinking tools lie unassorted, unlabeled and unidentifiable in the bottom of the box. They tend to reach into the box and pull out the first tool (or question) that comes to hand (or Mind). This leads to hammering instead of sawing, planing instead of drilling.

To introduce students to the idea of categorizing questions, bring in a tool box of tools and ask them to suggest how they might be organized in the toolbox based on what they do. An alternative manipulative activity is to ask students to sort colored shapes into categories based first on color, then on shape, then on both. For older students use figures with multiple characteristics, such as complex geometrical figures, or something familiar and interesting to them such as the latest movies - "Put the last five movies you saw into categories based on how you liked them, their subject matter, their general popularity, their style, their characters, their plot, or their related economic factors."

Primary students may begin with three or four types of questions. As they scan the questions generated at the beginning of a unit, they may come up with types such as "Fact Questions" and "Why Questions" and "Imagine Questions." Or they may find other names. It does not really matter, for the important thing is to start them thinking about questions. The more time you devote to thinking about questions, the more likely they are to discover new types of questions that do not fit nearly into their first typology. The class should then discuss the new type and agree upon the wisdom of including it.

In a similar fashion, middle school and secondary level students can create a typology around their own questions. The labels and types will probably be more complicated, but first efforts will also shift over time as they struggle with questioning.

As students' sophistication with labeling questions grows, it is fun to share the thinking of others in this area. Share Bloom's Taxonomy (1956) and Taba's strategies with your students. Ask them to critique these other models. Ask them to relate them to their own.

And why do we bother with a time-consuming activity like developing a typology of questions? Because once students have the labels, you can lead them to practice each type of question thoughtfully. You can show a film and ask each student to think of three "why?" questions to share with the class at its conclusion. You may assign a story to read and ask for three "inference" questions. Suddenly the students can reach into their questioning tool box and carefully select the saw for sawing and the plane for planing. Return to Index

3. Questioning Homework (K-12)

Put your classroom questioning typology to work with your homework assignments. If students read an assignment, let them form questions for the next day's discussion. Research substantiates improved comprehension scores for students who question as they read. Ask them to:

- write three comparison questions about the story they are reading;

- find the most interesting question left unanswered by the reading;

- identify the question the author was trying to answer;

- write a question that will demand at least ten minutes of thought to answer;

- find a question which has no answer, or two thousand answers or an infinite number of answers;

- ask a question that is the child of a bigger question that they can then ask the rest of the class to identify.

Ask them to identify the most important and the least important questions. They will discover that in the beginning, there are many unimportant questions, but only a few profound ones. Those that matter grow and expand to give birth to many more of their own kind.

If the homework is skill oriented (algebra problems or word problems), have them jot down three questions that bothered them or stimulated them or intrigued them as they did their work. Ask them to keep track of the question that "got them unstuck" after they had been stuck on a problem for a while. Ask them to list the questions they asked at the end of the assignment to asses the quality of their effort. These are the tools of learning how to learn that enable the student to cope when the standard approach fails. Even knowing that there are alternate routes to a goal can give them the will when they need it to keep searching.

Use the typology to bring meaning to homework and thoughtful involvement to practice. The next day's classroom exchanges will reverberate with enthusiasm once they catch the spirit of inquiry. Return to Index

4. The Interview (K-12)

Television interviews are a pervasive cultural reality. Every student has a picture of a reporter holding out a microphone to ask questions of an accident victim or a rock star or a politician accused of graft. Questioning is firmly entrenched when it comes to the news media. A wise teacher builds upon such models, for the students readily ape the questioning styles they have seen on television so often. Unlike many textbook publishers, reporters like to ask questions that flow from or stimulate curiosity, because unlike schools, televisions do not have captive audiences. A reporter will ask the victim how he or she is feeling, the rock star why he or she used drugs and the politician why he or she betrayed his or her constituents. Sometimes we are offended by the boundary lines of decency that curiosity compels these people to cross, so a recent rock song portrayed the phenomenon as "We love dirty laundry." We should expect considerably more sensitivity from our students, yet the model can work powerfully for us as we explore the issues surrounding any human event being studied in a classroom.

If your class is about to read a story or see a film about an event, tell them in advance that you will ask one of them to act as one of the main figures in the story or film once it is over. The rest of the class will take turns asking that student interview questions. It is important to ask all students in the class to actually write out at least three questions to ask. Students may otherwise rely upon a small number of highly active and vocal students to carry the effort. Better to embrace all members of the class. Unlike answers, questions carry little risk because the activity has made it acceptable to identify what it is that you do not know. The more typical classroom activity involves concealing what it is that you do not know. When questions are nurtured, admitting a lack of knowledge is rewarded. It is the first step in learning and problem-solving. Return to Index

5. The Five Minute Question(K-12)

Some questions deserve 10 seconds of thought. Others require days or even months. Great questions span centuries of human civilization (i.e., "why are we here?" "How do we know?" "Can we know?" "How can we know if we know?").

Research into wait-time for American classrooms paints a distressing picture. Many teachers wait less than two seconds for the answer to each question and ask hundreds of questions per hour. These types of questions are generally recall questions demanding little thought.

Label thinking questions by telling a class that a particular question is a one minute or a five minute or a ten minute question. Let them struggle with some of the multi-century questions. Ask them what their minds do when they tackle such questions. Refuse to call on students while they are meant to be thinking. Encourage students to jot down ideas while they are thinking about questions. Encourage them to list other questions that may help answer the original question. Show them how one question may be the grandparent of any other questions. When the time period is over, have them draw pictures of how their minds jumped and moved and considered. Break down the thinking into its elements and show how the process works. Do not allow students to answer profound questions "off the tops of their heads". What do we mean by that expression? If we don't answer from the top, where do we answer from? Show them the structure of thought that should underlie an informed conclusion to a demanding question. Work through the supporting arguments on the chalkboard so they can see that the main idea is supported by a framework of other thoughts. Use metaphors such as tree trunks and roots to help students visualize an otherwise complex process. Return to Index

6. The Book Report (K-12)

Far too many students pass through school retelling the story of books they have read or summarizing lines from the dust jacket. A favorite book report question is "Tell what you liked about this book and why you would recommend it to a friend." Too often we read responses that go something like, "I would recommend it because it was very interesting to read." These reports can be dreary for all involved, but student questioning can provide a highly desirable alternative. Using the class developed typology, ask students to formulate and answer three questions of their own that fit a particular type (i.e., "Ask three comparison-contract questions.") These questions can provide a refreshing shift from the normal fare. Another approach is to develop a list of book reporting questions as a class activity. Students may then select from a rich menu each time they complete a report.

Critical to all of these activities, however, is some kind of guided practice in how to think through such questions. Introducing one type of question at a time with models of how it can be answered is one way to introduce the thinking skills required. The students' questions as they proceed through the activity provide one guide for their thinking. The teacher's careful analysis of the students' progress in thinking through the questions is the other essential ingredient. Return to Index (continued)

Part Two
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