From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal


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


7. Tourist in Trouble (Foreign Language)

Much foreign language drill revolves around student answers to teacher questions. One way to turn this around is to assign students a problem-solving situation as homework. For example, tell students that they are lost on the street in Paris and need to find the way back to their hotel.

What questions would they ask bystanders?

What questions would they be asking themselves?

Who would they ask?

Who could they expect to know the answers to their questions?

Another example would be to tell them they wish to make a hotel reservation but do not know much about the hotel. What questions would they ask of the desk clerk to determine if the hotel meets their needs?

After several of these scenarios are presented by the teacher, students can make them up for others to try (including the teacher!). They can categorize the questions and develop a useful guide for problem-solving with questions. Advanced groups can attempt to find out the necessary information with the fewest number of questions. Other challenges can be to ask only one kind of question, such as fact, or compare/contract questions; to take turns with someone else asking questions; to limit the vocabulary that the students can use in the questions. Return to Index

8. Problem-Solving (3-12 Math, LOGO, etc.)

When students are working at math problems and they run into difficulty, some students persevere and untangle the knot of confusion which is blocking them. Many others quickly give up and start waiting in line at the teacher's desk. Sadly, real problem-solving begins when we are stuck. Students must learn the questions to ask which will help untangle the knot. Provide students with a list of "heuristics" (problem-solving strategies) which they should try out before asking for help:

  • Reading the problem aloud
"What is the problem here?"
  • Drawing, charting, graphing, creating a model
"What would this look like in a picture, drawing, in another form, in the form I like best?"
  • Identifying the problem
"What am I stuck on? What do I need to know?"
  • Breaking the problem into manageable parts
"What are the smallest pieces I can break this down into and still have it make sense?"
  • Trial and error (guess and test)
"What might work? What can I try?"
  • Listing of alternatives
"What are all the things I could do?"
  • Considering similar problems from the past
"What do I know about that is like this?"

Basic to many of these strategies are questions such as "What do I know? What don't I know? What do I need to know? How can I find out? What is the real problem? What are the parts of this problem? Are some of the parts easier to solve than others? What are the characteristics of this problem? Have I seen others like it? What strategy worked then? Which strategy do I need now? These are powerful questions which the most powerful thinkers use on the toughest of problems. Students can use such questions to move from trial-and-error to systematic, thoughtful problem-solving. They can empower your students if you encourage them and teach them to use questions as thinking tools. Return to Index

9. Pre-Writing, First Writing, Re-Writing, Editing (3-12)

Pre-writing, warm-up exercises can flow smoothly if they begin with a question-listing process. One way to avoid writer's block is to allow students to identify all of the questions that might be interesting to explore. If a teacher requests an essay about "loyalty, " for example, a student might start by listing such questions as;


"What do I mean by loyalty?"

"What do most people mean by loyalty?"

"When does loyalty become an issue in my life?"

"When was the last time someone was disloyal to me?"

"How well are the ideas connected?"

"Am I assuming that my readers have background in this area?"

The student may find that particular questions are especially appropriate for his or her writing. Certain questions may only apply to non-fiction, others only to poetry. If the class has a bank of editing questions, each student can choose the best questions to use for each occasion.

Working with peer partners for editing is facilitated by questioning. Again, the class can develop a list of helpful questions to ask after reading someone's work. This acts as a guide for students as they work together to give each other advice and help with their writing. Return to Index

10. On Stage (Music, Art, Athletics, Drama, Speech, etc.)

Performers can be taught to use questions to analyze and evaluate the elements of their performance. The questions are used to identify which aspects need modification, practice or refinement. For example, a singer may tape his or her performance and listen with a questioning ear and mind, asking such questions as:

"How well did I enunciate?"

"Was the tempo appropriate?"

"Did I convey the mood I wished?"

This questioning is usually done by the coach or teacher who asks these kinds of questions from past experience with the standard criteria for excellence. A large part of the value of a mentor is the modeling of standard setting that they do. As the student internalizes the questions which point toward high quality performance, they become their own best critics.

The more opportunities you can provide for students to objectify their performance, the better questioners they can become. Audio and videotape, a typed manuscript, a transcription of a conversation help the performer ask and answer questions which will lead to improvement. In order to translate the information into a program of change, questions must convert data into recommendations. They are the vehicles for change. Return to Index

11. Research Projects (3-12)

Much of the research done in school is topical in nature. Students are asked to "go find out about" a certain person, place, event or topic. The main skill involved is the gathering of information. Students who have been taught to ask questions can use them to accomplish this immediate assignment and to lay the groundwork for doing research which begins with a question. The "go find out about it" research project can begin with students asking questions. Ask them: "What questions can you ask about how to do this assignment?" They may ask such things as:

"Where do I find out about it?"

"Where do I start?"

"Which references are very general to give the big ideas?"

"Which references are too detailed for what I want to know?"

"What resources can I use besides books?"

"How will I know what is important about the topic?"

"How will I know how to organize the ideas?"

Notice that these kinds of questions lead students to develop a plan based on a clarification of their goals and what they know about available resources. The essence of this type of research assignment is finding enough information to give a general description. "A" papers hit all the high points on the topic, are well-organized and well-written. Every student can be guided by the questions which produce a quality description if we give them the questioning tools.

A more meaningful, curiosity driven version of the research project begins with student questions. Students should be able to guide research. The teacher can require types of questions which cannot be answered directly from a book. For example, if a student asks, "Which Civil War general was the best?" the gathering of information eventually leads to a student judgment based upon criteria. This evaluation task involves the student seeking information for the purpose of answering a question he or she posed, a very lifelike and lifelong activity. Instead of an assignment in a High School Health class to "go find out about a topic in human sexuality," students discuss dilemmas in human sexuality such as parenting, birth control and parent/teen conflict. Their research paper assignment is to choose a dilemma to address in detail, presenting both sides of the issue and drawing a personal conclusion. Under the careful guidance of a teacher and with support for answering questions they care about, research papers can become a source of great satisfaction to students. Return to Index

12. Test-Taking Strategies (K-12)

It should be standard practice to encourage students to read questions before tackling comprehension passages. After reading the questions, the student should ask questions such as, "What will I be looking for? What clues would guide my skimming? What key words will give away the location of the answers?" A variation on this theme is the questioning, skimming, reading strategy called SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Review, Recite). Students must learn to do word searches through passages with a question acting like a magnet sweeping through a pile of junk.

These kinds of questions need to be practiced so that they become a kind of self-talk routine. The more automatically they are engaged, the more confident and successful a student will be when confronted with a test item. Make it a standard practice to have students jot down the questions they asked before reading. You can increase the value of this exercise by including a grade for this part of the assignment. Create opportunities for transfer, giving them test-like exercises in which they make up questions before reading.

Another major test-taking strategy is thoughtful "guessing strategies" which help a student narrow down choices based on their knowledge. These strategies are based on questions such as:

"Are there any answers that are obviously wrong?"

"Are there any words such as 'always,' 'never' or 'completely' which may indicate an answer is too strongly worded."

"What clues may guide me toward the right answer?"

Give students an opportunity to generate these questions and others that they have when confronted with multiple choice questions. Explore the strategies that the questions suggest. This can only strengthen the students' confidence in test-taking and their own toolkit of questions. Return to Index

13. Divergent and Creative Thinking (K-12)

There are many questions that can help students to "think laterally" (deBono) or "get out of the box." This ability to extend beyond the obvious and the time-worn is an essential ingredient in effective problem-solving because it helps to generate the unusual and imaginative solutions we associate with the skill of synthesis, the rearranging, modifying and combining of elements in novel ways to achieve desired and often startling results.

SCAMPER is one set of questioning strategies that works well. Students can be taught to ask how to change an existing product, item or idea by asking how to Substitute, Combine, Add, (Modify, Magnify, Minify), Put to other uses, Eliminate, and Reverse (Eberle, 1972). SCAMPER tools are used on answers that we already have to questions, when we need a detour in our thinking to see something in a new way. It requires the suspension of judgment and a playful attitude. Many of the ideas will not lead anywhere, but they may add up to be more than the sum of their parts.

To use SCAMPER tools, take the answer to a question such as, "Thoreau wrote Walden" and ask the questions:

S "Who else could have written it?'

C "If Thoreau had had a co-author, who could it have been?"

A "What would Thoreau have written in the 21st century?"

M "What could we modify in the work to intensify the theme?"

P "How does this work apply to the lives of suburbanites?'

E "What would be the effect of eliminating this work?"

R "What would be the antithesis of Thoreau's view?"

One of the benefits of using the SCAMPER tools with students asking the questions is that they both ask and answer the questions. The questions, though often very divergent, require a thorough going knowledge of the required content. Evaluation of student thinking and competency in the subject matter are accomplished through an analysis of the coherence of the question asked, answer given, and next questions posed. Return to Index

14. Key Words and Question Stems

Students can learn to distinguish between questions by stems which can be listed on a classroom chart. They quickly discover the difference between "how," "what," "when," or "where" as opposed to "why," "what if," "suppose" and "in what ways might". Teachers may then request that students formulate questions with certain stems.

Sometimes questions which start with "why" are fairly easy, at other times, they are unanswerable. What makes the difference? Ask students to propose a reason for the varying difficulty of "why" questions. Are they easier for some people than for others? Why? How does the two-year-old's why differ from last one written here? As students speculate about the answers to these questions, they will refine their use of the tools they know and exercise their muscles as tool shapers and tool makers.

One way to judge the quality of a question stem is how many answers it creates. A question stem such as:

"How is a noun like a tennis match?"

could cause unending discussion exploring the nuances of each. Challenge students to make up questions using a stem that starts the flow of ideas. The longer the ideas keep flowing, the better the question stem was. Try one like the following:

"Just suppose Thomas Jefferson had not participated in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. What would have happened differently?"

You can convert most textbook-type questions into thought-provoking ones using the SuperThink strategies described in a book by that name (Davis, 1981, DandyLion Press). Return to Index

15. The Climate

The classroom climate is a key variable in the process of learning through questions. When teachers wind up a strained explanation of a difficult new concept just as the class bell is about to ring and they ask, "Does anyone have any questions?" It is not at all clear to students from the tone and body language that student questions are sincerely desired. On the contrary, the message is that no questions should be necessary, particularly ones which require lengthy or involved answers. Indeed, to ask questions at this point is also to risk the wrath of the students as well as teacher for keeping them from their next class.

There are many alternatives to the "Are there any questions?" approach. The classroom climate which promotes student thinking and questioning has students write down questions at the end of the period. Every student is asked to write an anonymous question that will be answered in writing or verbally the next day in class. Every student can write a question, because the teacher who cares about stimulating curiosity, teaches what is not knows as well as what is known. The combination has to produce questions in everyone! Another approach is to pause during a lecture or discussion and ask students to formulate a question about the content just discussed. After a moment to jot down questions individually, pairs of students compare questions and answer the questions. Interesting or unusual questions are shared with the whole group. The exercise should take 3 - 5 minutes and will help ensure understanding and involvement in the material.

But the key to climate is the attitude of teacher toward questions. Are they viewed as digressions, annoyances, to be hurried through, to be answered correctly, to show what students do not know? Or are they tools for the job of learning, toys for playful minds, full of puns, answers for other questions, an indication of powerful thinking, a celebration of curiosity? Are they answered with care, given special place in discussions, written without answers, given without requirements, extended with more questions?

If a teacher desires student questions, they must be greeted with enthusiasm, a commitment of time and an unthreatening manner. As students begin to receive the rewards of asking questions, the phenomenon will occur with increased frequency and quality. If out goal is to teach people how to learn through passing on the best of what we already know, then our best hope is through nurturing curiosity and the tools to quench its thirst.
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