Asking and Promoting Effective Questions

“Questioning is one of the thinking processing skills which is structurally embedded in the thinking operation of critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem-solving”
(Cuccio‐Schirripa & Steiner, 2000, p. 210).

 

Young children as natural inquirers

Young children ask an estimated 10,000 questions per year before they begin formal schooling (Harris, 2012). Preschoolers increasingly use questions to seek information. These questioning skills develop rapidly during infancy and the elementary school years. Elementary school students develop the ability to ask precise questions to receive accurate information (Ronfard, et al., 2017).

 

Who asks the most questions in the classroom?

Despite young children’s natural inclination to ask questions, previous research shows that children rarely ask questions at school compared to teachers who usually ask predominantly rote memory questions, at rates of 1–3 questions per minute (Gall, 1971; Susskind, 1969; Susskind,1979; Ronfard, et al., 2017).

 

Why might some students refrain from questioning?

Research shows that questioning drops in school and classroom environments compared to home when teachers take an authoritarian stance, or when students’ questions are regarded as ‘stupid’, as providing an ‘impolite challenge’ or as adding to current stress (Ronfard, et al. 2017).

It is important for teachers to develop students’ curiosity not only by asking questions but also by encouraging students to develop their own questions, thus owning their learning process.

Students’ ability to ask good questions has multifold benefits according to Chin & Osborne (2008).

For students:

  • Allows them to direct their own learning
  • Fosters discussion
  • Helps with self-evaluation
  • Arouses their curiosity thus increasing motivation and interest in a topic

For teachers:

  • Helps them diagnose students’ understanding, thus acting as formative assessment
  • Evaluates higher-order thinking skills
  • Allows for further inquiry into the topic
  • Invites critical reflection on classroom practices

 

Recommendations:

Below are several recommendations for asking effective questions in various subjects, as well as encouraging your students to come up with their own questions!

 

Create A ‘Cognitive Disequilibrium’

To stimulate students’ question-asking and spark students’ curiosity, teachers might set up some kind of ‘cognitive disequilibrium’ in the classroom, through confronting students with gaps of knowledge, obstacles to goals, unusual events, projecting contrasts, and decisions that require choosing between alternatives (Chin & Osborne, 2008).

Stimulate Curiosity Through Observation

Providing stimulating prompts for observation is an effective way to stimulate curiosity. One example is provided by Tammy, an upper elementary school teacher, is encouraging students to observe, then investigate observations through writing questions, and classifying them to searchable and investigative questions. Teachers can then build lessons based on students’ interests.

In Social Studies

The Critical Thinking Skills Cheatsheet (provided by the Global Digital Citizen Foundation) offers questions to promote critical thinking on any given topic, especially when students are to explore or discuss new information.

In Novels

Questions could be used to promote critical thinking and deeper understanding when reading novels. Through suggesting choices about different possible scenarios as well as using close-ended and open-ended questions, students are encouraged to think, allowing the advance of cognitive and emotional processing. Elaboration using the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” could be found here.

In Mathematics

Questions could be used not only as a prompt to start exploration but also throughout the work to stimulate thinking, encourage students to reflect on their work, make connections, and help them share their representations.

Consider the following prompts provided by the Ontario Ministry of Education in their  special edition (#21) of the  Capacity Building Series on asking effective questions, which help students:

  • Share their presentations

(How have you shown your thinking- e.g., picture, model, number, sentence? )

  • Reflect on their work

(What questions arose as you worked?)

  • Make connections

(When do you see this math at home?)

  • Share feelings, attitudes and beliefs about mathematics

(How do you feel about mathematics?)

  • Retell

(How did you solve the problem? What did you learn today? What were the steps involved?)

  • Predict, invent or problem solve

(How are adding and multiplying the same? What would happen if ..?)

More examples of questions could be found in the previously mentioned document.

In Science

In attempt to make individuals critical consumers of scientific knowledge, the ability to ask good thinking questions is an important component of scientific literacy (Chin & Osborne, 2008).

In science education, strategies to enhance students’ question-asking as recommended by Chin & Osborne (2008) are:

Teacher modelling and use of appropriate stimuli, questions prompts, and taxonomies

  • Teach student categories of question types that differ in the nature of higher-order thinking skills
  • Provide sample self-questions that focus on specific cognitive processes (e.g., comparing, analysing, predicting, hypothesising, explaining)

Structuring tasks through use of physical support, time and targeted activities

  • Encourage students to record their questions in a learning journal, allowing them to think about gaps in their knowledge and allowing the instructor to modify instruction to address students’ needs.
  • Establish a problem corner where students can supply problems of the week (Jelly, 1985)
  • Allow shy students to take the time to craft their questions through email or discussion forums
  • Encourage students to write questions to be used in the evaluation (Eisner, 1965; Zoller, 1994)

 Providing social support

  • Provide a warm classroom climate with low criticism
  • Provide praise to those who invent questions, avoid repression
  • Encourage students to ask questions that help them find relationship and coherence in search of understanding

 

How to encourage students to come up with their own questions?

According to The Right Question Institute, the skill of Question Formulation has several benefits:

  • providing learners the cognitive skills to solve real-world problems
  • shifting the view of ignorance from a weakness to an opportunity
  • aiding in arriving at better questions
  • increasing engagement
  • adding joy in learning and researching

 Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana of the Right Question Institute developed 6 steps in the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) for educators to help students formulate their own questions.

Step 1: Present with a question focus (QFocus) that is not in the form of a question (a prompt which could be an image, primary source, etc.)

Step 2: Encourage students to pose questions about question focus while following the four rules

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to judge, discuss, or answer questions.
  3. Write down every question exactly as stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

Step 3: Identify different types of questions (open-ended or closed-ended), transform questions to the other type, and add to the list.

Step 4: Students prioritise questions

Step 5: Educator and students discuss next steps

Step 6: Students reflect on the process of asking questions, and move into next steps

For more elaboration, you could read this article on QFT by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana.

Always remember that children are young inquirers and their ability to develop precise questioning skills strengthens with age, given the supportive environment- so let’s create that!

Guest Post: Nashwa Khedr, EDCP graduate student, project assistant 2020

References:

Chin, C & Osborne, J (2008). Students’ questions: a potential resource for teaching and learning science, Studies in Science Education, 44(1), pp. 1-39, DOI: 10.1080/03057260701828101

Cuccio-Schirripa, S., & Steiner, H.E. (2000). Enhancement and analysis of science question level for middle school students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37, 210–224.

Gall, M. (1971.) The use of questions in teaching. Review of Educational Research, 40, pp. 707-721.

Harris, P. L. (2012). Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Minigan, A. P., Westbrook, S. Rothstein, D, and Santana, L. (2017). Stimulating and Sustaining Inquiry with Students’ Questions. Social Education 81(5), National Council for the Social Studies. pp. 268-272

Ronfard, S., Zambrana, I. M., Hermansen, T. K. & Kelemen, D. (2017). Question-asking in childhood: A review of the literature and a framework for understanding its development. Developmental Review, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2018.05.002

Susskind, E. (1969). Questioning and curiosity in the elementary school classroom. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Yale University.

Susskind, E. (1979). Encouraging teachers to encourage children’s curiosity a pivotal competence. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 8(2).

Ontario Ministry of Education (July 2011). Asking Effective Questions. Capacity Building Series. Special Edition no. 21 Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/cbs_askingeffectivequestions.pdf

 

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