Last Updated on January 13, 2023
Questioning is frequently used in classrooms, but rarely as a knowledge-seeking method. Those who ask questions – teachers, texts, tests – are not seeking knowledge; those who would seek knowledge – students – do not ask questions.-Dillon, 1988
Questioning is an important aspect of the everyday educational experience. To increase our awareness and understanding of this essential teaching and learning component, we introduce a 2-part mini-series discussing how we, as teachers, can address it in the classroom.
It would be difficult to find an educator that would object to the utility of questions as a teaching and learning tool. And yet, although we may generously pose questions and constantly provoke our students to express their own, we rarely consider the proper use of this valuable tool. The truth is: questioning in the classroom should come with a manual. It’s not hard to use, but it’s possible we are oblivious to many of its benefits that would improve our instruction. Let’s see how we can fully take advantage of this more-than-usual educational practice.
Let me describe a typical in-class snapshot from the teacher’s viewpoint. After delivering a load of new content and required skills to our students, we, more often than not, turn automatically to them and ask our most prominent question: are there any questions? And the response we often get: silence – you can actually hear a fly wandering in the classroom. You know it’s not possible they all got it all at once. You suspect they didn’t pay much attention while you were talking. You wish someone would ask something – anything – to get the discussion going and make your instruction “stick.”
What’s the obstruction in this common situation? The main challenge that arises is to showcase that questioning is a means for demanding and receiving knowledge. Students are sometimes too reluctant to ask because they are under the – sometimes correct – impression that our simple request (are there any questions?) is actually a trap leading to their assessment. This is because we often ask many questions with our minds fixed on the things our learners should have learned and should have done. We can set a better example for our learners when promoting questioning as a tool for inquiry.
Let’s approach this issue in an open-minded way: our learners and we should both master the skill of asking better questions. If we indulge in these good practices ourselves, we can then set the pace for the improvement of our learners’ questions: to be relevant, feasible, and have learning potential. We should focus more on placing our questions in a form that provokes answers for the sake of teaching and learning; assessment can wait.
It can be really encouraging for learners to contribute to a discussion as equal partners. This doesn’t threaten our role as experts in the field we teach; our learners are aware of our qualifications, and they may even look up to us. Why not give them the space to unfold their perspective and reasoning through fearless questions? And, as a necessary second step, show them the road to essential questions?
In this first part of this mini-series about questioning, we discuss the critical role of questioning in the everyday teaching-and-learning educational context and how we, as teachers, can uplift it.
1. What are the factors that prevent learners from asking questions?
One major issue that blocks our learners from raising their hands to ask a question is not just the fear of our judgment towards their question per se, but also towards them on a very personal level. It breaks my heart whenever a learner starts their question with the standard apologetic introduction: this might be a stupid question, but… Two aspects should be considered regarding this reluctance.
The first aspect has already been mentioned: they “fear” us because their question can give us an indication of their knowledge state, and a “stupid question” could reflect on their grading. The second aspect relates to the possible, even harsher, judgment each learner receives from their classmates. In this case, a sophisticated question could label a learner as the “nerd” and “know-it-all”, while an unfruitful question could be the excuse for another kind of name-calling. Our positive attitude toward learners’ questions can set the tone for the entire class: we welcome inquiry, and we respect the inquirers’ differentiated approaches.
2. What actions should teachers take to encourage questioning?
It is in our power, as teachers, to positively embrace “the display of ignorance, confusion, and lack of comprehension in the classroom” (Dillon, 1988, p. 205), which comes in the form of a question. There are some straightforward techniques that we can try. From the beginning, it is helpful to set a specific topic as a “cognitive border” for the development of questions.
When setting questions ourselves, we should carefully select a limited number of them, with just the scope of activating learners’ thinking and trigger a discussion. When receiving questions from learners, we should make the request calmly and give learners a sufficient amount of time to come up with them. As soon as the questions come, we welcome them: we make learners feel that their classroom is a safe environment for the expression of problems and doubts.
According to the content and the form of the question asked, we can answer it or pitch it to another learner who would offer to answer it. There is also another way to go, especially when a particular question could be more productive: we can build on it, by making suggestions for improving the question or complementing it yourself with an extra dose of inquiry, to promote further thinking and research. Through this process, learners take the message that every question is valuable for getting the lesson going and not a road that leads to grading and mocking.
What types of questions do learners pose?
Two main types of questions are pitched in the everyday educational context: basic information questions and wonderment questions (Chin & Brown, 2002). These can derive from both teachers and learners. When learners are introduced to new content and skills, familiarizing themselves with these leads to basic information questions; understanding them reflects on wonderment questions.
Basic information questions can be factual or procedural. They seek simple information that demands mostly recalling facts or steps for a procedure. This question type can be summarized as the “what-questions;” their answers are easily accessible with the unconditional help of a search engine. However, even basic information questions have their rightful place in instruction and shouldn’t be dismissed especially during the introduction of new material.
On the other end, wonderment questions address a more elaborated inquiry phase that mostly implicates “why-questions.” Such questions indicate the need for further comprehension, attempt for predictions, detection of anomalies, applications, or consideration of strategies. Therefore, “they have a greater potential contribution for advancing conceptual understanding” (Aguiar, Mortimer, & Scott, 2010, p. 175). With every wonderment question posed in the classroom, we get closer to learners’ meaningful learning, but also to cultivating their durable skill of critical thinking.
4. What information can teachers gather from learners’ questions?
Receiving learners’ questions – and feeling delighted for doing so – can accelerate your understanding of the difficulties and challenges your learners face. As a first step, you can differentiate between basic information and wonderment questions and get immediate insight into the learning phase each learner is in (familiarizing or understanding). Then, you can adjust your instruction respectively.
Through their questions, you also get fruitful information about the prior knowledge they use as a foundation for the fresh content and skills you provided. Newly introduced elements inevitably pass through learners’ filter of previously established representations; they will ultimately stick or be dismissed according to their fit with pre-existing and stable components of knowledge. This attempt to “find the best fit” is, to a great extent, expressed through learners’ questioning and reflects their problem-solving dispositions.
There are a variety of information pieces that you can collect when you are open to learners’ questions. You can detect useful connections to other subjects or relevant real-life situations, and “build” upon them. You can also extract personal interests and sources for motivation that will contribute to further inquiry and projects.
5. What guidance can teachers provide to promote wonderment questions?
Basic information questions certainly have their place in the classroom. However, every educator desires wonderment to get the lion’s share of questioning. There are two approaches for teaching your learners how to go from “basic” to “premium:” by delivering specific instruction for the formulation of wonderment questions and/or by setting the example yourself. To benefit from both techniques at once, you can start with the latter and enrich it with some theoretical comments when you see an opportunity.
While learners are still familiarizing themselves with the new content and skills, you can set and accept basic information questions, emphasizing their role for that specific phase of instruction. As the lesson deepens, introduce some wonderment questions that go beyond the basics. Invite learners to follow your lead when they pose a question: make suggestions for expanding a basic information question to more complex, but relevant, realms. Illustrate the win-win deal of posing wonderment questions: the inquirer promotes their creativity, and the responder offers more thought-provoking answers.
Specific examples of improving the “nature” of questions are optimally placed within a particular framework of instruction. Approaches to Teaching and Learning (ATLs), proposed by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO, 2015), suggest a holistic educational structure that involves both teaching strategies and learner skills.
Aguiar, O. G., Mortimer, E. F., & Scott, P. (2010). Learning from and responding to students’ questions: The authoritative and dialogic tension. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(2), 174–193.
Chin, C., Brown, D. E., & Bruce, B. C. (2002). Student-generated questions: A meaningful aspect of learning in science. International Journal of Science Education, 24(5), 521–549.
Dillon, J. T. (1988). The remedial status of student questioning. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 20(3), 197–210.
IBO. (2015). Approaches to teaching and learning. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from https://xmltwo.ibo.org/publications/DP/Group0/d_0_dpatl_gui_1502_1/static/dpatl/