Using the THINQ approach for nurturing questioning skills

Last Updated on January 22, 2021

THINQ (Trivial, Hard, Impossible & Nonsense Questions) is a practical scaffolding approach which can be used during the question generation and formulation phase of inquiry-based learning, for motivating and engaging participants in actively thinking and creating more, better, diverse and stimulating questions for a given Topic, while also having fun. For a brief introduction to THINQ, you can read the first post in this series

Overview of the THINQ Approach

Step 1: Set a Topic

This is the main theme around which participants will formulate their questions. The first time you introduce THINQ to a group, my suggestion is to select a “training Topic” that is not related to the background knowledge or interests of the participants. An effective Topic is one that is seemingly trivial and uninteresting but can result in questions with surprising and stimulating answers.

One of my favorites is “sand”, an unimpressive subject we rarely think, hear, or care about (e.g., in contrast to space, world problems, and dinosaurs). But, as you will perceive through various related questions provided as examples in this post, there are several interesting things to ask and learn about “sand.”

Step 2: Cold Start

Without offering any further instruction or advice, ask participants to individually write down on a blank page as many questions they can think about the given Topic. Advise them to try not to judge (or “censor”) their ideas. They should write down every question that comes to their mind, even if it does not seem clear. Make it clear that it is not a contest, nor an exam and that results are not rewarded or judged.

  • Depending on particpants’ age and the total time available for completing the activity, provide 5-15 minutes for this Step. 
  • From now on, whenever participants are working, put some music on. Please give it a try. If it is not working, try a different kind of music, or do not use it. In some cases, younger children or particular individuals may be distracted.

Step 3: Introduce THINQ

On a blackboard or a large piece of paper create 4 categories labeled as Trivial, Hard, Impossible, and Nonsense. You can represent them as 4 vertical columns or as a 4 quadrant chart and each of them can have its unique color as a coding frame: 

Then, introduce the 4 categories by presenting the main characteristics of questions that may belong to each of them, along with some examples.

About question typologies
Previous research has shown that the use of question typologies can be an effective way to get participants to pose questions and make them aware that different kinds of questions elicit different thinking processes, while meaningful scaffolds provide a structure to guide students’ thinking (Chin & Osborne, 2008).

Step 4: Code & Reflect

Request that participants review their questions and write down to which of the 4 categories each one belongs. They can do this by writing the first letter of the category in parenthesis. For example (T) for trivial, (H) for hard, etc. If colored markers are available, the letters can be color-coded, e.g. according to the category color frame. Color-coding facilitates the overview of the codes used and the quick identification of any abundance or lack of items in a category.

  • Provide 5-10 minutes for completing this Step.
  • If you are using music, don’t forget to put it on.

Through the classification of their questions, in this Step inquirers implicitly speculate over their potential answers in terms of relevance (context-dependent), feasibility, and learning potential (Stokhof et al. (2017). Coding also works as a means for self-reflection on the nature of the generated questions and the thinking skills (e.g., divergent, critical, creative thinking) which were not employed during the question generation process.

Step 5: Think (again)

Ask participants to come up with at least one question per category. If any of the participants have already achieved that (which is rather improbable), they can use this time to come up with more questions for the least populated categories. Explain to participants that this is not a simple task to complete and that questioning skills improve through time and exercise. Thus, they should not be discouraged if they do not make it at first.

  • Provide 5-10 minutes for completing this Step.
  • If you are using music, don’t forget to put it on.

If participants are already familiar with THINQ, you can start the process from this Step.

Step 6: Collaborate, Construct & Argue

Have participants paired up, discuss their individual ideas, and, building upon them, construct additional questions. Then, they should argue to reach a common agreement regarding their coding. According to several studies mentioned by Stokhof et al. (2017), peer collaboration can support effective student questioning, while negotiating questions in small groups opens up new and different perspectives and supports students in learning to think critically and purposefully.

  • Provide 10-20 minutes for completing this Step.
  • If you are using music, don’t forget to put it on.

This Step provides participants the opportunity to encounter a different viewpoint for the shared task and subject. This will allow them to broaden their thinking horizons and will inspire them to come up with additional, more diverse and original questions.

Step 7: Share, Inspire & Doubt

Depending on the time available, the given resources, and your personal preferences, there are two alternative ways for implementing this Step: (a) Oral presentation and (b) Sticky notes. 

(a) Oral presentation: Go through each category and randomly choose pairs to share the questions they came up with, as well as any arguments and disagreements that arose due to their questions or classifications. On the board, keep track of the accumulated number of questions per category. Although a large number of questions may not necessarily correlate to (or sometimes may even compromise) their quality, three of the question categories (i.e., except the Trivial one) are designed to safeguard that quantity is channeled into paths that lead to wonderment.

 (b) Sticky notes: Provide each team with post-it notes in the colors of the 4 categories. Ask pairs to transcribe each question on a post-it note of the corresponding color and then place it on the respective slot on the THINQ chart. This approach supports students in organizing their new-found knowledge and also locating areas for potential new questions. When everybody is ready, read the questions aloud (you or volunteering participants) per category. 

In this case, questions are completely disassociated from their creators, effectively shifting the focus from individuals to content.

Use this Step to highlight the fact that it is not always evident to which category a question belongs and playfully guide the group through alternative categorizations, sparking participants’ creativity thinking.

Step 9: Answer & Recode (optional)

After the end of the process, participants should ideally receive answers to their questions, either by researching them by themselves or by asking people with relevant expertise. This will satisfy and nurture their curiosity and will allow them to broaden their understanding and knowledge. Ideally, it will also facilitate them to effectively shift toward more sophisticated and elaborate questions. According to Miyake and Norman (1979) “to ask a question, one must know enough to know what is not known” and in order to ask a good question, considerable domain-specific knowledge is required. The ultimate goal is participants to get involved in a continuous and cyclic process of questioning in which new-found answers are the stepping stones to new questions (Stokhof, 2017) which will lead to a deeper conceptual understanding. This process is referred to as progressive enquiry (Hakkarainen, 2003).

Additionally, after the questions have been answered, in the light of the newly acquired knowledge, the whole group can go through another round of discussions and arguments regarding the “proper” categorization for each one of them.

On the importance of Ignorance

There are several studies (e.g., referenced in Stokhof et al., 2017) suggesting that for the generation of more interesting and deeper questions students first need to become acquainted and explore the relevant Topic. However, a study by Scardamalia and Bereiter (1992) (referenced in Stokhof et al., 2017) reports the opposite. When students were asked to explore prior knowledge and reference materials to raise questions, they predominantly asked “basic information” questions, while when they were invited to ask questions spontaneously, they generated “wonderment questions.” A suggested possible explanation is that in the latter case, students feel freer to articulate their real wonderments and do not select questions which might be easy to answer.

Often the basis of our thinking (i.e., our knowledge) can work as a bias and become the (subconscious) limit of our creativity (Grammenos, 2014). In other words, there are cases where ignorance may lead off the beaten path, to innovation. Thus, contrary to widely applied scientific practices, one may take advantage of one’s (acknowledged) ignorance. First, one may try to come up with ideas (or in this case questions) without looking into what is already known, and later one can seek related knowledge for identifying and harnessing any useful “ignorant” qualities (i.e., something that no one has ever thought or tried before).

Michael Kosterlitz, one of the 2016 Physics Nobel Prize winners, told The Associated Press that “complete ignorance was actually an advantage because I didn’t have any preconceived ideas. I was young and stupid enough to take it on.”

Step 9: Prompt deeper thinking (optional)

If there is still time available, and depending on the physical and mental state of the group, participants can be asked, after being exposed to so many diverse ideas, to have another go (i.e., go back to Step 5). This iteration can be repeated several times. To amplify the results of each iteration, it is highly suggested to modify some parameters of the process. Indicatively:

  • Form new pairs or groups of 3-4.
  • Change something related to the Topic, e.g., viewpoint, breadth, depth, wording, hypothesis, etc.
  • Set a motivational goal, e.g., find questions that nobody thought of, very hard, funny or trivial ones, with a minimum or a maximum number of words, containing a specific word, etc.

My advice is to make at least one iteration, since it may lead to highly original and thought-provoking results and fact-seeking questions may develop into operational questions (Stokhof et al. 2019).

Step 10: Discuss, Reflect, Evaluate

This Step has a twofold goal. On the one hand, it aims to prompt participants to discuss the overall approach and its effects on (their) questioning skills. On the other hand, it allows the facilitator to receive feedback and evaluate the process and its outcomes, as well as its impact on individual participant achievement and improvement.

Two complementary approaches are suggested for evaluating the outcomes of THINQ:

(a) Conducting a qualitative subjective assessment regarding the successful application of the process by using your own observations as well as by taking into account the opinion of the participants expressed during group discussion.

(b) Employing quantitative criteria for measuring participant achievement and improvement (e.g., detecting an increase in the number, complexity, orientation, and originality of the questions posed). 

You can read a more in-depth description of THINQ in the next article of this series entitled Asking Trivial, Hard, Important, & Nonsense Questions. Subscribe to our blog to be the first to read it:


Grammenos, D. (2014). Stupidity, ignorance & nonsense as tools for creative thinking. ACM interactions 21, 5 (September 2014), 54-59. DOI=10.1145/2647582

Hakkarainen, K. (2003). Progressive inquiry in a computer-supported biology class, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(10), 1072–1088.

Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. (1992). Text-based and knowledge-based questioning by children, Cognition and Instruction, 9(3), 177–199.

Stokhof, H.J.M., De Vries, B., Martens, R., & Bastiaens, T. (2017). How to guide effective student questioning: a review of teacher guidance in primary education. Review ofEducation. doi:10.1002/rev3.3089.

Stokhof, H., de Vries, B., Bastiaens, T. et al. (2019). Mind Map Our Way into Effective Student Questioning: a Principle-Based Scenario. Res Sci Educ 49, 347–369 (2019).

Dimitris is a Principal Researcher at the Institute of Computer Science of the Foundation for Research and Technology - Hellas (FORTH). He specializes in Human-Computer Interaction and also holds a Certificate of Competency for the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). Since 2014, he develops and delivers workshops and events that introduce the concepts and practice of design, creativity and creative thinking to children, parents, teachers and the general public. Up to now, he has run more than 55 workshops in 5 countries with a total of about 3500 participants.

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