Develop Better Thinking Through Better Questions
By Samantha Cleaver
You know when you are trying to start a lively class discussion about a complex book you love and all your students can come up with is basic plot points and one-line zingers like “I guess this book wasn’t so bad”? It doesn’t have to be that way. The trick is to turn the tables on them.
“Refuse to lead them through the text,” suggests Deb Bowles, a national training instructor with the Great Books Foundation. Recently, Deb found herself sitting in front of a room filled with silent, foot-shuffling sixth graders who had been reading The Witch Who Came for the Weekend by William Trevor. Bowles knew perfectly well the students couldn’t have understood everything in the text. But rather than throw out one of her own questions, she told the students: “Here’s your challenge. You have three minutes to choose something the character said or did and create a question for discussion.” After three minutes, students’ hands went up, and the discussion took off from there.
Questioning is at the heart of any good classroom discussion, but too often we are the ones doing the asking! Let’s face it, asking questions is how we find out if students understood the reading and if they even did it at all. But asking questions to check if they did the assignment only encourages students to do the work, not to read for enjoyment or for deeper learning.
That’s why we have to change the game and have students asking as well as answering questions.
So How Do You Make It Happen?
If your students spend more time waiting to be asked questions than formulating their own, here are some moves you can try to get students talking and thinking.
3 Reasons Why Student Questions Matter
- Questions reveal students’ thinking and understanding.
When you collect student questions, you’ll quickly find out just how much they do or don’t understand. If students are asking a lot of vocabulary or basic comprehension questions (What is a labyrinth? Who is Laertes again?), it’s time to slow down and help students understand the basics of the text. If they’re already diving into interpretive questions that don’t have clear right or wrong answers (Why did Winnie make that choice in Tuck Everlasting?), then students are ready to dig into the discussion.
- Questions keep students focused on the text.
It’s tempting to throw out a text-to-self question (What would you do if you were stranded on a desert island like Brian was in Hatchet?) to hook students’ interest, but these types of questions send the conversation into tangents that stray from the text. Instead, push students to ask speculative questions that demand some reference to the text and capitalize on students’ creativity—for example, what happens before or after, or in a scene we don’t see (What do you think will happen to Brian once he leaves the island and why?).
- Student questions build crucial skills.
“When students create their own questions around a text,” suggests Deb Bowles, “they in effect become critical thinkers and take greater ownership over their learning.” Coming up with their own questions also sets students up for writing good essays or written essay responses. The critical thinking and argumentation involved in rich student-led discussion transfers into their writing. And what teacher doesn’t want to read better essays?
Make it OK to be wrong.
Perhaps the most effective thing you can do to encourage student questioning is to establish a classroom environment that invites and values questions. Students may think they have to understand everything right away, so leading by example will help set the stage. Tell them when you are unsure of a meaning or the author’s intention. Let them know that there is plenty of room for doubt and debate.
You may have a class in which students are way too cool for questions. Counter this by giving students a variety of ways to ask questions. They might work in a small group to create a list of “5 Absolutely Essential Questions” about a text, for example, or tweet questions as a homework assignment for class discussion the next day. You can also make questions anonymous. Have every student write a question on an index card, then collect them and redistribute them randomly. Trust us, that will catch a middle schooler’s attention!
Don’t dwell on details.
Quick. Think about yesterday’s lesson or class discussion. What percentage of class time did you spend on factual questions (like “What gift did Mary receive from her grandparents?” or “How many brothers does Jim have?”)? If it’s a lot, you might want to think about ways to build more interpretive questions into your lessons. Challenge students to work in pairs first to come up with questions that require more than a one-word answer, for example, and then, to write questions that are longer than one sentence. You might request: “Write a question that you think will cause the class to disagree about the answer.”
Often we spend a lot of time talking about “who, what, when, where and why.” But instead of focusing on these questions, focus on different types of questions, and chances are you’ll yield richer, more interesting discussion.
Factual questions are about information that’s right there in the text. Interpretive questions dig into what the author is telling us but don’t have a clear right or wrong answer. Evaluative questions ask students to provide an opinion about a text. (Were the character’s actions justified?) And speculative questions start with the text but expand to include the readers’ own ideas. Once students know the various types of questions, they’ll be better able to put their questions out there. [View an infographic of different types of questions on our Pinterest board.]
Narrow it down.
Here’s a cool idea from Dan Rothman, co-director of the Right Question Institute (www.rightquestion.org). Kick off your discussion by having students brainstorm questions. Then, after you share them, have a group of students go to the board and give them two minutes to prioritize the questions in order of importance or interest. Ultimately, you’ll want students to narrow them down to a few priority questions on which to focus. Encourage the kids to order them according to their own sense of priority, so it’s not just a hide-and-seek for what the teacher thinks.
Resist the urge to overexplain.
This is a hard one, especially when students are grappling with a text. As teachers, Rothman says, “we often think we have to give an example of a question that students should be asking, which makes students conditioned to wait for examples.” Train yourself to be quiet and wait, however uncomfortable it is. After all, if students want an explanation, they can ask for it.
Taking It to the Next Level
If you are one of those lucky teachers whose students already ask good questions, here are a few ideas on how to deepen your class discussion.
- Send them back to the text.
When your students come up with observations and opinions, send them back to the text to prove it. Ask: “What in the text makes you think that?” “What information does the author give you to support that?” or just “Give me the evidence!” Or use follow-up questions to direct students to talk to one another. Throwing questions out to the class (“Who can ask a question that challenges Tim’s idea?”) will stimulate discussion and set the expectation that everyone helps drive the discussion.
- Sit back and observe.
Step back and watch the conversation to see which students need to be brought in and which need to shift their discussion technique (the student who is constantly interrupting or always asking the same type of question, for example). But, Great Books Foundation training instructor Mike Elsey advises, don’t jump in with adjustments too quickly. “If you assess too early,” he says, “then students want to know if they did it right or wrong, and that inhibits curiosity.”
- Stay on your toes.
Perhaps the most challenging part of building questioning is to fully listen and respond in the moment to what your students are saying. It’s much easier to listen for a particular answer, but keeping the focus on what students just said will maintain genuine interest. Listening intently will also help you ask follow-up questions that lead students to deeper thinking and interesting discussion.
- Leave some for later.
Collect as many questions as you can, but in the spirit of curiosity, don’t be afraid to leave some on the table. “It’s good for students to deal in shades of gray,” says Rachel Claff, K-12 editorial director with the Great Books Foundation. “When students end a discussion with more questions than answers, that’s a good thing.”