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Developing the Skill and the Will of Students as Questioners

How can we enhance the skill, the will, and the thrill of student learning—the trio frequently advocated by John Hattie? Empowering students as questioners is one of the most effective vehicles for advancing this goal. Although the importance of student questions is validated by researchers and given lip service by most practitioners, they are largely absent from most classrooms. What can teachers do to increase the willingness and ability of students to reflect and form questions that extend their learning?

Clarify the Purposes of Questions

Teachers of young students often remark that “littles” lack understanding of what a question is and when and why to ask it. In fact, focusing attention on the what and why of questions is important for students of all ages. Question-asking is a valuable meta-cognitive skill. Here’s one way of categorizing questions.

  1. Self-questions are those that learners form and answer silently as they monitor their learning and understanding. These questions support individual metacognitive and meaning-making processes.
  2. Academic questions assist the learner in developing understandings related to the topic under study, in making progress toward identified learning goals.
  3. Exploratory questions, which stem from curiosity, are the springboard for discovery and creativity.
  4. Dialogic questions assist us in getting behind another’s thinking, in understanding different points of view. These are critical to civil discourse.

Explicit instruction about these four question types develops an essential skill for learning in school and beyond.

Teach Mindframes

In the traditional teacher-centered classroom, most students believe their role is to answer teacher questions, not ask their own. To change this way of thinking, they first need to understand why. Student mindframes which embody the reason for asking different types of questions promote this end. These can be used to reinforce the four question types and publicly displayed as constant reminders.

  • I ask questions to myself to monitor my thinking and learning.
  • I ask questions to myself to figure out the meaning of what I am reading or hearing and to think through problems and tasks.
  • I pose questions to clarify and deepen my understanding of academic content.
  • I use questions to channel my curiosity and spark my creativity.
  • I use questions to understand other perspectives and to engage in collaborative thinking and learning.

Teaching and reinforcing these mindframes strengthens the will of students to ask questions, and thereby assume greater responsibility for their own learning.

Design Daily Opportunities

At what turns in this lesson would the opportunity to frame and ask questions of their own advance student learning? When can I invite students to form questions rather than answering mine? What strategies can I use to focus and support this process?

Teachers who are intentional in nurturing and supporting student questions make these decisions as they plan daily lessons. Building in pauses for question-forming at critical junctures in a lesson affords time for student processing, self-assessment, and wonders that unleash curiosity and discovery. Many teachers routinely invite students to record such questions in their journals.

Students also benefit from structures that encourage question formation. Many of the thinking routines developed by Ritchhart and colleagues (2011) serve this purpose. Included among these are Think-Puzzle-Explore and See-Think-Wonder, both of which can be used to structure individual reflection that can lead to collaborative dialogue. A host of other protocols serve a similar purpose.

Scaffold Skill Development

Students benefit from tools to support question development, including criteria and prompts and stems.  Below is a set of sample criteria for student assessment of academic questions. When used in collaborative sharing of questions, students benefit from thinking together about both academic content and how best to communicate their wonderings.

Criteria for A Student-Created Academic Question
  • Makes you think. Requires more than a simple yes/no or 2-3 word response. Helps clarify or extend thinking and learning.
  • Advances progress toward a learning target. Relates to a learning target and moves one along a proficiency scale.
  • Seems important. Addresses a topic that is worth thinking about and remembering.
  • Is interesting. Relates to an engaging idea or makes a real-world connection
  • Is understandable. Clearly communicates to others.

Walsh, p. 67.

Teachers and students appreciate hands-on question starters that can assist in skill development. Below is one example from a tool designed to further deep learning. Note the association of prompts and stems with a particular skill and occasions for use.

Skills and Stems to Support Deep Learning
Skill Use When Sample Prompts and Stems
Ask questions to understand the relationship between two different things You wonder how one thing is like (or different from) another

You wonder whether one thing might have caused another

How is _____ similar to _______?

How is _____ different from _____?

What do ____ and ____ have in common?

What may have contributed to _____?

What resulted from _____?

What effect would that have?

What might have caused this?

Make Time During the Lesson

Structured opportunities for forming questions are important, but not sufficient. The thrill of question-asking occurs when a lightbulb goes on in a student’s mind during instruction and a question begins to form.  Too often the quick pacing of instruction is a barrier to the asking; there is no opening for spontaneous student questions.

It’s worth remembering that the absence of student questions in science classrooms was the impetus for Rowe’s landmark “discovery” of wait times (1972). In my work with teachers, I advocate teaching students specific meta-cognitive questions to ask themselves during each of the two think times (AKA wait times.)  One of these is What questions, if any, do I have? This question is important during both think time 1 (the 3-5 second pause after the posing of a question) and think time 2 (the 3-5 second pause following a response).

Value Student Questions

Student questions have value when we honor and use them. They can be priceless commodities for learning—for students and teachers. Students realize the value of their questions when we use them appropriately to move learning forward. This occurs in a myriad of ways, including:

  • Acknowledging and responding in real-time to academic questions that will advance understanding of content.
  • Incorporating relevant questions into class dialogue.
  • Maintaining a “wonder wall” for posting questions that don’t fit into the current lesson.
  • Using open-ended, thought-provoking questions to plan the focus for class discussions.
  • Supporting use of exploratory questions to drive individual and collective investigations.

Honoring students’ questions in these ways motivates and engages them—fueling the thrill of learning.

One of the most important uses of student questions is as formative feedback to teachers. Many teachers with whom I work testify to this, avowing that, “This is the best formative feedback I receive from my students. I use student questions to differentiate as I plan future lessons.”

In Closing

Student questions don’t just happen. Teachers plan for and nurture them as they seek to create meaningful learning experiences with immediate and long-term impact on learning. Intentionally developing students as questioners equips them to optimize their learning in school and beyond—to take charge of their learning and enhance the quality of their interactions with other people and their world over a lifetime.


References

Hattie, J., & Donoghue, G. (2016). Learning strategies: A synthesis and conceptual model. NPJ Science Learn 1, 16013. https://doi.org/10.1038/npjscilearn.2016.13

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Rowe, M. B. (1972). Wait time and rewards as instructional variables, their influence on language, logic, and fate control: Part one—Wait time. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 11(2), 81–94.

Walsh, J.A. (2021). Empowering students as questioners: Skills, strategies, and structures to realize the potential of every learner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Written by

Jackie A. Walsh, Ph.D., focuses her writing and consulting on quality questioning for teachers and school leaders. A former teacher and long-time professional developer, she is passionate about partnering with clients to adopt questioning practices that support both student and adult learning. Jackie is co-author of Quality Questioning, 2nd Edition (Corwin, 2017), Questioning for Classroom Discussion (ASCD, 2016), Thinking Through Quality Questioning (Corwin, 2011), and Leading Through Quality Questioning (Corwin, 2010). Contact Jackie at walshja@aol.com and follow her @Question2Think.

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