Asking questions is such a basic tool of teaching, yet how many of us have ever been taught to ask good questions? As I started researching for this post, I realized how little I actually knew about asking questions. I asked hundreds of questions a day but had zero training. I know I’m not alone!
Here’s the plan:
So, we’ll actually start in perhaps a strange place, which is to open with the idea of asking fewer questions as teachers and allowing more room for students to be the questioners.
Mrs. Potts Demands Questions
Let me take you back to 1997, when my sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Potts (no, not that one) was desperate to get her honors English students to ask questions in class. She literally had us each write out a pledge for how many questions per week we planned to ask.
Why would a teacher have such a hard time getting her advanced 10th graders to ask a darn question?
Well, as one of those students, I can tell you that I had been trained to answer questions, not ask them. Asking questions made me feel stupid and vulnerable. Answering questions made me feel smart and capable.
I pledged to ask two questions and doubt I lived up to my bargain.
So, as we dig into questioning, let’s start with wondering who asks the questions in your classroom and who gets asked. What would the pie chart look like for these three options:
- The teacher asks a student a question.
- A student asks the teacher a question.
- A student asks another student a question.
Challenge: If you’re very brave, record yourself teaching for ten minutes (just audio’s fine) and listen back (maybe with a glass of wine or very carbonated water – this can be tough). You can even use a tool like Rev.com to auto-generate a (pretty-accurate) transcript for $0.25 per minute. I use this tool to read back my own workshops.
We’ll come back to your recording throughout the article.
Students Asking Students
Back to our three options, the idea of students asking other students questions is (by far) the most intriguing to me.
Do students even feel allowed to ask each other questions during a lesson? Do you feel comfortable with this? The idea kinda gives me the creepy-crawlies. Probably because I’m suddenly very not-in-control.
Yet, a class where students ask each other to clarify, expand on, and defend their thinking seems like a powerful place. It would encourage curiosity and develop the kind of student who would go on to delight Mrs. Potts in 10th grade.
So, how do we get students to ask each other questions?
Homework: Ask Questions
I immediately thought of the Junior Great Books program we used in my district. In this reading program, students learn to ask each other questions to clear up confusion and explore ambiguous ideas about a story they’ve read.
The key to getting students to ask more questions is preparation. Students’ homework is to:
- Read the story twice.
- Write down at least five questions of any kind – big or small, closed or open.
That’s right: questions are homework, not answers!
Of course, the reading material must be ambiguous and interesting enough to generate real, juicy questions. And, yes, this example is from Language Arts but any puzzling situation would work. More on that below.
You’re The Facilitator
The next day, students ask each other (not you) their questions. You facilitate (keep quiet students involved, resolve disputes, move the discussion along, etc), but you don’t clear up confusion, answer questions, or contribute your opinion. You bounce questions back to your class or, when necessary, ask your own juicy question to get things moving again. (Yes, you need to prepare your own questions as well).
This will require a clear statement from you upfront:
> Normally, you all ask me questions, and I try to answer them, or I ask you questions that you answer. We’re going to be trying something new. You will ask each other questions about last night’s reading. I’m going to try very hard to stay out of it. Feel free to speak up, but there’s no need to raise your hands! Let’s get started with Jimmy. Jimmy, what’s a question that you had about the story?
And then allow another student to answer or build upon Jimmy’s question.
This will be as difficult for you as it is for students. Trust me. Junior Great Books actually offers a two-day workshop on how to run an inquiry-based discussion like this. It’s the most fun PD I ever attended.
Scaffold this with sentence frames to structure a discussion. My district built up a list with ideas like:
- I agree/disagree with [classmate] because…
- I’d like to add to what [classmate] said…
- [classmate], can you explain what you meant by…
- [classmate] what do you think about…
- I’m confused by [confusing thing], can you explain it [classmate]?
- Ok, [classmate] convinced me. I’ve changed my mind.
I taught 6th graders at an elementary school and I greatly benefitted from previous teachers’ work. My kids were often already familiar with using these frames to address each other. It was actually kind of magical to watch.
If you’re starting fresh, you’d teach these sentence frames as a lesson. Practice practice practice. Kids will get the hang of it. Yes, even 1st graders.
This Discussion Is Fun!
Running a discussion like this is a blast. Once students get comfortable (which may take a session or two – or seven), you get a really dynamic, scholarly culture going:
- curiosity is encouraged
- uncertainty is accepted
- students become each others’ resources
- and you get to stop talking so much!
A nice, juicy story works well (these are provided by Junior Great Books), but a complex problem from social studies, an interesting science video, or a perplexing math situation would also provoke student questions.
You could certainly use my weekly Puzzlements mailer as a way to practice student-to-student question-asking.
So, one way to improve questioning is simply to be aware of who is doing the asking. Next, let’s look at one way to measure the types of questions we’re asking. James Gallagher and Mary Jane Ascher’s research lead to my favorite questioning taxonomy with four types of questions:
- Memory – low order
- Convergent – low order
- Evaluative – high order
- Divergent – high order
Let’s look at each one!
A memory question just asks students to remember an isolated fact:
- Who is the protagonist in this story?
- What year was the Declaration of Independence signed?
- How many hydrogen atoms are in a water molecule?
Answers can be one word or short phrases.
Convergent questions require an explanation, but have an accepted (and expected) answer.
- How you know that The Boy was selfish in The Giving Tree?
- Why is carbon heavier than hydrogen?
- Why is George Washington considered a great president?
Note that convergent questions might ask “why,” but we’re going to get a lot of the same response. There’s not really room for interesting thinking. This is important: just because there’s a paragraph of explaining, doesn’t mean there was juicy thinking.
Evaluative questions ask students for an opinion plus supporting evidence. Important: evaluative questions must not have an obviously right answer. Otherwise, they are merely convergent questions dressed up a bit.
True evaluative questions require something that is actually unclear and debatable. Kids need to think. They need to gather evidence. They need to take a stand.
- Who was the better American president, Lincoln or Washington? (Not: Was Abe Lincoln a good president?)
- Which character handled their problems best, Charlie Bucket or Matilda? (Not: Was Charlie Bucket a good boy?)
- Which method is best to solve this particular division problem?
With true evaluative questions, we’re concerned with students’ explanation, not just their initial answer.
And, finally, we have my favorite. Divergent questions ask students to consider the effects of an alternate situation. They’re often posed as hypotheticals. There may not be a knowable answer at all.
- What if Earth had half of its oceans? How would that affect our atmosphere?
- What if we banned cars? How would our cities change?
- What if Ron Weasley wasn’t in Harry Potter? How would that affect the stories?
Note that divergent questions require huge answers in comparison to earlier questions. They also demand a pretty deep understanding of the topic. Students will need to be fluent with the more basic questions in order to think at this level.
It takes scaffolding and preparation to get kids to a place where they can answer a divergent question well, for example. Ask one too early in a sequence and you’ll get fluffy nonsense in response. Ask it at the end of a sequence of lessons and questions and you’ll get magic.
As a teacher, I loved nothing more than being surprised by what a kid came up with, so divergent questions were my favorite. If you subscribe to Byrdseed.TV, you may note that I often lead students to these types of questions. That’s no accident.
I wrote more about divergent questions here.
So, yes, we need to know who is asking whom and we must be able to identify which types of questions we’re asking, but questions don’t exist in isolation. Sequences matter.
I once attended a workshop about James Gallagher’s work in recording and coding questions in classrooms. Of course, he was working back in the 1960s with reel-to-reel recorders and hand-typed transcriptions. We are #blessed now!
In the workshop, we used a tool like this to analyze recordings of student/teacher interactions:
It tracks, sentence by sentence:
- Who is speaking: Teacher or Student
- Is it a Question or a Statement?
- Which questions are higher-order (evaluative or divergent). Indicated by a circle.
This simple chart has lots of limitations, but it also clearly brings some potential questioning problems to light. I call these:
- Teacher Rants
- Ping-Pong Questioning
- Question Overload
You can grab a copy of the tool as a PDF
Problem: Teacher Rants
Clue: long streaks of S’s in the teacher row.
Naturally, there are times where teachers need to talk a lot, but generally, long streams of statements from the teacher tell us that students are passively listening.
Intervention: Break up that streak of S’s with a Q and that will lead to more activity in the students’ row.
Problem: Ping-Pong Questioning
Clue: We see a Q from the teacher, an S from a student, and then we’re back to a Q from the teacher and another S from a student.
A pattern like this might mean that the teacher is asking a question, receiving one response, then moving right along.
Or, we might see the situation below, where the teacher appears to be interacting with students one at a time, but they never interact with each other.
Intervention: In either case, it would be better to see a situation like this, where the teacher asks a question, then there’s a stream of student statements and questions:
This indicates that students are addressing each other during the lesson, taking us back to that student-to-student questioning that we saw in earlier in this article.
Problem: Question Overload
Clue: multiple Qs in a row from the teacher.
Here we’ve got a teacher asking three questions in a row. This is a bad questioning technique! Students will feel overwhelmed and afraid that they’ll answer the wrong question.
Intervention: questions should come once at a time, with sufficient wait time, and a chance for lots of answers from students.
Of course, this tool doesn’t show other important details:
- Is there sufficient wait time?
- Is there a chance for students to chat together before sharing out (you might add a D for discussion to capture this)?
- Is the teacher asking questions to clarify student responses or asking totally new questions each time?
- Which students are involved: everyone or just, you know, that kid?
Despite the limitations of this tool, I love how its simplicity focuses attention on certain problems in questioning.
If you’ve got that 10-minute recording of yourself, we’re going to use it for one more purpose: measuring how long we wait for a student’s answer before moving along.
Yes, it’s time for Wait Time!
Why Don’t We Wait?
I’ve spoken with hundreds of teachers about questioning and they always bring up wait time as being a challenge. So, why is wait time difficult?
Because it’s super awkward to sit in silence while no one answers your question. As a teacher, I’d be thinking:
- Didn’t they understand my question?
- Was anyone listening?
- Are they all watching to see what I’ll do?
- What do I do with my hands?
- Am I an awful teacher?
It’s so darn easy to end that awkwardness by blurting out an answer to your own question, giving little hints, or even just asking the question again (and again and again).
But, let’s think from students’ perspectives: when they’re sitting silently, they’re very busy in their brains trying to come up with an answer.
And the bigger – and better – the question, the longer the wait-time should be.
Wait Time Reality
So, how long do you wait after a question? It’s super easy to measure. You can use your 10-minute recording if you have it. One study found the following:
> In her investigations, Rowe found the mean wait time to be one second… If the student did not respond in one second, the teacher either repeated or rephrased the question, asked another question, or called on another student
Students have one second to process a question, think about it, formulate a response, work up the gumption, and then verbalize it!? There’s no way you can come up with a good answer in that time.
But get this: studies find positive results if we increase wait time to just three seconds:
> To attain these benefits, teachers were urged to “wait” in silence for 3 or more seconds after their questions, and after students completed their responses. From Robert Stahl
Three seconds is an easy starting point to increase student responses. Just mentally count three alligators after you ask a question and you can expect these positive benefits:
- responses grow longer
- responses are more correct
- more students respond
- you’ll get a wider variety of responses
- you ask fewer (but better) questions
For me, I find that waiting also calms me down. I breathe better. I relax a bit.
But beware, three seconds feels a lot longer than it sounds, especially when your classroom is silent and you’re waiting for a response.
I am careful in workshops to give 3-5 seconds. I do this by:
- literally counting in my head
- taking a drink of water
- walking around a bit
- keeping the microphone at my side
- looking around the room at everyone
Other teachers have told me they have similar techniques to keep themselves from speaking during this wait-time.
But Wait… There’s EVEN MORE
What we’re talking about is called Wait Time I – the time you wait between the question and the first answer. But there’s also Wait Time II. This is the time you wait after a student speaks before moving on.
Increasing Wait Time II naturally opens the floor for more answers from more students.
Try this: thank a student for their answer, ask for more responses, and then silently and slowly count to three. And it helps to gently smile, so your class doesn’t think you’re angry.
You’ll find that more hands start popping up. New kids answer. You get different answers.
I am always amazed at how well this works, even in workshops with adults. When I count down from five, I so often get another answer right at that fifth second. People just need a little time to work up their response.
Seriously, this works and it’s such a simple change.
Hopefully obvious, though: you need to ask interesting, higher-order questions in order to get multiple, thoughtful responses. No matter how long you wait, “What’s the fourth planet from the sun?” will only get you one answer.
Combining Wait Time With Gentle Prompts
Now, if you wait three to five seconds and seem to have run out of student responses, don’t move on yet! You can assume that there are some kids with more ideas, but they’re teetering on the edge of sharing. They’re nervous. They’re afraid their answer isn’t quite right.
You can gently push them over that edge by saying things like:
- Anyone have an idea they think is kinda right?
- Any ideas that you think might be a little weird?
- Anyone have an idea that you think only you came up with?
- Anyone right on the edge of sharing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Here’s a sample conversation:
- T: What do you think made George Washington a great president? (counts slowly to three)
- S1: Well… he, like, did everything first
- T: Thanks S1 (smiles). Other ideas? You can just shout ’em out. (counts slowly to three)
- S2: He chose to step down instead of ruling until he died.
- T: Thank you S2 (smiles). What else? (counts to three)
- T: Anyone have an idea they’re not quite sure of? (counts to three)
- S3: Wasn’t he, um, also a general during the Revolutionary War?
- T: Yes, thank you S3…
Slow Down by Writing Down
One of the many tips I learned from my mentor, Nanci Cole, is to capture all student responses on chart paper, a whiteboard, or into a Google Doc. It serves many great purposes. You keep these ideas to play with later. You validate everyone’s responses – they’re so important, we’re writing them down!
But, best of all, writing down responses naturally adds wait time. You have to pause to write each idea down. It opens up space for kids to think to clarify and to add to each others’ thinking.
Making A Change? Let Kids Know.
We’ve talked a lot about changing your behavior. When we do this, I always think it’s a good idea to tell your class what you’re up to. Otherwise you know they’re going to notice something has changed and wonder what the heck’s going on: Why is Mr. Byrd staring and smiling at us so much today?
> Class, I’ve noticed that I don’t always give you enough time to think after I’ve asked a question. Sorry about that. I’m trying to wait three seconds or so before I say anything from now on. I think this will make our class better. I’d love your help. If you notice that I’m moving on too quickly, please let me know.
The longer I taught, the more value I found in letting my students know why I was changing my behavior. I also like to think that it made them realize that I was always working to get better at my job.
Ok! That was a lot, but questioning is a big topic. If you have any other ideas for improving questioning or if you actually recorded yourself and listened back, I’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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