Friday, February 22, 2013

Thoughts on Questions: So, Why Do You Ask?

On Wednesday nights, I look forward to #educoach, a weekly twitterchat that is hosted by Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ), Shira Leibowitz (@shiraleibowitz), and Kathy Perret (@KathyPerret). For the last three weeks, these leaders have dedicated the hour to discussing Jim Knight's new book, High-Impact Instruction. While I have been interested in questioning and inquiry-based learning throughout my teaching (and parenting) career, this book and these discussions have inspired me to think more about the importance and power of questions in and out of the classroom. This is the first in a series that I will be writing about questions.

Last year, as a Special Education teacher and this year, as a coach, I find myself as a guest in many classrooms and I  pay attention to the questions posed during lessons and conferences. I have paid attention to open/closed questions, rates of questioning, who answers questions, and how successfully questions engage learners. One teacher asked me to keep data on whether she called on boys or girls more frequently. Another teacher wanted me to pay attention to who spoke more in a conference and it related directly to her questioning techniques.

Every chapter of High-Impact Learning has been high-impact reading for me, and the chapter on Effective Questions is no exception. While I know that I have thought about the reasons for questions before, I don't know that I have ever really, really analyzed the reasons for questions and I think that knowing why we ask questions leads to powerful instruction.

So, why do you ask???

  • To assess understanding
    • Within the classrooms that I visit, these are probably the most common types. Usually, they are closed-ended, meaning (and I thank Jim Knight for this concise definition) that there are a finite number of responses. Mostly, these questions result in several raised hands. Some recent examples I have heard are:
      • Which is the numerator, the top or the bottom number?
      • Who are the main characters in the book?
      • What are the parts of an introduction?
    • If they are open-ended, these questions still have an expected correct answer--teacher knows the answer and is making sure that the students do, as well.
      • What are some thinking stems?
      • How can we tell that a fraction is greater than one?
      • What were some of the reasons for the Revolutionary War?

  • To re-engage (or just engage) a student in a lesson
    • This type of question is for the student who seems to not be paying attention. When I was in middle school, I had a teacher who would throw erasers at students in space. Since he would probably find himself in trouble now and erasers no longer exist, he could use some questions to provide gravity for wandering minds. I usually don't like these sorts of questions because they have such high potential for embarrassing students, so if you are going to use them at all, I would recommend cueing the students. (Johnny, get ready. I am going to ask you the next question...)

  • To engage students in conversation
    • When a teacher uses a "turn and talk" strategy, I love to see questions that inspire students to want to have a conversation and share their thinking. 
      • Why do you think the character behaved in a certain way?
      • What do you think will happen during this experiment?

  • To challenge students to reflect on their own learning
    • I think that the more that we can inspire students to think about their learning and the reasons for it, the higher the levels of thinking students will achieve. When we ask reflection questions, I think that we have to make sure that we are really asking reflection questions and not questions that we already know the answer to; there is a place for those types of questions, but, to me, then they are more of the check for understanding sort of questions...
      • How have you used a specific strategy that we have learned in the classroom?
      • What generalizations are you able to make based on your results?
I am sure that there are other reasons for asking questions. We can draw attention to what we want to have done (Clare, did you make your bed?), we can gain necessary information (Where do we find the best pizza in town?) or we can orient ourselves for necessary next steps (what was the last step you completed in this recipe?). Within a classroom setting, I will be paying more explicit attention as to why we ask questions and I would welcome thoughts and comments about this.

Be well,
Melanie Meehan


  1. Thank you for this inspiring post! I just loaded the book in my Kindle and can't wait to delve deeper into it. -Barbara

  2. Melanie,
    I love your summary. After I looked at the table of contents this was the first chapter I read in Jim's book. Questioning is complex when we truly want "student learning" as the outcome!