In the Center for Teaching, we are promoting a number of professional learning communities with our partner schools. One common thread that comes up in each PLC is the importance of asking good questions.
We have a cohort of public and private school teachers sponsored by the R. Howard Dobbs Jr. Foundation that is investigating inquiry-based teaching. One of the topics they are exploring is how to ask good, open-ended questions that get students to think. Another cohort, our 21st Century Classroom PLC, is looking at the same topic through a different lens. How does a more traditional classroom differ from a 21st century one? They have read the book, The Falconer: What we wish we had learned in schools, by Grant Lichtman. In the book, he devotes a chapter to the Art of Questioning. He points out that, “Our educational systems have been constructed entirely around the goal of providing the correct answer to a question provided by the instructor or handed out on a standardized exam.” (p. 35) The central focus of the chapter is that questions are generative. “Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom.” (p. 35)
Teachers need to learn to ask more open-ended, substantive questions rather than the more simple declarative questions that have one right answer. Substantive, open-ended questions will lead students to seek answers, but also ask new questions that lead them to a deeper understanding of the topic or concept. What do good open-ended questions look and sound like? We want to strive for questions that demand inferential reasoning, hypothesis formation, critical thinking, creative transfer of information to new situations, or generate a high level of curiosity.
For example, if a teacher were to ask a reflective question of his or her students, the result should be that students ask themselves, how do I know what I know? They might ask themselves, what is it that I still do not know or what assumptions do I make that keep me from knowing more?
As teachers, we need to understand that simply asking a variety of questions or a barrage of questions does not lead students to develop inquiring minds. The inquiring mind comes from being asked a question that takes a student down multiple paths. In the Falconer, Lichtman writes, “there are two little words that are the best question words I know.” WHAT IF?
In chemistry, the law of definite proportions states that in a compound the proportion by mass of the elements that make up the compound are in fixed, definite amounts. WHAT IF that were not the case, what would compounds look like and how would the world of chemistry be different? While that question may seem irrelevant to what is “real” or what we know, it is an important question for a student to consider. Their level of understanding will be challenged by considering an answer to the question.
Questions can open up dialogue and lead to the development of an inquiring mind. Our goal as teachers should be to empower our students to think independently, understand deeply, and see themselves as generators of new knowledge. I hope we want our students to go to a piece of art, a piece of literature, a mathematical equation, a science experiment, or a historical event and ask questions that lead them in novel directions for future investigation.