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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

10 Strategies for Encouraging Students to Ask Questions

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 09, 2021 14 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
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(This is the first post in a four-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can we encourage students to develop their own questions? And, once they create them, what’s next?

Questioning is an essential part of any classroom. Oftentimes, however, it’s the teacher asking them or students asking fairly simple informative ones.

What can educators do to help students develop the skills, appetite, and confidence to develop and ask questions that are deeper and more higher-order ones?

We’ll explore that issue in this four-part series.

Today, Mary Beth Nicklaus, Kevin Parr, Silvina Jover, and Andrea Clark offer their suggestions. Mary Beth and Kevin were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Posts & Articles About Asking Good Questions.

Building on Students’ ‘Natural Curiosity’

Mary Beth Nicklaus is a teacher and literacy coach/specialist at Wisconsin Rapids Area Middle School in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.:

Students K-12 are already wired to seek out knowledge in their areas of interest. Teachers can use that natural curiosity to guide them into inquiry-based instruction where students learn to develop questions. Here is a sample activity where question-building culminates in student-led discussion:

  • Choose a subject or reading which will inspire students. In my case, I present a rewritten version of the traditional story of “Jack and the Bean Stalk” to 7th graders in an ELA class. I place the reading on the Kami platform. The students hop onto the shared document. As we read through it together, I share my thoughts and write down questions. I also present a mini-lesson on interpretation-level questions. These questions are based on the readers’ “interpretation” of text, and they can start with words like “why” or “how.” These questions are more open-ended and allow for sharing opinions in discussion rather than questions like, “What color was Little Red Riding Hood’s hood?” Questions rooted in higher-order thinking invite students to share more of themselves and their viewpoints.
  • Encourage students to develop their questions: After finishing the read-along question-writing activity, we revisit the story. Students can do this part as a homework assignment, or you can do it together as a class. With Kami, students have the option to video or audio record, or they can write a question or comment in the margins. Discussions or questions may come up at this point. (If you have given this as homework, have students share during the next class period.)
  • Once students have created their own questions, schedule a discussion: For “Beanstalk,” we get back on the document. One by one, students steer us to where their question is either recorded or written. We discuss. Our conversations inspire debate, or more questions. Someone asks, “Why did Jack keep going back for more of the Giant’s wealth when he and his mother already had the Goose that laid the golden eggs? Was he greedy?” Some students agree that Jack is greedy. Someone else argues that perhaps Jack is addicted to wealth the way people are addicted to video games or drugs. This produces more questions and debate about the nature of addiction.

    Based on student background, experience, and textual interpretation, opinions will differ. Students use text to support their answers. This question about Jack being greedy or addicted brings a plethora of impassioned answers from students. It also brings more questions and more discussion possibly lasting the entire class period. You may see the quietest students are the ones who suddenly step into leading discussions. They are also the ones who may start hanging around after the bell rings to expound on the ideas they presented in class. Warning: The discussions stemming from student questions can be an exhilarating confidence builder for the most introverted of students!

An exit ticket helps students reflect on and cement their thinking. You can ask an evaluative question like, “What idea or questions made you reflect the most today?” Consistency in assigning end-of-the-class summaries build connection between reflection and communication. Throughout the school year, teachers can continue to build both skills and confidence by allowing students a hand in developing questions for learning.


‘Is It Safe to Wonder Here?’

Kevin Parr is a 1st grade teacher in Wenatchee, Wash., and is a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader:

All teachers want students to be curious, wonder, and develop their own questions about the world. Fortunately, kids are naturally curious. The tricky part, however, is that teachers can either promote a child’s innate curiosity or squelch it by how they respond to their questions. To put it another way, encouraging students to develop and ask their own questions is directly linked to how teachers respond to their students’ questions.

Asking questions, especially in a large group setting like a classroom, is a risk. When students ask questions, they risk adverse responses from their peers, and most importantly, their teachers. Teachers play a vital role in this because their reaction will create the tone for the rest of the class. Before we get into specifics, I would like us to keep in mind that students, whether asking questions directly or observing their peers ask questions, are judging the classroom and asking themselves, “Is it safe to wonder here?”

Fortunately, teachers can promote student questioning by filtering their responses based on the immediacy of the need and connection to the learning at hand.

Immediate response: Often, kids will pose on-the-spot questions that highlight misconceptions concerning the topic or skill that is being addressed. These questions need to be addressed immediately and concretely. If not, the misconceptions will be cemented, and no further learning will occur. Teachers do this necessary reteaching every minute of every day.

Need to Know: Sometimes questions come up that are related to a topic being explored in class. A “Need to Know” list is an important part of project-based learning and can be used even if the teacher is not doing a full project-based-learning experience. In short, a “Need to Know” list captures all questions that can lead to a better understanding of the topic or phenomenon being studied. After any learning, the list is revisited to see if any questions were answered or if further questions arose. It is a wonderful way to acknowledge student questions, tailor learning to their curiosity, and also invites students to create more questions as their knowledge of the topic develops.

Questions left to wonder: Any teacher will tell you that children have many questions that have nothing to do with the learning at hand. Yet, these questions, and our response to them, are important to a child’s learning. The conundrum is that we want kids to have questions, but we want the right questions at the right time. This, however, rarely happens. These “random” questions, however, are critical in encouraging children to continue to wonder. Our response is critical. One way to acknowledge these questions is to have a “wonder wall” where questions live until they are responded to. One thing to keep in mind is that even in this age of Google, it is OK, and even beneficial, to let some questions linger without answers.

Let’s imagine that there is that one student who has been wanting to ask a question and has finally built the courage to ask. A response from the teacher that ensures safety and demonstrates that the question has value is the only way to encourage further questioning.


‘A Critical-Thinking-Driven Classroom’

Silvina Jover is a bilingual social studies teacher in Las Vegas. Originally from Uruguay, she has been an educator and advocate for immigrant students and their families in the U.S. for the past seven years:

A critical-thinking-driven classroom is one of the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding spaces we will encounter as both humans and educators. It is an easier space to create than what many teachers think simply because the American educational mindset is so engraved in the standardized-testing culture.

Humans are curious by nature, and this is exactly the place to begin with our students. First and foremost, it is up to each teacher to develop an interesting and thought-provoking introduction to any given topic. At the secondary school level, students appreciate facts and statistics, and I tend to lead with that followed by a very simple question: “Why?” Once I get some responses, I ask my students to dig deeper into that thought, repeatedly, until they find themselves asking that same question. And that’s exactly the moment to start guiding our students into creating their own questions.

If done successfully, you would have walked your students through an informal inquiry-design model of pedagogy. Informal because this process was done igniting our students’ prior knowledge with the objective of catching their attention to what they are about to learn but creating a space that allows for them to choose the details and depth of that particular topic. To dive more into the inquiry-design model, I recommend looking into the Swan, Lee & Grant book published by the National Council for the Social Studies and adapt it to your own field, as needed.

Another, more structured way of having students create their own questions is by pseudo-flipping the classroom. I’ve done an activity for many years and with much success that I’ve named “Flip the Quiz.” It entails having your students create a summative assessment. As educators, we all know the complexities of a well-rounded assessment, from its objective to the cognitive rigor to measure the breadth and depth of knowledge. And that’s exactly what you want your students to ultimately acquire. The key is to have them create critical-thinking examinations similar to DBQs (Document-Based Questions), which mainly contain questions that require certain levels of analytical skills, as well as open-ended questions. Similar to our own practice, their activity will be guided by its own set of requirements, which could be presented in a rubric or checklist format.

How to use this student-created assessment? Let your students continue being the instructors by allowing them to create the answer key and/or the rubric for the test they created. Additionally, you can have your students take each other’s tests and then create a dialogical circle for students to provide feedback and their rationale behind it.

Developing critical-thinking skills takes an incredible amount of time, but the growth both emotionally and academically is, indeed, rewarding.


‘Notice and Wonder’

Andrea Clark is a 5-7th grade math and language arts teacher in Austin, Texas. She has a master’s in STEM education and has been teaching for over 10 years:

What if math class was more about the question than the solution? What if students wrote their own questions, like real mathematicians? Through student-generated questions, I’ve seen my students 1) get better at asking questions, 2) be more engaged with math class, and 3) do more (and better) math.

A strategy that I have had success with is called “Notice and Wonder” (which is effective in all subject areas, not just math). I put a problem on the board (a word problem, a diagram, a set of numbers, anything), without a question, and ask students what they notice. Your job is to write it all down, without judgment. Once they notice, they wonder. Again, write it all down. Sometimes, students come up with the “right” question (the problem’s original question), and sometimes they don’t. The goal is to get as many questions as possible, even if you decide to go with the “right” question in the end.

Once you have your questions, everyone can pursue the same question (in the whole group or small groups), or small groups of students can explore their own questions. Make sure to leave time for students to share their strategies with the class (even if they are all working on the same question). I prefer to have each small group choose their own questions because it increases the math being done in the room and it also shows students that what they wonder about matters and is worthy of spending precious classroom time exploring.

There are a couple of things to consider during your lesson planning:

  1. Does the specific content matter today? If so, make sure the “right” question gets into the question-brainstorming time by submitting it yourself or asking another student to do so. Then, encourage your students to choose the “right” question as part of a whole-class or small-group discussion (their other questions can also be added in at any point).
  2. Is time a factor? You can make this process as short or long as you want. I have used it as the whole lesson and I have used it as a warm-up or closing for a lesson: brainstorming questions today, picking one to solve tomorrow.
  3. Are your students “bad” at asking questions? Have your students practice the Notice and Wonder routine without solving anything; it’s a great warm-up, as this routine can work with any content. The more opportunities they get to ask questions, the better they get at asking questions. Just try it!
  4. Are you nervous about letting your students choose the questions? It’s OK if you aren’t comfortable with letting students choose their own questions right away. Start with noticing. Then add in wondering, planting the “right” question. Then add in a few choices of questions that the whole class is interested in. There isn’t one way to do it. Every time the students practice, they get more comfortable with it, and so do you.
  5. Are your students asking “bad” questions? I work at an IB school, and questions are an integral part of our teaching and learning, but that doesn’t necessarily mean my students are good at it by the time they get to me in middle school. My goal is to move them from quantity (“Look! I can ask a lot of questions!”) to quality (“I have questions that I actually care about.”). Ask your students: Is that a question you are interested in solving? If not, give me one that you care about! You get to be in charge! Make the question a good one! (That conversation usually helps students move away from more shallow questions.) It’s also good to model different levels of questions, so your students know what makes a “good” question. Give them some questions to sort into different categories and make a rubric for good questions together. Practice, practice, practice.

I encourage you to try the Notice and Wonder routine in your math (or any) classroom. It can be rough at first, but it gets better, and the end result is worth it: You have students collaborating, doing math, and answering questions that they care about. That’s a good math class.


Thanks to Mary Beth, Kevin, Silvina, and Andrea for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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