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Classroom Q&A

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

‘Cultivating Student Questioning Is Not a Onetime Thing’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 11, 2021 15 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

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?

In Part One, 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.

Today, Warren Berger, Elise Foster, Jackie Acree Walsh, Ph.D., Joy Hamm, and Carey Borkoski, Ph.D., Ed.D., share their responses.

Model It, Celebrate It, Honor It

Warren Berger is the creator of the popular website AMoreBeautifulQuestion.com and author of The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead (Bloomsbury, 2018). In 2020, Warren and Elise Foster created Beautiful Questions in the Classroom to provide an education-specific guide for student and teacher questioning.

Elise Foster is a leadership coach who enables education and industry leaders to tap into capability and unlock potential inside their organizations. She has conducted significant research in the field of leadership within education systems and is the co-author of Beautiful Questions in the Classroom and The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools:

One of the most important ways you can encourage student questioning and the continued pursuit of questioning is to model it yourself. If you struggle to be curious and venture into uncertain territory, how can you expect it of students? Over their K-12 experience, students learn quickly that teachers ask more questions for which they already know the answer than questions with uncertain or ambiguous answers. Students fall easily into a pattern of giving “right” answers and mainly asking questions to ensure they can reliably produce the teacher’s expected answer. But teachers can break this cycle by creating exercises that encourage students to turn their curiosities into questions to be explored.

Two such exercises are the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) designed by the Right Question Institute or question-storming. Both exercises encourage students to generate a high volume of questions, suspending judgment, all in a limited time span. Celebrate the hard work and thinking underlying the slew of questions by posting them visibly for the class to experience. You might even ask students to share their favorite question on social media or with a caregiver at home. Perhaps, invite students to take ownership a step further by offering an invitation to use a question as the basis for a small research project, an ongoing class discussion, or a group collaboration on that question. Any of these options will leverage student curiosity toward deeper understanding of course material.

As you experience students framing questions, you may notice that some students excel, while others struggle. Honor this as part of the process and resist the temptation to “teach” a particular “right” question structure. Models and formulas for crafting great questions can be helpful, but if you want to spark a student to persist with their questions, you be willing to accept all kinds of questions. This is modeled beautifully in the QFT, with rule number two: “Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions.”

The moment we expect a student question to mirror a model or formula is the moment student passion is interrupted and authentic inquiry halted. Why? Because, “the brain only changes when the behavior is meaningful for the organism” (Merzenich, 2009). When students are guided to a “right” kind of question, they lose connection and meaning. Our neurochemistry supports, and even enhances learning when a student’s emotional and meaningful connection is in place.

Cultivating student questioning is not a onetime thing; it is something that needs to be embedded throughout each school day. Keeping questions active throughout a lesson, and even extending to the next lesson or throughout the school year, leads to more questions, more inquiry, and more engagement, all of which leads to more learning.

If the last four months are any indication, there are few “right” answers in complex times, which is why it is even more critical to build the skill and will of student questioning. Tapping into your own curiosity, celebrating student curiosity, and accepting the beautiful questions each brings to the topic create the conditions for students to thrive in uncertainty.


‘Four Question Types’

Jackie Acree Walsh, Ph.D., is an author and consultant focusing on quality questioning. She is co-author of five books, including Quality Questioning, 2ndEdition (Corwin). A new book, Students As Questioners: Developing the Capacity, Realizing the Potential, will be released by Corwin in 2021.

What’s the best way to enhance student engagement and excitement for learning, academic achievement, and citizenship in our democratic society? Develop student capacity as questioners by strengthening the skill, nurturing the will, and creating an environment where learners experience the thrill of asking questions that matter.

While some believe students would ask questions if teachers would only allow them, most agree that students benefit from learning the what, why, and how of questions, which all contribute to their skill. Four question types serve distinct functions in student learning and offer a teacher-tested frame for developing skills.

· Self-questions, posed silently to guide one’s learning and begin the process of meaning-making, strengthen students’ metacognitive functioning. These questions enable self-regulation—What are my learning goals? Where am I now in learning progression? What strategy will work best for me? Questions that support student comprehension while reading or problem-solving also fall into this category.

· Academic questions, asked aloud as students master daily learning targets, sound like: What does the author mean? Can you provide an example of ______? What contributed to ______?

· Exploratory questions, born out of student curiosity, express student wonderings and puzzlements, and both fuel the drive for new learning and lead students to new ways of thinking, innovating, and creating. These inquiries often begin with: What if ____ ? Can you imagine____ ? How might ____ ? I wonder why ____.

· Dialogical questions, motivated by the desire to get behind different points of view or interpretations, open up conversations that deepen understandings of academic content or, very importantly, of the perspectives and beliefs of those who think differently. Prompts include: What led you to this conclusion ____? What makes you say that? Can you share an experience that reinforced this way of thinking? Is there another way of thinking about ____?

Students need to know both when and how to form and ask questions from each of these categories. Among the strategies for developing student skill are: (1) teacher modeling with think-alouds, (2) providing tools, including criteria for forming and assessing questions, sample prompts and stems, (3) identifying and using appropriate routines and protocols to scaffold practice, and (4) structured opportunities for reflection and peer feedback.

Students may possess the skill for forming questions but lack the will—the confidence, the motivation—to do so. This is the traditional student role: Students are to answer, not ask, questions. I advocate explicit teaching of new mind frames conveying the value of asking questions.

For example, to encourage academic questioning, spend time helping students unpack and make personal meaning of this mind frame: I form and ask questions to clarify and deepen my understanding of academic content. Introduce similar mind frames for other question types; post and reference them during lessons when appropriate. Pause during lessons to afford students time to reflect and form questions. Encourage the recording of questions in journals or on public charts and pause during explicit instruction to allow questions. Most importantly, use student questions to structure lessons. Support students as they work individually and collectively to pursue their questions by assisting in identification and use of reliable resources for research. Help them refine their questions to guide class dialogue. All of these teacher gestures communicate respect of student questions, which serve to strengthen student will to accept this new role.

A class environment nurturing the thrill for questioners emerges when students know their questions are more highly valued than answers. The thrill heightens as their questions lead to aha moments that are celebrated by competent, confident members of communities of inquirers.


‘Model Your Own Curiosity’

Joy Hamm has taught 11 years in a variety of English-language settings, ranging from kindergarten to adult learners:

Inquiry-based learning begins with questions which stem from curiosity, wonder, or a problem that is yet to be solved. As teachers, we must model our own curiosity and problem-solving questions during class. Students notice when we wear the same shirt to school twice in a row, thus they definitely pay attention to the curiosity we demonstrate in our own lives as we think aloud and monitor our own understanding or construct meaning.

Some strategies to guide students in developing their own questions are providing pause time, encouraging productive struggle, setting up Socratic Seminars, and displaying anchor charts with questioning stems or accountable talk phrases.

It is also important to find ways to make the content meaningful and applicable to ELs’ lives, which helps spark engagement and curiosity. Many teachers are turning to the flipped-classroom model in order for more questioning to take place during classroom hours. One final idea is to provide pocket notebooks for students to jot down questions they have throughout the day and place in a class jar. Choose 1-2 questions to read aloud and discuss at the beginning or end of class.

As students begin generating their own questions during discussions or activities, allow other students to respond utilizing accountable talk to express their opinions. Help students recognize that not all questions have one solution and how our perspective often shapes our query and interpretation (remember the blind men and the elephant fable). Also, in the pressure to rush through the curriculum, try to pause and think:

When students annotate their reading passage, do I ask them to discuss their questions afterward? In math class, as small groups are grappling to solve a scenario, are they jotting down the questions generated so I (and they) can visualize the process? During science class, do I provide time for students to hypothesize why a flower needs to be pollinated rather than immediately having them memorize the male and female parts of a flower?

In conclusion, model your own curiosity, invite students to create questions, allow pauses in the class period for discussions, and wait for other students to wrestle with an answer before jumping in with your own.


Fostering ‘a Climate Of Curiosity’

Carey Borkoski, Ph.D., Ed.D., is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches research methods and advises doctoral students in their online Ed.D. She has written about strategies to cultivate belonging in our learning communities, conditions to support identity formation, and the positive relationship between social presence and student experiences:

From a very early age, students are trained to answer questions. “How do you spell your name?” “What did the author mean by this passage?” And with practice, they learn to respond to questions naturally. Students gain a sense of comfort with teacher-to-student questioning where students play the role of respondent.

Much of the inquiry-based-learning research focuses on instructional strategies for asking better questions to students (Tofade, Elsner, & Haines, 2013). Bowker (2010), however, suggests educators should spend more time teaching students to ask rather than answer questions. Facilitating an exploratory approach where student inquiry drives learning requires a climate of kindness, psychological safety, and tolerance for ambiguity.

Creating curious students includes attending to the classroom climate starting on the first day. As educators, we have the privilege to know and work with each of our students. Investing time into cultivating a sense of community and trust lays the groundwork for implementing less familiar strategies involving student-directed questions. Teachers need to promote creativity and a mindset of openness to novel classroom structures and assessments and foster a sense of what Bowker (2010) refers to as controlled chaos. Students and instructors engage in lively discussions with enough structure to create a learning focus, coupled with openness and flexibility, which invite students to ask new and unanticipated questions. Creating a trusting and supportive classroom invites opportunities to implement pedagogical strategies to cultivate and guide student curiosity and questioning.

Paramount to students feeling encouraged and supported is establishing psychological safety. Teachers must provide time and space for students to explore and question without fear of ridicule and penalty. For example, scaffolding and kind, critical feedback build on students’ questions and contribute to safe classrooms. Teachers need to encourage peer-to-peer empathy and leverage student questions to increase the complexity and depth of their inquiry.

Holding space for students to explore and practice the craft of asking good questions cultivates a sense of caring and belonging that promotes mutual respect by learning, practicing, and making mistakes without judgment. The typical classroom environment, perhaps characterized by the Socratic method or informal question circles, contributes to a culture of teacher questions and student answers. Consequently, when students are asked to generate questions, they may develop feelings of anxiety because of the ambiguity and uncertainty of an undefined right answer. Just as there is comfort in the teacher asking a question and the student answering correctly, students may feel discomfort when their learning is centered around developing questions that reflect their own curiosity rather than giving the “right” answer.

In this alternate scenario, being “right” focuses on questions rather than answers. But answers are more comfortable for many students, and reducing resistance to a student-centric-question approach is required. Instructors can reduce students’ feelings of anxiety by creating and modeling a tolerance for discomfort and ambiguity themselves. Such authenticity invites students into the learning community, demonstrates confidence in students’ abilities, and promotes trust that that may increase student interest and comfort in asking questions.

In my view, encouraging students to develop their own questions requires teachers to foster a climate of curiosity, encourage students to take risks and sit with not knowing, and cultivate a desire and excitement to ask. As teachers in the 21st century, we are training students for professions and problems we cannot imagine. We are teaching students to find comfort in the discomfort of questions, to recognize and address wicked problems, and to ask more questions. Today, as we teach and learn in the context of a pandemic, we are constantly reminded of operating in “unprecedented times.” Creativity, flexibility, and innovation are tools that will help us to survive and thrive, but they do not always come naturally.

It is imperative that we support students in their identity as learners more than knowers. Brene Brown (2010) suggests that if we work on getting it right rather than being right, we tend to be more curious and ask more questions. So, for me, the real question is how do we create classrooms with students who are open to asking questions, can tolerate uncertainty in their work, and develop a curiosity to explore and discover through questions?



Thanks to Warren, Elise, Jackie, Joy, and Carey 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.

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