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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

Response: Using Questions That ‘Position Students as Meaning Makers’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 20, 2017 21 min read
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(This is the second post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can teachers use questions most effectively in the classroom?

Part One‘s commentators were Jeri Asaro, Dan Rothstein, Diana Laufenberg, Rebecca Mieliwocki, Jenny Edwards, Scott Reed, Cara Jackson and Ben Johnson. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jeri and Dan on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s contributors are Sean Kelly, Sidney D’Mello, Shelly Lynn Counsell, Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman, Rachael Williams, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm.

Response From Sean Kelly & Sidney D’Mello

Sean Kelly is Associate Professor in the Department of Administrative and Policy Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He studies the social organization of schools, student engagement, and teacher effectiveness.

Sidney D’Mello is Associate Professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science and the Department of Computer Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, and a member of the Mindset Scholars Network. His research lies at the intersection of the cognitive, affective, computing, and learning sciences:

We know that asking questions is one of the most effective ways teachers can engage students to think deeply. Good teacher questions support two basic pedagogical functions: challenge and support. Questions can serve to challenge students to think deeply--to analyze, compare, and generalize rather than simply report information. In a wide range of subjects, including literature, math, science, and art, questions can be used to set the expectation that students will engage with the “big ideas” of a topic. Teacher questions can also be a critical part of a supportive classroom environment when they convey to students that their ideas are taken seriously.

Yet, as many teachers have experienced first-hand, it is often difficult to ask questions that produce productive responses from students. Usually, a few highly-vocal students dominate Q&A sessions while others stay relatively silent. Research confirms that asking questions that elicit widespread engagement and critical thinking is challenging--even for experienced teachers[1]. Indeed, it is relatively rare for Q&A sessions to turn into true discussions, that is, free and open informational exchanges that aren’t steered by teacher test questions

How can teachers ask good questions? One effective way is to ask authentic questions, which do not have pre-scripted correct answers, but genuinely seek information from students (e.g., “what do you think of the ending of the story?”). In fact, authentic questions are associated with student achievement, especially when paired with uptake, where teachers build on students’ ideas by incorporating their responses into subsequent questions (e.g., “Why do you think that?”).

In addition to asking questions with authenticity and uptake, students must also be primed for discussion. This can be done with classroom activities and norms for interaction that encourage “talking to learn.” For example, asking students to generate questions to be posed to the entire class is an excellent way to facilitate discussion, as is grouping students into pairs or small groups before bringing a topic for whole class discussion. Research shows that it is often these “setting the stage” activities that subsequently leads to productive classroom talk.

As part of an overall program of instructional improvement, how can teachers become better questioners? Teachers, like anyone, need feedback to improve. However, one main challenge in providing feedback to teachers is that global type assessments (e.g., “how did I do today”) are not very accurate or informative. Whether produced by a teacher, mentor, or trained observer, the answer is usually “pretty good I guess.” Instead, teachers need formative feedback (i.e., feedback intended for improvement rather than evaluation) based on an analysis of the questions they asked, including concrete examples of questions that worked and others that fell flat.

Currently, detailed formative feedback is relatively rare in teacher professional development because it requires considerable human resources. Yet, just as technological innovations have made it possible for athletes (and basically anyone) to monitor their heart rate, oxygen use, etc. while they train, it may soon be possible to automatically provide teachers with actionable feedback on the questions they asked in their classes. Indeed, computer scientists have been collaborating with teachers and teacher educators on this goal[2]. They are beginning to envision possibilities for not only large scale studies of curriculum and instruction, but also teacher experimentation and learning in their own classrooms. Stay tuned!

[1] https://www.tcpress.com/inspiring-dialogue-9780807754672

[2] http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2830602

Response From Shelly Lynn Counsell

Shelly Lynn Counsell, EdD, is an assistant professor and Early Childhood Education Program Coordinator at the University of Memphis teaching undergraduate and graduate early childhood education courses. She co-authored the 2016 Teachers College Press book, “STEM Learning with Young Children: Inquiry Teaching with Ramps and Pathways” and she has book chapters in two NSTA publications:

Questioning plays a key and essential role within the teaching-learning process in early childhood education. Young children actively explore and investigate materials and activities with both adults and age-mates within their surrounding formal and informal learning environments according to their individual interests and curiosities. Early childhood educators carefully observe children and ask questions to help identify and assess children’s knowledge, understanding, and skill development across developmental domains and academic content. It is equally important to balance closed questions (for example, naming shapes, colors, animals, etc.) with higher order open questions that challenges children to synthesize, analyze, and evaluate.

High quality teachers are expert observers, masterful inquirers, and active listeners. In an ongoing, spiraling fashion, well-prepared reflective practitioners make informed decisions on a continuous basis. As young children examine and use a variety of materials during various activities across different settings, teachers can ask questions to reveal children’s thinking and to check for their understanding. If a teacher observes a child struggling with a concept or skill, trying to make something happen, or figure something out, the teacher can use questioning to help scaffold children’s problem solving. For this reason, the NGSS (2013) note the interconnection between asking questions and defining problems, since they are interrelated.

STEM provides children with an ideal context for developing higher order cognitive processing skills. Teachers can use productive questioning to promote children’s scientific thinking without telling, leading, or directing children’s thinking (Martens, 1999). Specifically, Elstgeest (2001) recommends six types of productive questions to promote and support children’s scientific thinking and reasoning: 1) attention-focusing questions; 2) measuring and counting questions; 3) comparison questions; 4) action questions; 5) problem posing questions; and 6) reasoning questions.

It is equally important to allow young children ample time and multiple opportunities to figure things out for themselves. Careful observation together with an overall awareness of the child’s prior knowledge and experiences help the teacher determine when it is most appropriate to intervene with questions or comments without hindering or interfering with the learning process. In light of this information, the teacher does not want to bombard or overwhelm the child with too many questions that disrupt the child’s thought processes. Likewise, the teacher needs to use well-crafted questions that help discern the child’s agenda without subverting the child’s agenda with the adult’s agenda that may cause the child to abandon the learning activity (Counsell, Uhlenberg, & Zan, 2013).

For example, a teacher might observe a young child using two different paintbrushes at the paint easel: one brush makes thick strokes while the second brush makes thin strokes. To reveal what the child is thinking as the child paints with the thick paintbrush, the teacher could ask the child, “What do you like about this brush? When do you like to paint with this brush? What kinds of things do you like to make using this brush?” As the child paints the facial features on a stick person, she uses the thinner brush. The teacher could ask, “Did you switch brushes to paint the face? How is this brush different from the other brush? Why do you want to use this brush to paint the face? What would happen if you used the thick brush to paint the face (eyes, ears, nose, and mouth)?” Whether the teacher should continue asking questions, how many questions, and which questions to ask are largely determined by listening carefully to what children say and closely watching what children do in order to achieve their intended outcome. After all, the most effective intervening questions are the ones that succeed in supporting and advancing the child’s agenda.

Response From Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman

Jennifer envisions classrooms filled with thinking caps- because uniforms are uninspiring - as well as students with plastic utensils - because every student deserves a seat at the learning table. As an educator with a terminal degree in Special Education and a License in School Counseling, she’s written about her classroom and higher education experiences in Teaching Tolerance, ASCD, and Teach Thought. For education research and resources follow her on twitter: @DrJDavisBowman:

42 Ways Not to ask a Question

  1. Allow no check-in to determine how question will be received
  2. Provide no wait time
  3. Offer the same wait time (regardless of student ability or needs)
  4. Present too much wait time (results in boredom or disinterest)
  5. Make it too difficult to respond (lack of resources, ability, time)
  6. Disregard grammar rules (eg. Double negatives)
  7. Use only technical terms (unable to put the question into your own words)
  8. Embed words that have loose definitions or multiple meanings
  9. Make no attempt to locate the answer first
  10. Discount the questions of others, but expect full attention to the questions you pose
  11. Conceal your own questions to not inspire curiosity
  12. Use questions that are statements in disguise
  13. Present after material or reading is shared
  14. Make the purpose of the question unclear
  15. Sparingly
  16. Ambiguously
  17. With a lead (Eg. “Do you think we should extend the project deadline longer than we already have?”)
  18. With either/or choices (limits possibility of response)
  19. With critical feedback (Eg. “That’s incorrect”)
  20. With vague feedback (Eg. “Try again”)
  21. With shaming feedback (Eg. “I can’t believe you don’t already know how to...”)
  22. With one correct answer
  23. With a Siri-ready answer
  24. With a Google-ready answer
  25. With only asking one person (crowdsourcing and group work facilitate problem solving too)
  26. With an emphasis or praise on the first answer (decreases motivation for others to respond)
  27. With a single mode of presentation (only oral, only written)
  28. With a single mode for answering (only oral, only written)
  29. With-out breaking down the steps of multi-level questions
  30. With no second chance to correct mistakes
  31. By answering your own question
  32. By over-clarifying (decrease the opportunity for responder to think)
  33. Make the actual question longer than one sentence
  34. Make the ideal answer one sentence or less
  35. Make the answer obvious
  36. Discourage follow-up questions
  37. Emphasis of only one type of question
  38. With interrogation style
  39. With the ‘Gotcha’ approach
  40. Overlook the little questions
  41. Impromptu (rehearsal and preparation facilitate in building quality)
  42. Frame questions in the negative (Eg. “You don’t have any questions do you?”)

Response From Rachael Williams

Rachael Williams is a teacher and Chair of the LINKs Program at Ballarat Grammar School in Australia. She has written articles for AMLE and you can follow her on Twitter @rachaelbrooke77:

The way that teachers use questions in the classroom has a direct impact on how actively students are involved in their own learning. Three related questions emerge as particularly pivotal to the learning of students.

Who is responsible for asking the questions?

Classrooms often position the teacher as question-asker but for many years experts have suggested that learning should be driven by the questions of students. Questions asked by the students themselves are more relevant to their own lives and more likely to develop intrinsic motivation to learn. Alfie Kohn (2015), warns against cursory attempts to ask students to come up with their own questions, only to ignore them and charge ahead with the teacher-made plan prepared earlier. Instead he challenges teachers and schools to foster a ‘lifelong disposition to question (Kohn, 2015, p 21)’ and to reward students for curiosity and scepticism rather than compliance.

What type of questions are being asked?

When it comes to crafting questions, quality does matter and some questions are more worthy than others. Creating the kind of question that will actively engage students in deep thinking takes careful planning. If it is the element of your lesson plan that leads to the most struggle, then good. It’s worth it. Students are increasingly connected to the real world, particularly via social media, and they need opportunities to respond to questions that matter in the world beyond school. We value students and their capacity as learners by offering them complex, open-ended questions that do not have one right answer.

How are students expected to respond to questions?

Effective teachers engage students with worthy questions and expect every student to grapple with them. If only a handful of students are expected to respond, the incentive for students to actively engage with the question is limited. Dylan Wiliam (2014) suggests strategies such as ‘no hands up’ and ‘all-student response systems’ in order to engage more students in the kind of real thinking that results in real learning. Routines that hold students accountable for their thinking such as the Microlab make it clear to students that each of them is expected to actively participate in the learning.

Kohn, A, 2015. Who’s Asking? Educational Leadership, 73(1), 16-22.

Wiliam, D, 2014. The Right Questions, The Right Way. Educational Leadership, 71(6), 16-19.

Response From Jeffrey D. Wilhelm

Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm is currently Distinguished Professor of English Education at Boise State University and regularly teaches middle and high school students. He is the founding director of the Maine Writing Project and the Boise State Writing Project, and author of 32 texts about literacy teaching and learning. He is the recipient of the two top research awards in English Education: the NCTE Promising Research Award for “You Gotta BE the Book” (TC Press) and the Russell Award for Distinguished Research for “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys":

Ever been asked a question by someone who already knew the answer to that question? I’ll bet this happened in school. School is about the only place where we ask questions that don’t actually promote dialogue nor do any work towards building new understandings.

Compare these questions that students might be asked to address: What are the three reasons for the Bill of Rights (or Civil War or any other event)? Vs. From the perspective of an immigrant living in 21st Century, what are some of the most compelling and urgent benefits of the Bill of Rights? Which one of these questions is an expert, or a real historian, more likely to find engaging and to pursue?

Questions really matter

And they matter because of how they position us, orient us, what they help us notice and do and learn in our evolving expertise as readers and problem-solvers. The first question above is a “schoolish” fixed mindset question with a pre-determined and circumscribed answer. It implies that knowledge is static. The second “toolish” question positions the answerer as a knowledge maker with a growth mindset who can solve problems and ask questions of one’s own, and who is in dialogic conversation with others about an important topic. That’s because the second question invites many other questions that are extensions of the original question, e.g. what was the importance of the Bill of Rights to females or African-Americans (or other groups) living in the 19th century (or other eras)?


Questions indeed really matter, in part because of how they position the person pursuing them and the mindset and theory of knowledge they promote as static, or as dynamic, constructed and evolving. So the first condition of a powerful question is:

  1. The question positions students as meaning-makers and asks them to make meaning. (not just find and repeat information)

But there are two additional conditions that must be met to make questions really useful to learners:

  1. Students learn how to independently ask the kinds of questions that guide meaning-making.
  2. The questions are applicable to a variety of texts and data sets.

In our recent book “Diving Deep Into Nonfiction,” my co-author Michael Smith and I model the kinds of questioning strategies that position students as meaning makers and that assist them to conscious competence in how to notice text elements that expert readers notice: textual topics, key details, overall text patterns (genres) and embedded text structures (e.g. comparison, definition, etc.). The questioning strategies we teach must help students to become metacognitive about noticing these text elements and then using them to see connections, make inferences and work towards generalizations and deep new understandings. Finally, we argue against text dependent questions because these questions do not cultivate transfer and the capacity to develop as an adept questioner and meaning maker over time.

We need to teach our students something they’ll remember and be able to apply to their subsequent reading and learning. If we are not teaching for deep understanding and future use, then what are we teaching for? When a teacher asks a question, the teacher has done the interpretive work by noticing what aspects of the text are worth asking about. Instead, we need to teach students how to do their own noticing, and formulate their own questions -- questions that prompt them to notice particular text elements that will help them think on their own about texts, their content, and how texts organize and structure this content to achieve specific meanings and effects.

What expert readers do

When we studied content area teachers who were expert readers of disciplinary texts, we found that they attended to four aspects of text, two regarding content: conversational topics and key details, and two regarding the form: genre or overall text structuring, and embedded text structure. These experts attended to these four aspects of text by using four sets of cues. We call these cues “rules of notice” (following the literary theorist Peter Rabinowitz) and organized them into four classes: direct statements, calls to attention (e.g. titles, bold, repetitions, figurative language, etc.), ruptures (e.g. any surprise or shift in tone, language, length, etc.) and reader’s response (any time the reader felt intense agreement or disagreement, experienced an emotional charge, asked a question, etc.).

We used these rules of notice that experts use to inspire us to create questioning schemes to help students practice and internalize the same kinds of noticing and interpretation of what was noticed.

A Questioning scheme to help students notice topics, key details and main ideas

Imagine going to a movie. As the lights go up, your companion asks you: What do you think is the main takeaway of that? Likely you’d have difficulty answering.

Year after year, the National Assessments of Educational Progress show that few of our graduating seniors can identify the main idea of an extended text and justify it with evidence from across the text. But there’s a solution. Research in linguistics has found that a main idea of a text or data set can be expressed as a “topic comment” and that students can quickly learn to use this strategy to identify and justify the main ideas/themes/generalizations expressed by any text or data set. In other words, to find and justify the main idea of a text, a reader must identify a general subject of a text, and the key details it expresses about that topic, and how the organization of those details works to express a comment or generalization about the topic. (Note well, even simple texts have multiple topics, and therefore multiple topic-comments. There will be multiple justifiable main ideas, though many more cannot be supported).

To help our students engage in this processing and the noticing that it requires, we teach them an adaptation of the Questioning the Author scheme (Beck and McKeown) with the following queries:

What are the key details/events?

What “rules of notice” did the author use to help us identify these key details?

What general topic/s do all the key details/events pertain to?

How does the organization of these key details/events work to make a comment about the topic?

Phrase your main idea as a “topic comment” . . . the topic is expressed by a noun phrase and the comment is a verb phrase that captures the meaning expressed by the trajectory of key details or events.

E.g. for the YA historical novel Number the Stars (about one family’s participation in the Danish resistance during WWII), a possible “topic comment” would be: Resistance (topic) can work when people are willing to take risks and work together for a common purpose (comment - an authorial generalization expressed by story events and conclusion).

For a data base on per capita CO2 emissions per country: CO2 emissions (topic) are greater in island countries than any other country (comment - a finding expressed by the data).

A questioning scheme to notice textual organization

Imagine taking some papers with text on them from your school mailbox. When you pick each one up and skim it, the first thing you’re likely to ask yourself is, “What kind of text is this?” Is it a memo, an IEP, an advertising flier, a personal note? Your answer in each case will determine whether you read it, how you read it, what you hope to gain from it, and much more.

We found that the expert readers in our study read texts AS something - as a type of text organized in a particular way to do particular kinds of work. And this identification of the genre or text type guided their reading of it. Texts, indeed, are structured by thought patterns called genres and text structures. Yet, few of our students know how to use the rules of notice that would tip them off to the overall genre or embedded text structures that organize the key details of a text, and would help them to navigate and make meaning of that text. But because there are so many kinds of texts, we can’t teach the characteristics of all of them. Instead, we teach students a general set of questions they can use over and over again:

  • K: What kind of text is this? What rules of notice help me to identify it?
  • E: What are the essential features of this kind of text?
  • E: How did the author employ these features?
  • P: What was the author’s purpose in employing them that way?
  • !: What meaning and effect did the author want to achieve?

We call this questioning heuristic KEEP! and we have found that these questions are important for readers to ask themselves no matter when (or what) they read. Doing so helps students build knowledge of genre, and to use genre expectations to make meaning both as readers and as writers.


Experts use “rules of notice” to identify textual topics, key details, and how these are organized to express meanings like main ideas and create effects. If our students don’t do this kind of noticing, then they cannot do the kind of interpreting and meaning making that depends on this noticing. To help them, we can teach them questioning strategies that help them to do that kind of noticing and interpreting.

Thanks to Sean, Sidney, Shelly, Jennifer, Rachael and Jeffrey 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.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

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Look for Part Three in a few days..

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