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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

Students’ Questions Can ‘Drive Their Learning’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 18, 2021 14 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three 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.

In Part Two, Warren Berger, Elise Foster, Jackie Acree Walsh, Ph.D., Joy Hamm, and Carey Borkoski, Ph.D., Ed.D., shared their responses.

In Part Three, Mike Kaechele, Kathy Dyer, Suzanne McCabe, and Deedy Camarena provided their answers.

Today, Meg Riordan, Ph.D., Nick Kempski, Jenny Edwards, Ph.D., and Jennifer Orr finish up this series.

Create It, Model It, Support It

Meg Riordan, Ph.D., is chief learning officer at The Possible Project, an out-of-school program that collaborates with youth to build entrepreneurial skills and mindsets and provides pathways to careers and long-term economic prosperity. She has been in the field of education for over 25 years as a middle and high school teacher, school coach, college professor, regional director of NYC Outward Bound Schools, and director of external research with EL Education:

Learning to Question: Why it matters

When thinking about the importance of questions, it’s a good idea to begin with why. Why is it important to engage students in developing their own questions? Why is ownership of questions a key to learning? As Paulo Freire, prominent Brazilian educator who viewed education as a practice of freedom, suggests, “questioning is a form of knowledge,” and “questions that may not always or immediately arrive [at] an answer are the roots of change.” He further asserts that questioning involves risk-taking and creativity and that there is a connection between questions, questions and action, and action and answers.

Complementing Freire, research indicates that not only is the formulation of a good question a creative act, but it also plays an important role in the learning process. When students craft their own questions, it can support them in unpacking their understanding of a concept, connecting with other ideas, and realizing what they know and what they don’t—yet.

Now that we’re grounded in “why,” let’s move to how. How do educators encourage students to take the risk of developing their own questions? Below are several key strategies:

Create It:

Whether remote or in person, educators can create a classroom space where the goal isn’t just the transferring of information but the posing of questions to interrogate knowledge; teachers should see themselves as learning alongside their students. It means that teachers collaborate with students, engage in dialogue with them, and stay curious and pursue meaningful questions. Teachers and students become “jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.”

This requires carefully and intentionally creating a classroom culture where all learners—teachers and students—feel safe to engage in inquiry, safe not knowing, and safe making mistakes. Specifically, teachers must cultivate the “soil conditions” that help everyone to flourish—through community agreements, sentence starters, and sentence stems to encourage respectful interactions and protocols for discussions. This kind of environment makes it more likely that questions will thrive.

Model It:

As educators, we can intentionally demonstrate what it looks like to develop questions and unpack our thinking. Too often, these “moves” are tucked out of sight on a lesson plan, hidden from students. We arrive at a fully formed essay or fully solved problem by sleight of hand. But what if we made our thinking—and questioning—visible? Teachers can encourage students to develop questions by modeling how to do it themselves. For instance, before reading a passage in a text, a teacher can provide a clear guiding question or robust prompt to help students identify the purpose of their reading. Or she can invite students to consider: What do you think is the purpose; what are we trying to learn or understand—and why? When analyzing that passage, the teacher can then do a “think-aloud” to illustrate the kinds of questions that she asks while reading. And, in the subsequent passage, students can share the questions they developed during their reading. Modeling is a door that swings both ways, between teachers and students.

Support It:

Product designers have a 3D printer. Carpenters use a hammer. Students also need tools to support them in learning to develop questions. In remote or face-to-face environments, teachers can support students by providing anticipation guides that specifically ask students to predict what they might read, watch, experience, or observe. Educators can help students build a “question-asking toolkit” that identifies levels of questioning (like Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge). When students understand the levels of questions that they’re asking, they can—based on their needs—challenge themselves and others to deeper depths of inquiry. Other tools might include note-catchers or graphic organizers to harness questions or assignments that ask students to generate questions rather than provide answers.

Then What?

When students are equipped with the confidence, skills, and tools to develop questions, there are myriad possibilities to explore. Here are a few:

  • Passion Projects: These are opportunities for students to lead their learning by developing a question of interest to research. Particularly now, students may be fueled by relevant events. A student might ask: What is the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on my local community? Another might wonder: How can we respond to microaggressions? Teachers and students can agree on a rich research question, the format(s) to share the relevance and investigation of this question (video, written, podcast, authentic product, PowerPoint), and criteria for quality. With this frame, students can embrace problem-posing as a way to make sense of the world around them and take a stand. EL Education offers a Projects at Home resource that can spark ideas, and PBLWorks shares projects for remote learning.
  • Action: As Freire noted above, there is a connection between questions and action. In times such as these, students might wonder how to make a difference—to be the roots of change. One way is through engaging in service-learning opportunities. Since a key element of service learning involves addressing real-world challenges, we can connect what we’re studying—art, health, environment—to authentic community issues and work with local organizations (even online) to create change. Teaching Tolerance also provides resources for online student activism.
  • Entrepreneurship: At The Possible Project, students use design thinking to create businesses by posing questions: What could benefit from better design? What’s a need I see that hasn’t yet been filled? How can I help my community? From their innovative ideas and market research, students learn to prototype, test, refine, produce, and market products. They also have the chance to work in an in-house business refurbishing and reselling laptops to reduce e-waste. And it all begins by developing questions.

When students develop their own questions—ones that are open-ended and relevant—and have the opportunity to explore answers and actions, they drive their learning. Isn’t that the kind of agency, motivation, and critical thinking that education should ignite?


‘Cultivating Higher-Level Thinking’

Nick Kempski is an AVID elective teacher and site coordinator at West Chicago Community High School in West Chicago, Ill. He is a first-generation college student, who graduated from Illinois State University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in English education, and has a master’s degree from Aurora University in educational administration:

The first step in encouraging students to develop questions is to build meaningful relationships. Through relationships, teachers empower students to examine and understand their own values and interests, which helps deepen thinking and develop questions of their own. Once students identify their values and interests, teachers can encourage questioning through engagement, collaboration, and the cultivation of higher-level thinking.


Students build capacity to ask questions by practicing. The best way to get students to ask questions is to engage them in a topic and have them examine how it aligns to their interests and values. In the AVID class I teach, I may show my students a music video and ask Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How questions about it. In order to encourage students to start asking meaningful and purposeful questions, they must be engaged. That means providing something students can see their values and interests in. Teachers are able to identify and meet this need because of the meaningful relationships built.


After asking questions, I pair students up and have them take turns answering the questions. It is important to convey that although the question may be easy to understand, it may not be easy to answer. If I show them “You Belong to Me” by Taylor Swift, a question may be, “Why does she keep changing outfits in the mirror?” This is an easy question to comprehend, but it requires understanding of the various reasons she may change outfits. Students can analyze Taylor in different ways. Maybe she is trying to impress a boy and she is determining how he may like to view her. Maybe she is trying to figure out who she is as a person. Whatever the case, when students collaborate and answer questions together—considering their perspectives and those of their peers—they learn to analyze topics in different ways.

Cultivating Higher-Level Thinking

Once students have some practice asking questions, they are prepared to apply Bloom’s Taxonomy and Costa’s Higher Levels of Thinking. Students need to understand the types of questions they are asking and why they are asking them. Once they understand the benefits of asking different types of questions, students are encouraged to apply higher-level learning and inquiry to assignments, notes, and projects. When students identify what they do not understand and ask a question to help them arrive at the answer, then we are winning the game as educators.


Students ‘Can Ask Themselves Questions’

Jenny Edwards, Ph.D. , has taught students in kindergarten through grade 5 and grade 7 as well as students in higher education. She is currently teaching in the Leadership for Change doctoral program in the School of Leadership Studies at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. She has written Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students (ASCD, 2010) and Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD, 2014):

If one of our goals is to teach students questioning skills, we can teach them to ask themselves questions. We generally ask ourselves questions as we are going through the day, such as:

  • “What will I be doing today?”
  • “Who will I see today?”
  • “How will my lesson go?”
  • “What will the principal say in the faculty meeting?”
  • “Will I be able to talk to ________ today?”
  • “What will I eat for dinner tonight?”
  • “Will I encounter a lot of traffic on the way to and from school?”
  • “How will my meeting with my team go today?”

We can teach our students to ask themselves empowering questions to set a focus for the day. We can invite them to ask open-ended questions that have multiple answers rather than closed-ended questions that can be answered with “Yes” or “No.” Examples of questions to avoid asking would be the following:

  • “Will I be successful today?”
  • “Will people like me?”
  • “Will I get in trouble with the teacher?”
  • “Will I get my homework done?”
  • “Will ________ invite me to his/her party?”

Instead, we can teach them to ask open-ended questions that begin with “How,” such as:

  • “How can I be successful today?”
  • “How can I do a good job in school today?”
  • “How can I learn a lot today?”
  • “How can I complete my homework?”
  • “How can I show ___________ that I am concerned about him/her?”

What’s next? We could invite students to write their questions in a journal at the beginning of the day. Then, we could give them time at the end of the day to reflect on the answers to the questions and set new ones for the next day. We could provide time for them to share their questions and the results with a friend and/or with the class if they feel comfortable. As students ask themselves questions, they will set themselves up to become even more successful. They will also get into the habit of asking questions.


‘A Parking Lot Space for Questions’

Jennifer Orr is a national-board-certified elementary teacher in the suburbs of Washington. She is a mother of two and an obsessive buyer of children’s books:

Encouraging students’ questions can be as simple as showing that you value them. Our curriculum is so full and our days so jampacked that we often don’t feel there is time to explore a student’s question. Even questions that are on topic for our current studies. We might say that it’s a great question, but if the discussion and focus ends with that statement, students are unlikely to believe we value their inquiry.

In my elementary classrooms, I often have a parking lot space for questions. In the first weeks of the year, when students ask an intriguing question but we can’t address it in that moment, I’ll point them to the Post-it Notes and suggest they write it down and put it in our questions space. Anytime we have a few minutes before heading to lunch or elsewhere or if a lesson is not working well, I can grab a question or two, and we can talk about it then. It doesn’t take long before students begin writing questions down and sticking them in our questions space when they’re working independently or in small groups. They don’t wait for permission from me to post them. They also frequently take on finding answers as the year goes on. If a student reads something that gets at one of our questions, they’ll ask if they can teach the class. Again, when we have a few minutes, I’ll turn it over to them.

By the end of the first quarter of the year, my elementary students don’t usually need much from me to encourage the asking and researching of their questions. As long as Post-it Notes are readily available, they’ll keep adding. This pays off when we get to our research unit in language arts as they have already developed a lot of the reading and writing skills we focus on throughout that time. It also means they often end up with far deeper and wider knowledge in our social studies and science units as they ask and answer questions beyond our curriculum.

This is one of the most important things I want for my young learners. The curiosity to learn more and the ability to follow that curiosity are skills that will serve them throughout their years of school and beyond.


Thanks to Meg, Nick, Jenny, and Jennifer 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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