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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 Will Ask Great Questions If We Give Them the Chance’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 16, 2021 14 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

Today, Mike Kaechele, Kathy Dyer, Suzanne McCabe, and Deedy Camarena provide their answers.

Project-Based Learning

Mike Kaechele is a PBL coach in Grand Rapids, Mich., and National Faculty for PBLWorks. He believes in student-centered learning by giving kids authentic opportunities to do real work with local community partners:

The typical student spends the majority of their school day answering teacher or textbook questions. Most of these questions are low-level recall or summarizing of information. Much of the joy of learning has been eliminated from any part of their school day. In fact, students actually do care about a myriad of important topics but are rarely given the opportunity to explore them in school.

Students will ask great questions if we give them the chance. But there must be follow-through, where students are given the opportunity to explore their questions. Why would students ask probing questions if they know that they are just going to be filling out a worksheet? The best way to teach students to develop their own questions is to center inquiry through project-based learning (PBL) and protocols.

After an Entry Event that builds excitement around a project topic, students generate Need to Knows (N2Ks), their own questions about the project that they are curious about. If students are experiencing PBL for the first time, they may need to be given some examples to prime the pump, but if the topic is introduced well, they will quickly ask solid questions. One of my favorite protocols to combine with N2Ks is the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the Right Question Institute. After brainstorming N2Ks, the QFT teaches students to identify, sort, and convert closed and open-ended questions. I have found that the QFT protocol leads to stronger questions. Thereafter, I can point out when students ask a simple, closed question, and they can convert it to an open-ended one. Great questions should be acknowledged and celebrated.

After students have created the N2K list, they prioritize their questions. An effective protocol for this is Question Sorts from The Power of Making Thinking Visible. After individually brainstorming questions on sticky notes or notecards, students, as a class, place them on a coordinate plane. First, students place questions on a horizontal axis based on generativity: How likely is the question to generate engagement, deeper learning, and lead to more exploration of the topic? Then each question is moved up or down on the vertical axis based on genuineness: How interested are students in exploring this question? What ends up in the first quadrant are the deepest questions that students are most interested in.

Now students can dive into inquiry by researching for answers. It is vital that students see that their open-ended questions drive the class inquiry. I typically start off each class with a discussion about which N2Ks have been answered and which ones will be the focus of today’s inquiry. Research moves beyond textbook answers, as students explore the internet, primary and secondary sources, and interview experts and community members to find nuance, evaluate bias, and determine truth. Students engage deeply during the project and are motivated when they are addressing their own questions, not mine. Student research leads to further questions, which are added to the N2K list, creating an endless cycle of inquiry in the classroom.

Consistently following the PBL philosophy establishes a culture that honors student voice in the form of centering their questions. One key ingredient is that the teacher needs to humbly trust the PBL process, that although messy at times, leads to students engaging in purposeful work. Students will never ask deep questions about content that they feel is meaningless and irrelevant. When teachers let go of total control of the classroom, empowering students, they will surpass all expectations!


The Question Formulation Technique

Kathy Dyer is an innovative educator with over 25 years’ experience. She served as a public school teacher, principal, and district assessment coordinator. Kathy researches, designs, and delivers professional learning opportunities for educators across the United States and around the world:

Students, learners, have so many questions. How do we help them develop “good” questions to support their learning? One of the techniques that really seems to resonate with students (OK, adults, too) is the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the Right Question Institute. This is a six-step process and includes:

Step 1 - Teacher designs a question focus. This serves as a prompt that the teacher presents in the form of a statement or as a visual. It is the focus of student questions.

Step 2 - Students develop questions. Students use a protocol for producing questions without teacher assistance. The protocol guides learners to 1) ask as many questions as you can; 2) don’t discuss, judge, or answer the questions; 3) write down every question exactly as it was stated; and 4) change any statements into questions.

Step 3 - Students improve their questions. Students look at the differences between open-ended and closed questions.

Step 4 - Students prioritize their questions. The teacher, with the lesson in mind, provides feedback for selecting priority questions.

Step 5 - Students and teachers agree on next steps. The classroom learning team collaborates to decide how to use the questions. Once questions are developed, they can be used to support the lesson/topic that was the focus or extend the learning about the topic.

Step 6 - Students reflect on the process.

Using a strategy like QFT to help students develop questions can increase learners’ ability to brainstorm, prioritize, reflect, and self-advocate. Step 5 of the process provides the classroom learning team options as to the next steps for the use of the questions. Options may include using the questions as part of the learning, aspects of the assessment, opportunities for student choice, or potential new ideas.

Helping students take ownership of their learning, be more articulate with their questions, tap into their natural curiosity, and see assessment as a support for learning moves them to a different level of engagement in their education. What questions do you want to hear your learners asking?


Exploring the ‘Wow’ Factor

Suzanne McCabe is the editor of Scholastic Kids Press, a team of Kid Reporters ages 10–14 from around the world who report “news for kids, by kids.” McCabe, who began her career as a teacher, was previously editor of Junior Scholastic, a news and history magazine for middle school classrooms:

Kids want to know how things work. They want to know how far away the sun is, why the sky is blue, and what lies beyond the ocean. That hunger for knowledge doesn’t quit them, even when they enter school. Educators can nurture students’ curiosity by encouraging them to explore the “wow” factor in each of their questions. For example, the sun, on average, is a whopping 93 million miles away from Earth. Since its light travels at the speed of 186,000 miles per second, it takes about eight minutes to reach us. Oh, and the sun is actually a star.

By answering one question, you encourage kids to ask more questions. When they’re excited about a topic, learning new words and concepts is worth the effort. Learning becomes an adventure, not a chore.

As the editor of Scholastic Kids Press—a team of student journalists ages 10–14 who report “news for kids, by kids”—I foster this curiosity by encouraging ourKid Reporters to write articles on topics that interest them and that affect their communities directly. This starts with the basics of journalism: who, what, when, where, why, and how. To help our young reporters build confidence, I ask them to draft their own questions, keeping the key journalistic concepts in mind. Then they think about the wow factor—what they really want to know and what drew them to the topic in the first place. “Let your mind ask its own questions,” advises Kid Reporter Teresa Fang, 13. “Be honest. Don’t hold back.”

When Teresa became a Kid Reporter in 2018, she had never written a news article. Suddenly, she and her family in North Carolina were battening down the hatches for Hurricane Florence. With flood waters raging across the state, and the power out in her neighborhood, Teresa wanted to know if her friends were safe, how extensive local damage was, and when schools would reopen. I encouraged my junior journalist to draft questions for lawmakers, meteorologists, and clean-up crews.

Once questions have been drafted, the next step is encouraging students to seek out experts and individuals with firsthand knowledge of the subject. Kids also can do their own fact-finding by looking at available statistics and previous research and asking themselves: “What do the numbers mean? What stories do they tell?”

After the initial danger from the hurricane had passed, Teresa put on her rain boots, grabbed her notebook and cellphone, and talked with neighbors and local officials. She returned with information about rainfall totals, downed trees, and dwindling supermarket supplies. Talking with experts empowered Teresa, as it does other kids. “I want to hear from firsthand sources, not thirdhand sources,” Teresa says. “I want to get accurate information instead of playing telephone.”

With enough practice seeking out experts, students begin to see that concise, carefully worded questions typically yield the most-helpful responses. As Kid Reporter Leo Tobbe, 14, says, “If you phrase a question in a way that’s confusing or doesn’t make sense, the person answering might think you’re asking a different question and give the wrong answer.”

When adults take them seriously, students gain confidence and realize that they can ask questions of just about anyone—scientists, community leaders, authors, and news anchors—and share what they’ve learned with others. Access to technology makes the task easier, introducing young people to a range of issues, including climate change, racism, and income inequality, as well as possible solutions. With guidance, they can quickly gain the media-literacy skills needed to figure out which online sources can be trusted and which can’t.

As you help your students explore topics that excite them, don’t forget that asking questions can be scary. “The most important thing,” says Leo, “is feeling like I’m in an environment where I feel safe to ask questions and I won’t feel stupid or out of place.”

Encourage kids to keep asking questions, but make sure they feel safe and confident enough to do so. There are plenty of questions to go around.


Using Bloom’s Taxonomy

Deedy Camarena is the coordinator for English-language development (ELD), dual and world languages at the Santa Clara County Office of Education in California:

All students benefit from the process of creating questions. The key is to guide students through the process and allow for productive struggle. Via Idea EDU, Nancy McClure and Mindy McWilliams state, “Using student-generated questions, rather than ones you pose, will tend to engage students more in discovering the answers because they are invested in the process from start to finish, leading to increased satisfaction with their learning experience and a more positive attitude.”

The process of questioning pushes our students to be self-directed learners. They become more engaged in learning versus memorization. We can encourage students to develop their own questions by implementing three things: establish a question-asking environment, encourage the asking of questions by utilizing Bloom’s Taxonomy, and provide opportunities to give and receive feedback from student to student and student to teacher.

By nature, humans are curious. Asking questions helps us make sense of our world and the things included in it. Additionally, capitalizing on this intellectual curiosity will teach our students that questions are good and needed to figure out the game we call life. In order to establish a safe place to ask questions, we must model it.

First, with the class, create some guidelines around conduct. They will take ownership of the guidelines as they are the creators of the guidelines. Then, you may want to start by asking a question-of-the-day. At first, start off with general questions, such as some published by The New York Times: Where in the world would you like to get lost? Can money buy you happiness? What artists do you consider sellouts and why? Once students are accustomed to a daily question, then start posing questions to the content. When you feel as if your students have mastered the guidelines and questioning, allow them to take over the asking of the questions.

To realize engaging questions, start by using Bloom’s Taxonomy. Begin with questions related to Remembering (How would you explain mammals?) and work your way to Creating (What would happen if you rotated the axis?). The lower-leveled questions “(evaluate) students’ preparation and comprehension,” whereas the higher-leveled questions “encourage students to think deeply and critically.”

I modeled the asking of questions utilizing Bloom’s Taxonomy throughout the day, so that my students would hear them in action. To practice this with my students, I would first display a picture related to the content. Then, I would determine a domain to focus on for the day and ask the students to come up with a question. They would have the opportunity to write it down on an online platform such as Padlet. I would review these questions before the students returned the next day and display them on the Padlet the following day. Seeing their own questions validated and displayed in front of their peers motivates students to ask great questions. I would encourage students to read their own question and ask for responses. Sentence starters for stating opinions, supporting and elaborating, comparing/contrasting, agreeing/ disagreeing, and building upon could be utilized as guides to respond. Developing their own questions encourages students to inquire, think deeply, and collaborate to reach higher-leveled questioning.

To improve upon students’ questioning techniques, teachers and students must provide feedback. Of the 252 influences on achievement researched by John Hattie, feedback ranks #32 and has an effect size of .70, with .40 considered average. Hattie believes that “feedback is to the teacher, it’s not the other way around. It’s how teachers can see that any assessment they do ... is how they can increase the feedback to them about how they go, where they go, and where to next.” When students provide feedback to each other, they learn from each other. When teachers provide feedback, they learn how they can support the student. In turn, the student improves upon their questioning skills and, therefore, continues down the road of a self-directed learner.

The ability to ask effective questions is a skill of a 21st-century learner and pushes our students to think critically. To succeed in school and life, they must learn to ask questions that dig deeper and seek out information on their own.


Thanks to Kathy, Mike, Suzanne, and Deedy 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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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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