Knowledge Bank - Creative Teaching & Learning

Questioning skills

What makes a good question? How can I use questioning to improve my students’ thinking? How can I improve my questioning? How can I encourage students to ask good questions? What is meant by a ‘questioning culture’? Why is Community of Enquiry and philosophy connected to questioning?

Teacher questions
Teacher questions are broadly categorised into ‘open’ or ‘closed’ questions. Open questions require more cognitive challenge and therefore stimulate learners to use higher-order thinking skills. Often Bloom’s taxonomy is used to structure questions of an increasing order of difficulty.

For an excellent example of best practice use of Bloom to develop questioning, read Jon Chippindall’s article The question mountain (Links open in new tab). In this article, Chippendall provides question stems using the cognitive categories of Bloom’s taxonomy – knowledge and recall, understanding, apply, create (or Bloom’s ‘synthesise’), and evaluate. He also discusses how displaying these questions helped him improve questioning ‘on the fly’, and students to formulate higher order questions.

In Alan Peat’s article, A question of creativity, Peat suggests a range of questions that can be used to foster creativity and creative thinking. He discusses the importance of fostering a culture of risk-taking in our thinking, and suggests, among others, the use of hypothetical questions to get the imagination wondering – for example, ‘what if…’, ‘if…., then….’ and ‘why’ questions to promote curiosity and exploration of the cause-effect relationship.

In the article, The Question X, Peter Worley argues that not only open questions produce rich and extending discussion. In fact controversially, in his words, ‘open questions can be the enemy of a good enquiry’! He shows how closed questions can steer discussion in a specific direction while keeping it challenging and ‘higher-order’.

Steve Williams meanwhile advocates a technique called ‘Fermi Questions’ in The value of Fermi Questions – based on the verbal reasoning method of Nuclear Physicist Enrico Fermi. This is useful for maths and science. The Fermi method involves a process of verbally asking yourself a series of leading conditional ‘if’ questions, that you can answer by estimating, which will ultimately lead you to the final answer.

What makes a questioning culture?
Ron Ritchhart argues in his article, The real power of questions, that the key to harnessing the power of questions is not simply formulating questions of high or low cognitive challenge, but rather, creating a culture of questioning and culture of enquiry within the classroom.

In his excellent must read article, Ritchhart discusses how the role of questions is to foster a culture of thinking. He discusses various strategies for doing this, based on empirical research. At the heart of his article is the notion of creating a dialogue to explore ideas within the classroom. Making thinking ‘visible’ is one of the ways of doing this. Another, ‘facilitating thinking’, with questions like ‘What makes you say that?’.

He also argues for ‘constructive questions’ that, rather than being add-ons to access the higher order thinking skills, are questions that get to the heart and fundamentals of the subject under investigation. In this article, he also discusses how to promote a culture of enquiry using questioning, emphasising that teachers can model inquisitive behaviour themselves by asking ‘I wonder’ questions to promote such a culture.

Importantly, at the heart of a questioning culture, Ritchhard argues, is listening to students’ questions and using them to promote further inquiry – which leads us nicely on to the Community of Enquiry, P4C approach.

Developing a Community of Enquiry
Matthew Lipman’s Community of Enquiry model of learning (also known as Philosophy for Children, or P4C)  centres learning around the questions that students pose.

In this model, a stimulus that is in some way problematic is provided – and students must come up with any number of questions in response to it. The class organises these questions and then chooses the questions they want to use to structure their enquiry. Through a process of structured discussion, the teacher supports the students to ask further questions of their subject, to question each other’s answers and challenge and develop their thinking.

This approach makes time for students to construct good questions and conveys that all questions are valued. It gives children ownership of their learning and encourages natural inquisitiveness by making the children’s own personal search for meaning the driver of their learning. It provides a wealth of materials to promote rich stimulus for enquiry.

The role of the teacher is to facilitate the development of the discussion by posing questions, when necessary, that will lead students to develop their thinking and ask further questions. Training in the P4C method will provide teachers with lots of skills and ideas and a clear process for developing questioning in students. For links to further reading, see our Philosophy for Children knowledge bank.

Student questions
Asking questions can be fundamental to students engaging with their learning. It is motivating and inspiring, as it brings student ownership and direction to the learning. It allows students to make their own meaning from the information they are learning.

A great starting place to gain more practical ideas to encourage students to ask creative and higher-order questions is Haynes and Murris’ article, What if Heaven is Full? (Open access and free to read). If you are organising CPD or an INSET day, you may want to use the DVD teacher training programme Intelligent Learning: The Dialogue of Active Minds, which among other things, shows teachers how to use the community of enquiry approach to develop student questioning. Steve William gives a great overview of this programme in his article, Intelligent Learning.

In the article Leading questions, Alan Combes discusses a framework designed to inspire students to ask challenging questions – developed in the 1960s by Postman and Weingarter in their book ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity’. In this framework, the teacher asks students challenging questions that push them to explore further questions in order to come to an answer. These ‘leading questions’ challenge students to explore philosophical, psychological and etymological aspects of questions and then analyse the difference between subjective and objective questions and answers. Combesalso suggests using a frame of whereby students take on the role of a journalist to learn journalistic interviewing/investigative techniques to produce quality questions.

Critical to encouraging students to ask questions is creating a culture where students feel comfortable or even ‘cool’ to ask questions. Jane Smith discusses her experience trying to generate a more questioning, confident and curious classroom climate in her article Any Questions?. For another interesting case study, see The Question Tree by Frances Field and Nalini Randal, in which they discuss a technique (among other strategies) whereby students create questions about a new topic at the start of a unit, which are then used to drive the learning of that unit.

In Developing Curious Minds, Steve Williams argues that certain dispositions are essential in questioning – among others: ignorance, need, courage and will. Following the work of J.T Dillon (a world authority on questioning), he suggests a range of practical strategies for encouraging student questioning.

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