If you’ve ever been around toddlers, you know their favorite word: why? Toddlers display a stream-of-consciousness mode of questioning that can drive parents crazy. But, by the time kids reach elementary school, that innate desire to know more can be stifled. Suddenly, students in your classroom may be hesitant to ask questions. They may fear looking foolish in front of their peers, they may worry about your reaction to their question, or they may simply be too shy to speak up.
But asking questions is the way we find answers and solutions. Getting students to ask good questions creates curious learners who are engaged in the world around them. When students learn to ask good questions, they not only increase their knowledge base, but they also become active participants in their learning.
Asking questions is paramount to classroom success, says The Right Question Institute. The nonprofit provides resources to help students—and teachers—learn to think more effectively. “Teaching and Learning” is one of the organization’s six core initiatives.
“The ability to produce questions, improve questions and prioritize questions may be one of the most important—yet too often overlooked—skills that a student can acquire in their formal education,” the foundation says. “Strong critical thinking is often grounded in the questions we ask. By deliberately teaching questioning skills, we will be facilitating a process that will help students develop a mental muscle necessary for deeper learning, creativity and innovation, analysis, and problem solving.”
How can you foster an environment in your classroom where students not only feel comfortable asking questions, but are encouraged to display critical thinking skills, hone curiosity, and take risks by asking good questions?
It’s easier than you may think. Consider some of these suggestions to help students ask good questions:
Make Students Feel Safe
There’s strength in numbers and students may feel more comfortable asking questions if they don’t feel singled out. Check out this idea from The Right Question Institute: Use group exercises to brainstorm questions on a topic, without requiring answers. Set clear rules—no questions are judged and all questions are written down. This type of exercise allows students to flex their question muscles and get inspired by their peers to think more deeply.
Create a Wonder Box
Try this cute idea for a box to collect anonymous questions throughout the week in your classroom. Each week, select a question to discuss as a class. Questions can be about anything or can be related to a specific topic or subject that week.
Teach Students to Differentiate Between “Thin” and “Thick” Questions
Help students with reading comprehension by teaching them to understand the difference between “thin” and “thick” questions. “Thin” questions are ones that are easily answered—students can find the answer “right there” in the text, for example. “Thick” questions require more thought and research to answer. “Thick” questions tend to be more open-ended as well, asking things such as, “What if?” or “Why do you think…?”
Try the “5 Whys”
Journalist Warren Berger wrote the book on questions. Literally. He’s the author of “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas,” which encourages readers to ask “beautiful questions” that can identify problems and find solutions. Just asking “Why?” five times can help students decipher the answer to an issue, understand a character’s motivation in a book, or even solve a math problem. When the first “why” is answered, ask another that’s related to the answer, Berger says.
Try Socratic Seminars
Named for the philosopher who valued asking questions, these opportunities for small group discussion can really get the creative juices flowing when it comes to fostering curiosity in your classroom. They’re a great way to delve deeper into the meaning of a text and encourage critical-thinking skills in your students. Here’s a way to bring this higher-thinking concept into your classroom.