How to ask questions that fly rather than flop

"Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers." – Voltaire

Voltaire’s classic quote challenges us as teachers to see that there are no bad answers, just bad questions. 

We’re all guilty of occasionally asking “are there any questions” at the end of a lesson, so we know these four innocent words instantly provoke a deafening silence in our classrooms.  

It’s clear that students often avoid asking questions because they fear it proves they’ve been daydreaming or haven’t grasped the concepts. And students, like many adults, do not risk appearing foolish in front of their friends. 

Instead, when we frame our questions mindfully, we elicit confident responses. Suddenly, our questions help promote further thinking and learning and provide exciting opportunities for students to feel empowered working to a solution. That’s when we feel the energy lift in our classrooms. 

Here are five powerful strategies itc publications’ consultants use in our workshops with students of all ages all over Australia. Teachers consistently tell us these simple strategies instantly boost the energy, engagement and learning outcomes in their classrooms. 

Remember, effective questions help to:
• promote learning
• engage all students
• expose student knowledge
• generate correct responses that may vary in depth and breadth
• promote mental engagement, practice and/or success opportunities
• provide insight into students’ understanding and/or thinking
• provide insights to the teacher as to likely best next steps for promoting learning
• give students opportunities for learner-controlled feedback


(i) Borrowed Questions 
Instead of asking, “Are there any questions?” ask “What questions might others in our classroom need to have answered?” This empowers students to feel a supportive team-like approach to exploring clever questions and arriving at solutions.    

Invite students to generate one or two questions that other students might need answered. Then ask the students to share those questions either directly or through question collections or question cards. 

(ii) Question Collections 
Rather than answering one question at a time, maintain a more effective flow and order by collecting all the questions at once, then determining the best way to approach them. 

This saves a lot of time while providing more effective instruction. It also helps to reduce student frustration because everyone sees all the questions will be addressed eventually. Write them down on an whiteboard or computer as the students list questions they think someone else might have about the lesson.

(iii) Question Cards
Students list 1–3 questions on index cards that they believe may need to be answered for the class. Collect the remaining questions and study them in-between classes or during a break. When the class resumes, inform the class that you are using them to guide the class. As appropriate, read a question and either answer it or ask the students to answer based on what has recently been covered in class. 

Value add: This is also a useful technique for planting questions yourself that you wish to inject into the lesson. 

(iv) Ask ‘Why?’ Differently
When students are asked “Why?” outside of the school environment, often it is a situation in which someone believes the student has done something wrong. For example, “Why did you push Jenny?” or “Why are you not listening?” For this reason, many students react defensively as soon as they hear the word ‘why’ at the beginning of a sentence. 

Find other ways of asking “why?” by considering prompts such as:
• “What might be the reasons behind…?”
• “Will you please explain your reasoning…?”
• “Will you tell me more about…?”
• “How do you think that…?“

(v) Socratic Questioning
Socratic questioning refers to questions that seek clarification and draw out deeper responses. The questioning asks students to think more about what exactly they are asking or thinking about. Some socratic question starters include:
• “What exactly does this mean?”
• “How does this relate to…?”
• “What is the nature of...?”
• “What do we already know about this?”
• “Can you give me an example?”
• “Are you saying...or...?”
• “Can you please rephrase that?”

Of course, this is only a small sample of the strategies available to us as educators. What are your favourite ways to get students involved in question time? Happy questioning! 


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