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January 8, 2015
Vol. 10
No. 9

Teaching Students to Ask Rich Questions

Curious people ask questions, but we know students too often view school as uninteresting and predetermined. The mission of the Association for Middle Level Education is for students to "Become actively aware of the larger world, asking significant and relevant questions about that world and wrestling with big ideas and questions for which there may not be one right answer." (2010, p. 1). If we were to directly include students in the curriculum-creation process by making them the question-askers and not strictly answerers, their curiosities would be engaged and teachers would be closer to fulfilling this mission. However, students do not come to us ready to make this epistemological shift from question-answerer to question-asker. By employing these three moves, you will enable your students ask the kinds of questions that will lead to learning that sticks.

Move 1: Revisit Big Ideas

To ask questions that will lead to rich learning, one must have some familiarity with the topic being discussed. Teachers can create such familiarity for students by designing units of study around big ideas that recur through the curriculum (conflict, change, and power are examples from my social studies course). This means that teachers move conceptual understanding to the front and center of the instructional stage and push disjointed bits of information to the periphery. In addition, units no longer operate in isolation, instead spiraling and supporting one another so that more students are able to connect.
Essentially, revisiting big ideas provides students the necessary familiarity to ask thoughtful questions. For example, students are better able to generate high-quality questions about the Industrial Revolution when they know the unit is targeted at enhancing their understanding of the same big idea (i.e., change) that they studied for understanding the Reconstruction.

Move 2: Teaching With and For Questioning

Because granting students the power to ask and investigate their own questions is a significant shift in role responsibility, teachers must teach the value of asking good questions. The specific Question Formulation Technique (QFT) outlined in Move 3 is grounded in the authors' belief that effective curriculums develop skills for metacognition and convergent and divergent thinking so that students can ask and answer pertinent questions in all contexts (Rothstein & Santana, 2011). In other words, this approach intends to teach with and for questions, similar to calls for discussion in the classroom (Parker & Hess, 2001).

Move 3: Create a Process and Stick to It

Students need consistency, especially when educators challenge the conventional. Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Rothstein & Santana, 2011) is a guidebook for student question creation that I have found useful. Their question formulation technique is as follows:
  1. Choose a question focus statement (i.e., The scientific method must be followed).
  2. Establish rules for producing questions.
  3. Students produce questions.
  4. Students improve questions.
  5. Students prioritize questions.
To connecting this process to Move 1, clearly position the big idea in the question focus statement (e.g., for Reconstruction, "The Civil War didn't change much"). Students' questions are then "guiding questions" toward their understanding of the recurring big idea.
Of course, student-led question development becomes more powerful when authentic investigation follows. That is, if teachers provide the same learning activities as when they were the question-crafters, then they should not expect significant changes in learner outcomes. Creating learning teams based on the kinds of questions students ask is an effective strategy. Teams could consist of students asking different questions and lead to small-group jigsaw activities; or, students asking similar questions could be teamed in preparation for teaching the rest of the class. Online environments (e.g., Google Drive or Schoology) help students interact with one another and the teacher during the investigation phase. I recommend using a Gradual Release of Responsibility model (i.e., I do, we do, you do) throughout the school year (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983; Wiggins, 2014).

Toward More Meaningful Learning

Current practices that exclude the learner from curricular decisions at best operate from a differentiated-instruction perspective. If we want learning to stick with students, we need to shift toward a customized-learning perspective. Teaching students to ask rich questions is an opportune place to start.

Association for Middle Level Education (2010). This we believe executive summary. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Parker, W. C., & Hess, D. (2001). Teaching with and for discussion. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17, 273–289.

Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Educational Psychology, 8, 317–344.

Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Make just one change: Teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Virgin, R. (2014). Connecting learning: How revisiting big idea questions can help in history classrooms. The Social Studies, 105, 201–212.

Wiggins, G. (2014, August 30). UbD and inquiry: A response to two questions. Retrieved from http://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/08/30/ubd-and-inquiry-a-response-to-2-questions/

Robb Virgin is a principal at Eden Prairie High School in the western suburbs of Minneapolis.

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