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Teaching Students to Question

Monday, May 18, 2015 -- Scott Sterling

The Common Core State Standards and the associated next-generation assessments call for students to communicate effectively, which includes developing the ability to question their surroundings. Students should be encouraged to question everything in the classroom, including their teachers, their classmates, and even the curriculum itself.

Questioning is a skill that can be taught and modeled, just like anything else. Here are some things to keep in mind as you move your students toward questioning mastery.

What to model

Students will question in the same manner that you question them. As you look for evidence of understanding during a lesson, be sure to ask questions that meet the following criteria:

  • Open-ended: The key to higher-order thinking is usually in open-ended questions. These questions may still have a specific correct answer, but that answer will not be only one word or phrase.
  • Randomized: Make sure that you ask questions of every student, instead of focusing in on certain students who are eager to answer. Look into randomization apps online if you have to.
  • Multipart: Although you don’t want to “grill” students, they need to see that thinking occurs in steps, not all at once.

Facilitate

Gradual-release models would have you guide students through their first forays into questioning. Approach your job as that of a moderator. You might have to call on students both to question and answer. You may even have to spur on the conversation. If you’re doing it right, you’ll find yourself having to do less and less as the lesson goes on.

Socratic seminars

Once you think that your students have a handle on how to question each other, a Socratic Seminar might be a great way to let them stretch their wings. Here is how it works:

  1. Before class, students read a common text or watch a video that will spur conversation. Controversy is fine here, but sensationalism isn’t.
  2. Students sit in a circle or around a big table. If you have a large class, have half of your students sit in an outer circle taking notes and rating the other participants before they rotate into the inner circle.
  3. As the teacher, you may need to guide the discussion, but the goal is really for students to run the show, engaging in a respectful conversation where everyone learns something about the topic.
  4. Leave time at the end to sum up what happened. Assessments and grades are possible with a thorough rubric.

Last year, we wrote in depth about allowing students the chance to ask questions in the context of the Marzano Research Laboratory’s work. You can check it out here.