Can you do the question quick step?

“OK, so who has a question they would like to investigate?”

Silence…the sound of a solitary frog croaks in the background. You stare at the students. They stare back. Some students try to avert their gaze, so as not to be asked directly. A tumble weed rolls across the classroom.

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Sound familiar? Well, maybe not the tumble weed or frog part, but you get the idea. Sometimes I think that if questioning was a dance it would be like the quick step, full of confusing moves that seems to whizz you around the dance floor in a random direction. Questions are so necessary to learning yet, sometimes, are so hard to create and control.

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How do we get kids to be curious? How do we get them to transform this curiosity into questions? And when I’m talking about questions I mean good, thick, juicy ones, ones that can be investigated.

In this post, following on from others in this inquiry series, I’m inquiring;

“How can we get students to ask good questions that will lead them to interesting outcomes?”

According to Mandy Lupton (Who is a god in the world of inquiry! Check out her blog) There are 4 types of questioning in inquiry learning. I have summarized them below.

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From this table it is clear that inquiry teaching involves a lot of questioning on the part of the teacher. These questions guide and shape the inquiry. So perhaps this is where we should begin. If we want students to ask good questions. We as teachers need to model good questioning. If we guide students through inquiry we will include all 4 types of questions in our teaching. It may seem that I want to focus in on the generative questions in this post. These questions are the ones that assist students to form questions. However, these types of questions are not the only way to lead students into the “thick and juicy” inquiry learning that we are hoping for. In fact to do this we need to look further, we need to give students opportunities to critically evaluate. 

Model good questioning

Soon after hearing Kath Murdoch speak at a conference I was inspired to include more questioning in my teaching or “wondering” as she put it. I had students questioning our reading strategies, students mediated behavior conferences using questions. I questioned students about their writing during conferences. Maths became less a time of me telling the answers and more a time of me posing an idea and questioning students about why it works. The most visible difference in my classroom at this time was the appearance of a questioning table. See this post for more on this.

This isn’t to say I never used questioning in my teaching before. I did. However, I became more thoughtful in my use of questions. I questioned with intent and questioned often. In the past I often modeled too much. I gave students the answers in my modeling. This lead to students who were not risk takers often following or even copying my examples.To get my students to ask better questions I needed to lead but not drive.

Origami ships

My questions needed to provoke students to discover their own questions. Instead of completely modeling what I would like students to do I might partially model. A partially modeled example might sound like this:

“Now is your chance to think of a question on rivers. Your question might start with “where…” or “what…”. You might have a question about a specific part of a river or a question that relates to an experience you have had with rivers.”

Rather than modelling an exact example I have discovered that if I guide students thinking by using prompt statements their questions are more creative and individual.

Question 1

Give opportunities to critically evaluate

How often do you allow your students to reflect on what they have said? How do you show validation for students questions when they are off the mark? Do we allow our students to reflect on their questioning skills when they are doing it right?

It is through the act of reflection that students refine their questioning skills. Recently, in class, I placed the inquiry focus question on the wall “What influence do people have on the environment?” I asked the students to pose a question about this question. Each student wrote their question on a post-it note and my team teachers and I stuck each question up with the focus question. Yes, we pinned up the questions with spelling errors. Yes, we stuck the ones up that were off the mark. When we received each question we praised the kids for their questions. Just this act acknowledged the importance of each question. The other thing we did was ask each student about their question as they came up with their post-it note;

“Why did you ask that?”

“Is the answer for that something clear or something you need to work out?”

“Is that question about the focus question?”

Question Mark Cookies 4

And these little questions on the side allowed students to evaluate their own questions. From this questioning some student went away and reworded their questions. In the bigger picture of inquiry evaluative questions should be used throughout the process. To help students to refine their questions and refine their inquiry. However, more specifically they can be used to refine learning skills such as the art of forming a question.

The quickstep of questions may be difficult and can be confusing to learning if it is unstructured. However, if we make questions an intentional part of our daily teaching students will become more confident with the moves. If we give students the opportunity to ask questions and time to evaluate we will be able to correct missteps. If we model good questioning practices we will no longer be giving instructions from the sidelines but taking each student by the hand and leading them through the steps. So, lets dance this questioning dance together!

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A note of warning: If you are new to the world of true inquiry teaching it does feel very awkward to leave questions dangling above students without giving them the answers straight away. I have been there. I have wanted to call out, “Can’t you see! This is the answer!” But give it a chance. I found that just sitting in this discomfort and letting students feel it too led to the greatest teaching and learning I have seen. If you are in this biz for the light bulb moments, inquiry learning (when done well) is the light bulb shop!

I will leave my inquiry metaphors (and this short series on inquiry) there for now.

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