Questioning Strategies

Article by Sandi Sumerfield

If there were a “holy grail” of education, student engagement would be close to the top of the list. As teachers, we all want to create a community environment where students explore ideas in-depth, passionately consider all aspects of a topic, and listen with sincere interest to the ideas of others. An important foundation in establishing community is creating an environment where rich and engaging dialogue exists and a safe environment is established for all learners to openly explore possibilities they may not fully understand. Effective questioning strategies are a critical component in creating such an environment.

Lower level questions that seek to elicit specific and narrow knowledge can be useful to provide quick, informal assessment data that drives the next steps of instruction. However, lower level questions should be only a small part of the questioning strategies used in the quest to engage students in deeper thinking and the discovery of complex ideas. Often the most insightful ideas come from strategically crafted questioning that elicits open thinking and multiple ways to appropriately respond. The process is less about students responding with simply a right-or-wrong answer. Rather, insightful questioning is focused on understanding another person’s thought process, how they determine what is important, and how they apply their understanding to any given issue.

While the term “questioning” is frequently used, it is often just the vehicle used to better understand student thinking. Some of the most effective “probes” teachers can use are not questions at all, but rather inquiries into the thought processes that are the obscure underpinning for student responses. Starting off the dialogue with statements such as, “I wonder why…” or “Help me understand your thinking…” can be powerful ways to open the door to engaging conversations that provide an abundance of information about what your students know, how they are applying their knowledge, where meaning is breaking down for them, connections they are making that provide a previously not considered perspective, etc.

These moments can be powerful to experience, and accepting all ideas is key within the public discourse of the classroom. This acceptance, without overt judgement, speaks volumes to all members as it communicates that all approximations are accepted, that thinking is valued, and engagement with various perspectives is critical to creating an environment where all ideas are embraced.

Such opportunities open the door for conversation between students and teachers, as well as with each other. It is the free-flowing acceptance of all relevant ideas that engage students and allows teachers to gain the most insight into not only what students know but who they are as learners, and how their background colors their view. Equipped with this information, we are better prepared to personalize teaching and to broaden learning opportunities for all members of the community. Carefully crafted questions can challenge our students thinking, help them see the world through a different lens, and provide a safe arena to process ideas, knowing that the processing of thoughts and ideas is more valuable than attaining the “right” answer.

Maybe engagement isn’t the holy grail in education, but rather it is through richer engagement that we create more passionate learners who think deeper, make more meaningful connections, and (with curiosity) are able to consider all perspectives and possibilities as a lifelong learner, and that truly is the holy grail for every teacher.

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