Questioning the Practice of Questioning

Questioning the Practice of Questioning

by Christopher Lehman, Founding Director of The Educator Collaborative

There are a lot of good reasons why schools, districts, and even teacher “effectiveness measures” spend time focused on “questioning.” At the core is a belief that that our purpose in classrooms is to help facilitate learning, not just talk at the front of the room. Naturally, it continues, if one asks a great question, that means students will have great responses and the classroom will be full of voices.

Too often “the question” becomes more important than the actual process of questioning.

A problem arises, however, when we do not see the forest for the trees. Too often professional learning, including  teacher observation feedback, overemphasizes only one small piece of a complex and important system. Too often “the question” becomes a bigger focus than the actual process of questioning.

Feedback from administrators like, “your questions were low level,” is hard to turn into actionable steps because “low” is often equated to the words in the question, not the context surrounding them.

PLC time sometimes looks like hours staring at DOK wheels and Blooms Taxonomy lists. Entire teams of smart adults huddle around chart paper to rewrite and rewrite lists of questions: “Is this one Bloomsy enough?” “Is this a DOK level 3 or 4? I think the task was to write it as a 4. Is this a 4?”

I had one educator recount to me the hours of PLC time spent on formulating questions: “it got to the point where I wondered how I ever was able to ask a question at any other time in my life!”

It, of course, is great to study a topic deeply with colleagues. However, if adults—from the classroom educators, to coaches running meetings, to administrators looking for “questioning” during observations—are spending so much time on a practice, we should expect to see lots of carry over to students.

If we are really doing this right, shouldn’t our high level questioning not just lead to student answers, but also to high level student questions, too?


Focus on the Process of Questioning, Not Just the Question

I would like to suggest that you put aside your Wheels, Lists, and Ladders of question words for a moment. Instead, take a step back and consider the context in which you ask questions, the reasons and timing for them, and what effects they have on you and others.

A good place to start is in two areas: Purpose and Timing. Teaching into these, modeling these behaviors, and inviting students to try them on, too, can empower students to question thoughtfully and powerfully.

For example, it’s helpful to start by defining some purposes for questions, as in this chart:

Define Purposes for Questions

Kind Description Sounds like
Clarify Asking to better understand a term, point, or idea. We do this for ourselves but also to others better understand what someone said. “Could you clarify… when you said X, what did you mean by that?”
Extend Asking to gathering more information, thinking, or in general just hear more because you might be really interested. “That is so interesting! What else helped you realize that?”
Challenge Asking to “push back” on what someone said, to critique or challenge their ideas or position. This does not always mean argue, you can challenge respectfully, too. “I’m not so sure I agree. Can you imagine a reason that wouldn’t be true?
Support Asking to see how you can join in, help someone, or support them in their idea or plan. This can be a simple question but can mean a lot. “I love this plan. How can I help you make it happen?”

There are likely other purposes, too. When you define and describe purposes, they become more actionable for students.

What I especially like about a study like this, is that it can shift some students’ feelings that questions are only for when you are stuck into showing how adults use smart, targeted questions all the time. In fact, adults who are really good at questions become known for them. In a recent 60 Minutes anniversary episode, past investigative reporters were lauded for their “hard hitting” questions. Television personalities like Oprah become known for our well they listen and asking “probing questions.” You may even have colleagues that you recognize as asking “the right” questions in meetings.


Model When You Ask Questions

Put purposes into action, then, by modeling for students. This can happen in a few different ways:

  • Plan to ask a question and stop to comment on it: “Did you notice how I asked that question in order to…”
  • In the moment catch yourself asking a question and comment on it: “I realize I just asked a question. Let’s think about why I did that…”
  • Point out a reason to ask a question, then “pass the mic” to a student to try out what you should ask (or invite the class to tell a partner): “So, I just heard him say that and I want to clarify his point more. What could I say?”

The entire process of questioning, not just the words in the question itself, make up the full context for this important skill. Much more than simply the words we use, thinking about why and when we question can make the practice more powerful (and perhaps, professional study of questioning more applicable).


So here’s question to extend this post: What do you find effective (or ineffective) in work around questioning? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.