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Learning Library Blog The art of asking: It's not about what you know — but knowing what to ask
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The art of asking: It's not about what you know — but knowing what to ask

By Nicole Krueger
June 19, 2018
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Even before a rally protesting the removal of Confederate monuments turned violent, students in Charlottesville started asking questions.

What was fueling the acrimonious controversy that gripped their community? Why do monuments matter? What’s the purpose of memorializing?

Their curiosity sparked a multidisciplinary project among five area high schools. Throughout the year, English and history students investigated the meaning of monuments in society and the significance of who gets memorialized. After a series of student-led discussions, the teens used an untold story from history as the basis for designing their own physical or virtual monuments.

Funded by a $20,000 grant supported by the National Writing Project, the yearlong inquiry offers a powerful example of how students’ questions can lead to incredible learning opportunities – provided teachers give them the space to follow their curiosity.

“We tend to forget that students have really powerful questions they hold within themselves, and we don’t make enough room for those in the classroom setting,” says Diana Laufenberg, executive director for Inquiry Schools, a nonprofit that helps create and support student-centered learning environments.

“Teachers feel pressured by time, standards and outcomes, and they’re not necessarily allowed to bend toward a kid’s internal questions and curiosity.”

According to Harvard child psychologist Paul Harris, kids ask around 40,000 questions between the ages of 2 and 5. Most reach their inquisitive peak by age 4, after which the volume of questions plummets and their inquiry skills begin to atrophy.

“When they get to third or fourth grade, they’re just asking, ‘What do you want me to do?’ It gets more procedural,” Laufenberg says. “This shutting down is happening across America.”

The lack of student curiosity has alarmed many educators who see inquiry as a crucial starting point for the deeper learning needed to develop students’ digital age skills. Creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving all demand the capacity to ask meaningful questions. Today’s students have a world of information at their fingertips, and the questions they ask will shape the answers technology gives them.

Ashley Chassard's science students at Menchville High School in Newport News, Virginia, learned to ask some pretty complex questions as they embarked on a research project to determine if the female hormone estrogen inhibits Parkinson's disease. 

"We've had some really rich conversations and data talks because, believe me, I would leave some days with their questions and I'm scratching my head, and I'm like, 'Well, we have to go figure it out together," Chassard said. Watch the short video below to see how students designed an experiment involving zebra fish and a neurotoxin to study the causes of Parkinson's: 


How questions fuel learning

Scientific breakthroughs, technological innovations and movements for social change all stem from the same seed: a driving question that leads the seeker toward a new solution.

A growing body of research suggests questions also play a critical role in learning. They activate prior knowledge, helping students make connections and uncover patterns. They engage learners in critical reasoning. They can even improve students’ ability to remember what they’ve learned.

In one study, two groups of students read six-sentence stories about animals. One group just got the stories. The other read versions in which each sentence was punctuated by a “why” question. Later, when researchers asked them about what they read, the second group answered 59 percent of the questions correctly while the first group scored an average of 48 percent.

The act of asking questions “is probably one of the most important tools we have for learning and understanding,” says Warren Berger, author of the book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.

“I like to use the metaphor of the question as a flashlight that we shine into the unknown – the better the question, the more light it shines.”

Questions lie at the heart of some of the most powerful pedagogies educators are using to drive deeper learning. Whether the approach is inquiry-based, project-based or student-centered learning, it all hinges on a student’s ability to ask meaningful questions that impel them to seek answers.

“When you’re organically curious about something and you want to find the answer, it gives you a real purpose,” Lee says. “It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s in the context of the classroom, and it doesn’t matter what the standard or objective is. You have a real purpose in trying to answer that question. It’s powerful that way.”

As educators struggle to engage more students in STEM subjects, the ability to use questions to propel scientific inquiry becomes even more important. Asking questions, defining problems and carrying out investigations form the core of the Next Generation Science Standards. They’re also embedded in the ISTE Standards for Students, playing a key role in developing computational thinking and innovative design skills.

Yet too many schools continue to focus on memorizing the right answers rather than formulating good questions. Between teachers’ need to maintain control of growing classrooms and state-mandated assessments that require students to learn an exhaustive list of content, many educators feel they don’t have enough space or time to allow students’ questions to drive learning.

That’s something many educators want to see changed.

“In 13 years of schooling, we have to prepare kids to not need us for the next 60 years,” Laufenberg says. “What they need is not information. They need set habits around learning and researching, around being curious, asking questions and knowing how to find the answers. Otherwise, they’ll be woefully unprepared for the world that awaits them.”

Reigniting curiosity

After decades of training the ability to question out of students, reversing the trend may not be easy. Students often stop asking questions because they feel judged by their peers or embarrassed that they don’t already know the answers. It takes a classroom culture committed to inquiry, where student questions are routinely sought and highly valued, to overcome their reticence.

“Sometimes you have to meet the kids where they’re at,” says Myla Lee, an instructional coach and project-based learning specialist for Novi Community School District in Michigan. “Before you can spark their minds, you have to touch their hearts. Whatever they’re passionate about might not be fluffy, and it might be something that makes the teacher uncomfortable, but you have to give them that voice.”

Too often, teachers are the ones who do most of the asking. By middle and high school, students have grown accustomed to delivering answers while allowing their natural inquisitiveness to wither. They may have questions, but they often haven’t developed the skills to articulate them.

“When students are asking questions, they get better at it,” says Sarah Westbrook, a former classroom teacher and director of professional learning for the Right Question Institute. “Students who aren’t asking questions get worse at it because they aren’t practicing it.”

To help students exercise their questioning skills, a growing number of teachers have begun using the institute’s Question Formulation Technique (QFT) in their classrooms. The six-step process serves as a framework for devising, prioritizing and reflecting on questions to help learners expand their capacity for inquisitiveness.

QFT was further described in a blog post by Drew Perkins, director of professional development at TeachThought, as a “type of rich inquiry that elevates student autonomy and collaboration” while helping create a culture focused on safety in discovery.

Less than a decade ago, when the QFT was first published, just five classrooms were using it. Today, more than 300,000 teachers worldwide have applied the technique.

Aaron Eisberg is one of them. As the coordinator for New Technology High School’s Center for Excellence in Napa, California, he sees its value in developing driving questions for project-based learning.

“It’s a great way to teach kids to structure their questioning and understand the difference between open and closed questions,” he says. “It helps build the idea that more questions are good. More questions help make their work better and help improve the learning itself.”

Writing offers another avenue for formulating driving questions, says Christina Cantrill, associate director of national programs for the National Writing Project. Through the process of writing, students can clarify and explore their questions in greater depth.

“Often, we don’t even know what our questions are,” she says. “If you support inquiry-based learning in the classroom, one of the challenges is just getting to the kernel of what you need to be asking and getting to the questions that lead you to investigate something salient that’s meaningful.”

Technology can be a valuable tool for eliciting and fine-tuning questions, as well. Students who are reluctant to speak up in class can send their questions to the teacher privately. Or they can share their work online and learn from the questions their peers are asking. They can also use online tools to find answers that will lead them to better and deeper questions.

“Technology can spark their curiosity, and it can also help sustain it,” says Lee, whose district uses tech tools to create “curiosity kits” designed to cultivate student’s inquisitiveness. “It can be a tool for posing the question, for the research and process of answering the question, and for reporting out the answers and creating more questions.”

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What questions can reveal

When a California math teacher decided to use the QFT with his AP calculus class, he thought he was doing something wrong. Despite his efforts, students kept asking surface-level questions rather than the deeper inquiries he expected.

“What he realized is that they didn’t have the conceptual understanding,” Westbrook says. “A lot of the students had gotten into the class because they were really good at memorizing and they were really good at doing the equations. But as soon as he was giving them prompts that asked them to apply an equation they already knew, they couldn’t do it. It was really revealing that their math instruction prior to that hadn’t been asking for very much critical thinking, and that they were able to get by on doing the calculations.”

The takeaway? Not only are teachers doing most of the asking in the classroom, but they’re asking the wrong questions.

“Often, as teachers, we ask questions that don’t necessarily help us figure out whether learning has taken place or not,” says Margaret Jones-Carey, assistant professor and program director for the Educational Leadership Program at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, New York. “They help us understand whether there’s rote knowledge transfer, but we don’t really seem to be able to ask the right questions all the time to get to that.”

When students do the asking, however, the types of questions they formulate can reveal fathoms about what they already know as well as what they want to know, she says. 

“Teaching students to ask questions gets us further in understanding where their brain really is in acquiring and applying new knowledge.”

When students ask low-level questions with yes-or-no answers, for example, it shows they’re still at the knowledge acquisition level. Open-ended questions can be a sign of progress, but they still have a right or wrong answer.

“When they start to ask ‘what if’ questions and hypothesis questions, we see them start to move up on the higher-order thinking skills,” she says.

By using student questions as a type of formative assessment, teachers can gauge where students are and tailor their lessons accordingly, adds Andrew Minigan, director of strategy for the Right Question Institute’s education program.

Educators also need to think about how they respond to students’ questions in the moment. Simply giving an answer doesn’t encourage inquisitiveness, but volleying with another question helps students build an increasingly sophisticated set of queries around their own work, Laufenberg says.

The goal is to not only encourage students to ask questions, but to engage them in exploring the answers for themselves. That’s how they learn to nurture their own curiosity – a quality they’ll need as lifelong learners.

“Curiosity gives students a voice,” Lee says. “It drives their learning. “When you allow a student to ask that question, you’re giving them a voice.”

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Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.