Question Everything

Why am I here? This is a fundamental question of purpose and belonging, and one that we’ve all asked ourselves at some point. For many people, the first time they really ask themselves questions like this is when they graduate from high school.  What am I going to do? What do I want? Who am I? These are tough questions at any stage of life, and the more prepared students are with the skills needed to delve into these questions, the sooner they will develop the confidence to explore what they are passionate about and tackle challenges they face.

Questioning is a revered teaching technique from the days of Socrates, but there are ways, some traditional and some a bit more radical, to increase its impact and better prepare students to move beyond school in a way that provides deeper meaning and encourages greater contribution. Asking a variety of questions and question types is key to student achievement, along with increasing the amount of time allotted for students to think about the questions, but it is also vital that we move away from teachers asking questions as a solution to student learning.

In accordance with the traditional line of thought about questioning, in her article “Classroom Questioning,” Kathleen Cotton points out that “research indicates that questioning is second only to lecturing in popularity as a teaching method and that classroom teachers spend anywhere from thirty-five to fifty percent of their instructional time conducting questioning sessions” (Cotton, 2001, p.1). Many of these sessions are dedicated to two basic kinds of questioning: those that require lower-order thinking skills, and those requiring higher-order thinking skills. This traditional questioning style has long been promoted as a way to “motivate students to be actively involved in lessons, ...evaluate students’ preparation, develop critical thinking skills and inquiring attitudes, and summarize previous lessons, ...nurture insights, …assess achievement, [and]…stimulate students to pursue knowledge on their own” (Cotton, 2001, pg.1).

When I visit classrooms where students are working through the One World Program, a key part of what I see is teachers asking meaningful questions, driving dialogue, and pushing students to think deeply about real-world issues. Cotton’s research suggests that asking both types of questions will provide the greatest outcomes in student learning and that asking higher-order thinking questions more frequently, especially to older students, will bolster student engagement, expand student responses, and support analytical thinking. Furthermore, she demonstrates that asking these types of questions to students that are traditionally seen as low-level learners increases the teacher’s expectations and thus the achievement of these students (Cotton, 2001, pg.5). For more specific classroom methods, check out these Questioning Strategies from the Florida Center for Instructional Technology at the University of South Florida. 

Another key indicator of effective questioning, according to Cotton, is the amount of time the teacher provides after asking a question and again before replying to a student’s response. By increasing this wait time beyond three seconds, outcomes have shown an increase in: information retention by students, quality of responses from students, and frequency of student responses to difficult questions (Cotton, 2001, pg.5). Allowing students to contemplate the question for a few extra seconds supports the students’ growth at exponential levels. This also allows the teacher more time to really listen to the students’ responses and provide more specific feedback and redirection, which further deepens their knowledge and understanding (Cotton, 2001, pg.6).

However, only posing these two forms of questions merely nudges students toward critical thinking as dictated by the teacher. According to Nathan Eric Dickman in his dissertation “The Challenge of Asking Engaging Questions,” students become conditioned “as passive reactors in such a way that inhibits learning rather than fostering it” (Dickman, 2009, p.7), whereas creating a space for students to openly pose questions of their own allows them to guide the direction of their learning and better prepares them to encounter challenging situations in the real world, outside of the classroom.

Just as Socrates is famously quoted for saying, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom,” Dickman suggests that the ability of students to think independently about topics through self-generated questions far outweighs measuring their achievement through the accumulation of facts as assessed by teacher-created questions (Dickman, 2009, p.11). Furthermore, Dickman argues that students don’t even need to answer these questions; the learning is in the posing of the questions themselves. When students understand the questions, they are able to understand the complexity of the problem and begin to make connections necessary to work through complex issues.

While the questioning techniques discussed by Cotton do lead to increases in student achievement in some areas, when students are encouraged to challenge important issues and concepts on their own, they are pushed to draw their own conclusions. In her article, Cotton touches on the idea that students need to be taught strategies for drawing inferences, acknowledging that asking students questions alone does not meet this need, but she doesn’t provide instructions for teaching students to make connections between what they know and what they want to learn (Cotton, 2001, pg.8). Taking questioning several steps further, Dickman argues that supporting students in the creation of their own questions leads to this critical skill that will help students engage more fully in future problem solving and decision making (Dickman, 2009, p.9).

When students are taught to question their surroundings, they are emboldened to make choices about how and with what they are engaged. Questioning encourages curiosity and demonstrates value in the students' unique thoughts, which fuels learning and growth. Students begin to care about real-world issues and formulate opinions about them, strengthening their ability to communicate original ideas. Connections between what they’re doing in school and the real world became clearer (Dickman, 2009, p.13).

This is exactly what the One World Program asks students to do through student-driven research about a topic of their choice. Across the city, students are demonstrating the benefits of questioning as they craft their Argumentative Reflections about issues that matter to them. Students choose the topic of their research, guide the direction of their argument, and share their ideas with others. Many times, when I visit classrooms, several students are researching the same topic, but they have followed very different paths. Students bring their unique experiences, knowledge, and interests to their research, thus creating the perfect setting for them to ask more questions of each other and themselves.

Asking questions is the achievement. It can be scary not to have an answer, but when students understand that they are learning in the process of questioning, they will be more likely to engage in this academic risk-taking. After all, scientists of all varieties have convincingly made the case that the act of questioning itself is central not only to thinking critically, but also to storing and communicating knowledge and to interacting with one another. Beyond creating a safe classroom environment that encourages student questioning, there are many resources available to guide students toward becoming better questioners. For example, this two-minute video from Teaching Channel provides some concrete techniques to help empower students to question everything.

By asking a lot of questions, “students can come to appreciate various answers proposed in traditions of thinking within a specific field of study” (Dickman, 2009, p.13), which they learn through their research. Further, it “enables them to consider and appreciate proposed answers to the questions” (Dickman, 2009, p.14). By providing a place for students to practice questioning issues that are important to them, they develop the power to chart their course through murky waters.

Exploring questions about their identity, passion, and purpose leads to the development of individuals who are prepared to contribute fully to their communities. Working toward these ends, One World Education provides tools to organize and express the things students have learned through their questions. For a lot of students, school has been about regurgitating names, dates, and even explanations of events that have been laid out for them. Teaching students to formulate questions themselves flips things from being teacher-driven tasks to being a genuine exploration of material that is real and important to them. Teaching students how to question, we provide a bridge between school and the rest of their lives.

There is no way to predict the true factors that need to be considered in the challenges students will face after graduation, but it is our responsibility to provide them with a place to practice the skills needed to successfully navigate any storm. After all, even Socrates claimed, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”

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