Asking questions is the first step in any authentic learning experience. It’s what starts the journey. But what happens if our students struggle with asking questions? How can we engage our learners in a student-driven journey if they can’t even take the first step? In this post, we will explore strategies to support students in asking questions so that they can participate in truly student-driven learning.
Learning Starts With A Question (And Another, And Another)
I heard this quote a while back about conversations with preschoolers (I can’t for the life of my find the quote anymore!)… but it was in that moment that I realized, our instructional units should flow like a conversation with a preschooler. If you have ever spent extensive time with a preschooler, #IYKYK… but if you haven’t, the gist is: one question is answered and immediately leads into the next question… and the questions never end.
Kids are born with the drive to question (at least, it feels like it!), but somehow… that skill seems to get lost along the way. And yet, that is exactly how learning unfolds — question after question. It’s how we figure out how the world works, what others’ think, what might happen if…
Asking questions (and seeking out the answers) is at the core of our self-directed journey to understanding.
But it can feel like a lost art in middle and high school classrooms.
So how can we help our students redevelop (and refine and expand!) this skill?
This question came up a few weeks ago in my work with a great group of teachers from Wisconsin. (If you’d like to learn more about ways your school/district could work with me, you can find details here!) We explored some of their thinking about student questioning — what it looked like, what they believed about their students’ willingness and abilities, and we nailed down some concrete ways to cultivate this skill with their students.
How To Improve Students’ Practice Of “Asking Questions”
Before we dive into the actual strategies, I want to emphasize the importance of creating a safe space in your classroom. Sometimes, the issue is not that students don’t have questions, but rather that students are not comfortable sharing their questions. As I’ve said before (and I will say again and again), learning is risky. It’s important we spend time creating a classroom culture that is warm, inviting, and safe if we want our students to actively engage and effectively learn.
1️⃣ Create space.
This is potentially the easiest approach to implement, because all it takes is a few extra minutes. Oftentimes, we simply are not giving our students the time and opportunity to ask questions. We just need more space to practice.
2️⃣ Provide “reflection time” before diving in.
Beyond creating the opportunity and allotting the time for questioning, it can oftentimes be helpful to give students time to consider the issue/event/phenomenon at hand before diving into questioning. It’s important for students to first recognize what they see and notice, what they already think and know, and potentially what it means to/for them, before we throw them into “asking questions.” Taking time to make observations and recognize initial understanding (preliminary modeling even!) can help our students create more and better questions.
3️⃣ Offer structure.
Blank space can be overwhelming — whether you’re writing an email, drafting an article, writing a research paper, or simply creating a log of questions. The hardest part can be putting something down on that glaring white paper. So we can help our students take that “first step” in a few different ways. The least interventiony among them is providing structure.
“Notice and Wonder” is often my go-to (see this post from Sadler Science), but other protocols exist! Check out the Question Formulation Technique, a more extensive questioning protocol, as an alternative to Notice and Wonder.
Along those lines, we can create structures that make questioning “safer” as well. We can use anonymous-methods like JamBoards or post-it note parking lots, and we can transition from small group to whole group questioning-discussions using prompts like, “What were some questions you heard at your table group?” Taking the “spotlight” off of the individual student can create a small safety net for students who may not yet feel comfortable or confident in their ideas.
4️⃣ Create supports.
If we find providing structure isn’t enough to get our students there, don’t hesitate to offer further supports. While the goal is students develop questions and use those questions to determine “what happens next” in their learning, sometimes we have to make train stops along the way to get our students ready for that huge task. Consider providing sentence stems or question starters, if your students have trouble getting any questions out. Perhaps when you first begin, you provide a few questions yourself — some relevant, some less-so — and allow your students to do the work of prioritizing the questions to establish the storyline flow.
Sometimes, supports are necessary. However, always keep in mind that your goal is to slowly remove these supports and give students more and more opportunity to operate at higher levels with greater autonomy. So while you should never feel like “providing support” is wrong, always aim to provide the lowest level of support that is necessary. Give students a chance to do it themselves before making assumptions about what they can and can’t do.
The gist is… your students can do this.
When we fall back on assumptions like “they just can’t…”, we’re really just giving ourselves an out. We’re maintaining the status quo and limiting our own students’ growth. Your students are never going to learn how to ask great questions and seek out the answers if you are always doing that work for them (even when you’re doing it lovingly!).
So the next time you find yourself thinking, “they just can’t…” — step on the breaks and ask yourself, “What opportunities/tools/structures/supports can I provide to make this possible?”