Asking the Right Questions

Megan Howe
Megan Howe
6 Mar
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For years, one of my goals as a teacher has been to learn to ask better questions. I want to delve deep into the minds of my students, understand their thinking, and steer them clear of misconceptions. One question I have added to my repertoire is simple but uncovers so much. “How do you know?” Asking students to support their thinking with evidence shows me what led them to understanding. Were they merely guessing? Do they have enough evidence to back up what they are thinking. Here is one example.

Me: How was the Little Red Riding Hood feeling when she saw the wolf for the first time?

Student: Curious.

Me: How do you know?

Student: Well, because she was looking at all the parts of the wolf and asked about them.

I can surmise that the student is using text evidence to back up his or her response. I can also start to think about the student’s inferencing abilities. Perhaps the student didn’t notice the illustration of Red’s face showing her looking a little frightened. Perhaps the student didn’t pick up on the sentence that read, “Little Red had a strange feeling in her stomach when she saw her grandmother.” When we stop to ask a follow up question such as, “How do you know?” students know that we expect them to do more than just give one answer, we expect them to think deeply. (Other questions that I have used include, “Does that make sense?” and “What makes you think that?”)

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Recently, a colleague and I have moved beyond our own questions and we are thinking more about the questions students ask. We guide students to think about why it might be important to ask questions when reading, what types of questions we ask, and why different types of questions are important. We don’t always answer our questions but we notice what happens to our engagement in a book (or a math problem, or a science experiment, etc.) when we start to ask questions.

After thinking about the why, we divide our questions into what I call “Thick Thought” and “Thin Thought.” Other teachers I know have called them open ended and closed ended questions. Students think deeply, different answers, and engage in lively discussions when they ask thick thought/open ended questions. Students find specific information, might have only one answer among them, and the answer might be one word or a simple answer when they ask thin thought/closed ended questions. Students should have plenty of time asking and thinking about both types of questions and even turning one type of question into another. Here is an example of a closed and open ended question that get at similar information from a text.

Closed/Thin Thought: Did Little Red Riding Hood feel scared when she saw the wolf?

Open/Thick Thought: How did Little Red Riding Hood feel when she saw the wolf?

Try and answer those questions yourself. Notice the difference in your answer. The first question, as you may have noticed, has one short answer – yes or no. The second question leaves room for different answers and a discussion.

Asking students the right questions helps us assess their understanding. Teaching students to ask questions engages them in learning. They can make discoveries, connections, and seek understanding on their own. In teaching, whether it comes from us or them, it is all about asking the right questions.

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