Better Educators Ask Better Questions

In this series I'm going to cover some classroom basics, these are the things that any teacher who has been in the classroom for more than a few years probably takes for granted. For the most part, anyone willing to stay in the profession for more than a few years will eventually find their "teacher identity". This identity includes how you see yourself as a professional educator, how you manage relationships with your students and their families, and how you want the administration to view your work. All of these things evolve over time, but until you've made a conscious effort to develop and improve these processes, you're probably going to feel unarmed every school year. That being said, let's get into how I approached questioning, and how the "fundamentals" really are at the core of any effective instruction. 

There are three core components that I used to ask my students the right question at the right time. No one component is more important than the other, think of them like mutually dependent keystones; Without one, the others are basically useless. When you're able to combine all three components you'll quickly notice that your questions are fueling your students to explore further without you having to ask additional questions.

Here are the three components I'm going to focus on:

  1. Open Ended Questions

  2. Socratic questioning techniques

  3. Scaffolding Questions

Open-ended Questions

The first thing I'm going to encourage you to do if you want to level up your questioning is to ask more open-ended questions. It's the best way to take the emphasis off of you in the classroom, and to redirect that emphasis onto your students. This will give them the opportunity to explore your content in their own way. But what is an open-ended question? How can I tell if the questions I'm asking are open-ended? and finally what are some examples of open-ended questions?

What is a closed-ended question?

Open-ended questions have concrete characteristics, but are hard to define. So lets define a "closed-ended question":

A closed-ended question is a question format that limits respondents with a list of answer choices from which they must choose to answer the question. Commonly these types of questions are in the form of multiple choices, either with one answer or with check-all-that-apply, but also can be in scale format, where respondent should decide to rate the situation in along the scale continuum, similar to Likert questions.

"Is this an open-ended question?" checklist:

If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, then your question is NOT an open ended question...

  1. Can your question be answered by "yes" or "no"?
  2. Is there definitely one answer to your question?
  3. Does your question have a single, numerical answer?
  4. Does your question require students to recall something they've been told and then repeat it verbatim?
  5. If you asked everyone on earth this question, would the right answer always be the same answer?
  6. Is it a multiple choice question?

Examples of open ended questions:

  • What do you want to be when you grow up?

  • If you could invent an ice cream flavor, which would it be?

  • What do you think would happen if a tyrannosaurs fought a giant gorilla?

  • Why do you think cats are so popular?

  • What do you think a snowman would be like if it came alive?

  • Why is Batman so much better than Superman?

Socratic Questioning Techniques

What is the Socratic method of questioning?

Despite it's basis in antiquity, the "Socratic" method of questioning is a relative newcomer to the education scene. According to Wikipedia, it's use in education:

When educators use Socratic questioning in teaching, their purpose may be to probe student thinking, to determine the extent of student knowledge on a given topic, issue or subject, to model Socratic questioning for students or to help students analyze a concept or line of reasoning. It is suggested that students should learn the discipline of Socratic questioning so that they begin to use it in reasoning through complex issues, in understanding and assessing the thinking of others and in following-out the implications of what they and others think. In fact, Socrates himself thought that questioning was the only defensible form of teaching. -

In teaching,  teachers use Socratic questioning for at least two purposes:

  1. To deeply probe student thinking, to help students begin to distinguish what they know or understand from what they do not know or understand (and to help them develop intellectual humility in the process).  -

  2. To foster students' abilities to ask Socratic questions, to help students acquire the powerful tools of Socratic dialogue, so that they can use these tools in everyday life (in questioning themselves and others). To this end, teachers can model the questioning strategies they want students to emulate and employ. Moreover, teachers need to directly teach students how to construct and ask deep questions. Beyond that, students need practice to improve their questioning abilities.  -

In plain english...

Teachers can using the socratic method to accomplish two things:

  1. Figure out what students know (knowledge that you can later activate and build off of)
  2. Teach students how to think critically - in other words students can validate what they know, and determine what they don't know. 

The 6 types of Socratic Questions with examples (usually in order)

I am not a fan of repeating or rephrasing something that has already been written, so rather than do that I'll simply say that I'm repurposing a post from this website: 

1. Conceptual clarification questions

Get them to think more about what exactly they are asking or thinking about. Prove the concepts behind their argument. Use basic 'tell me more' questions that get them to go deeper.

Examples of conceptual clarification questions:

  • Why are you saying that?
  • What exactly does this mean?
  • How does this relate to what we have been talking about?
  • What is the nature of ...?
  • What do we already know about this?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Are you saying ... or ... ?
  • Can you rephrase that, please?

2. Probing assumptions

Probing their assumptions makes them think about the presuppositions and unquestioned beliefs on which they are founding their argument. This is shaking the bedrock and should get them really going!

Examples of Probing assumptions questions:

  • What else could we assume?
  • You seem to be assuming ... ?
  • How did you choose those assumptions?
  • Please explain why/how ... ?
  • How can you verify or disprove that assumption?
  • What would happen if ... ?
  • Do you agree or disagree with ... ?

3. Probing rationale, reasons and evidence

When they give a rationale for their arguments, dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. People often use un-thought-through or weakly-understood supports for their arguments.

Examples of probing rationale, reasons and evidence questions:

  • Why is that happening?
  • How do you know this?
  • Show me ... ?
  • Can you give me an example of that?
  • What do you think causes ... ?
  • What is the nature of this?
  • Are these reasons good enough?
  • Would it stand up in court?
  • How might it be refuted?
  • How can I be sure of what you are saying?
  • Why is ... happening?
  • Why? (keep asking it -- you'll never get past a few times)
  • What evidence is there to support what you are saying?
  • On what authority are you basing your argument?

4. Questioning viewpoints and perspectives

Most arguments are given from a particular position. So attack the position. Show that there are other, equally valid, viewpoints.

Examples of questioning viewpoints and perspectives questions:

  • Another way of looking at this is ..., does this seem reasonable?
  • What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
  • Why it is ... necessary?
  • Who benefits from this?
  • What is the difference between... and...?
  • Why is it better than ...?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of...?
  • How are ... and ... similar?
  • What would ... say about it?
  • What if you compared ... and ... ?
  • How could you look another way at this?

5. Probe implications and consequences

The argument that they give may have logical implications that can be forecast. Do these make sense? Are they desirable?

Examples of implications and consequences questions:

  • Then what would happen?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • How could ... be used to ... ?
  • What are the implications of ... ?
  • How does ... affect ... ?
  • How does ... fit with what we learned before?
  • Why is ... important?
  • What is the best ... ? Why?

6. Questions about the question

And you can also get reflexive about the whole thing, turning the question in on itself. Use their attack against themselves. Bounce the ball back into their court, etc.

Examples of questions about the question:

  • What was the point of asking that question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • Am I making sense? Why not?
  • What else might I ask?
  • What does that mean?

Scaffolding Questions

In a nutshell, question scaffolding is a technique that allows you to ask a series of connected, open-ended and closed ended questions in a sequence that leads students to give more robust answers. 

There are two big schools of thought here that I've used in class, Costas levels of Thinking and Bloom's Taxonomy. Both of these models identify question types, and go on to elaborate on the relationships between each type. For the sake of simplicity I prefer Costas. In fact, I would up the anté in my class and challenge students to identify the question types themselves. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that no type question is "better" than any other other type; there is no relationship between question complexity and value. Think of the less complex questions (level 1 or level 2 questions) as a framework within which more complex questions can be explored (level 3). 

(Click on a resource to open it up in a new tab)

Connect it all together

Effective questioning is at the heart of great instruction. Over time you'll determine which questions elicit the best conversations; I encourage you to keep those in mind when you're designing lessons, regardless of what content you teach. 

  1. The first step to asking great questions is being able to differentiate between open-ended and closed-ended questions. (open-ended/closed-ended questions)
  2. The second step is organizing those questions into a coherent, logical sequence. (socratic questioning techniques) 
  3. The last step is to ask those questions at the right time. (Costa's Levels/Bloom's Taxonomy)


Please leave a comment letting me know what you think of the post, what strategies/techniques I should add, resources I should include, and/or general feedback. Also, feel free to leave some good questions in the comments section, or send them to me through my Twitter. And don't forget to follow me on all the things! 

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