Teach students to ask their own questions

“The ability to ask the right question is the single most important skill.”
-Clay Parker CEO of BOC Edwards Chemical Engineering

In a tremendous talk on the purpose of education, Noam Chomsky explains that, “The highest goal in life is to inquire and to create; to search the riches of the past and try to internalize the parts of them that are significant to you, to cary that quest for understanding further in your own way. The purpose of education, in that point of view, is just to  help people determine how to learn on their own.”

How does a teacher begin to make this type of thinking happen in their classroom? How can we teach students to engage in creative inquiry and become excited about learning things independently or with others?

In a traditional, 20th Century, classroom, students are praised for their ability to find correct answers to predetermined questions. Intellectual risk taking, creative thinking, and asking questions is often discouraged. The ability to get a good score on a test is valued more than the ability to get fully engaged in the learning process and pursue ideas that excite a student.

Many teachers want to break free from this way of running their classroom, but they find that students are often more comfortable seeking out safe answers than taking the intellectual risks associated with pursuing something unknown. Many teachers comment that students are ill prepared to formulate questions beyond, “How long does this have to be?” and “Will this be graded?”

I’ve found that the best way to understand people is to ask the right questions.
-Christi Pedra, CEO of Siemens Hearing Instruments

The ability to formulate questions and strategize how to use them effectively is rarely taught in schools. Children are born with insatiable curiosity that is rewarded less frequently as they progress in school. Teachers and students alike are worried about what failure may mean for them when setting out on a new way of thinking. How can educators reverse this trend and help students be successful at inquiry?

Chomsky says that meaningful inquiry needs a framework. The role of a 21st Century teacher is to help students develop the ability to generate questions, determine which questions are most valid, and utilize the tools at their disposal to seek out answers to those questions.

The book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions suggests a four-step formula that can be used deliberately for successful inquiry experiences. This book outlines each step and provides helpful real-classroom examples for every subject area and grade level. It’s a tremendous resource.

Once students are familiar with a focus, dilemma, or situation, the following steps can be completed in either a large group or whole-class setting.

Step 1: Produce Your Questions

  • Ask as many questions as you can.
  • Do not stop to judge or answer any question.
  • Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  • Change any statement into a question.

Step 2: Improve Your Questions

  • Categorize the questions as open ended or closed ended.
  • Name the advantages or disadvantages of each type of question.
  • Change questions from one type to the other.

Step 3: Prioritize Your Questions

  • Choose your three most important questions.
  • Why did you choose those three as your most important?

Step 4: Use your Questions and Seek Answers

  • How are you going to use those questions to seek out answers?
  • Questions can be used in a variety of ways, possibly directing whole-class or group projects, leading to individual research, or turning into presentations or speeches.

At this point, the role of a teacher changes. Now, a teacher can help students use tools, including various technology tools, gather information, think critically about sources, and formulate reasonable solutions that can be presented to an audience. Throughout that process, students will be collaborating, critically thinking, creatively solving problems, and communicating their designed solution to an audience; the essential 21st Century Skills required of any leader.

Want help getting started?

Your technology integration specialists would be thrilled to help you start using this process in your classroom. We can help you and your students find tools that can make every step of the process easier and more fun for you.


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