Actively engaging learners through questioning | #teacher | #children | #kids

Questioning is the ability to organise our thinking around what we do not know.
-The Right Question Institute

The biggest challenge a teacher faces in the classroom is actively engaging students so that they are motivated and enthusiastic participants in the learning process. Despite teachers best efforts majority students are resigned to a passive, predictable and uninspiring engagement with academics.

This happens not only due to teacher’s inability to provoke and energise learners through an interesting enquiry but also due to the ‘culture of answers’ in our classrooms which makes the students feel the pointlessness of sharing their thoughts and perspectives. We as an education system are neither interested in questions nor do we value the academic rigor and diverse opportunities of engagement with content that they bring to the classroom. What predominantly interests schools, teachers and parents are marks and grades that can be applauded and claimed! Unfortunately, this has resulted in generations of learners with ‘fake- mastery’ over the content taught in the classroom. The ‘Skill of Questioning’ needs to be learnt by every teacher to bring authentic learning back into the classroom.

Learning to Question

By doubting we are led to question and by questioning we arrive at truth.
-Peter Abelard

Some thought-provoking statistics from a US research study reveal how meaningless Questioning- as a teaching technique has become in classrooms world over, not for the want of doing but by over-doing it! Data from classrooms tell us that on average a teacher spends one-third of the teaching time in questioning, asks on an average 300-400 questions per day, making it approximately 70,000 questions per year and three to four million questions in their career span! However, in spite of such a large number of questions asked the students hardly get a second to answer it before it is passed on to next and then the next. The same research study also revealed that increasing wait time to answer questions by 3-10 seconds resulted in a corresponding improvement in student response and learning outcomes. Quite a food for thought it is for all of us to reflect and correct our practise.

Socrates had said, ‘Teaching is the art of Questioning’. What do questions bring to the table? For teachers, its invaluable feedback into the knowledge and skill acquisition by the learners so that they can reflect and review their teaching strategies and re-pitch it at the level of the learners. Questioning gives learners opportunities to be a part of the learning process by increasing their curiosity and interest in the topic, fostering discussion, driving knowledge construction, enhancing opportunities of collaboration among peers and most importantly developing tolerance, acceptance and appreciation of a contrary viewpoint in the classroom. But does all this really happen in our classrooms?

What are questions?

Questions are the engines of intellect, the cerebral machines that convert energy to motion and curiosity to controlled inquiry.
-David Fischer

In a classroom questions are opportunities for a teacher to create situations for learners to recall, compare, contrast, think, analyse, synthesise, interpret, evaluate, and collaborate to create new ideas and solutions. Going by the taxonomies of cognitive domain by Bloom and Krathwohl questions can be bifurcated into ‘lower-order thinking skills (LOTS) and higher order thinking skills (HOTS)’.

The problem arises when majority of the questions asked by the teacher are close-questions requiring memory-based answers such as facts, recall, yes-no, true or false etc. Needless to say, that such questions serve the limited purpose of recall for students who know the answer and those who do not know end up feeling like a failure. Whereas when teachers ask questions requiring students to use their higher order thinking skills to critically examine, analyse, defend, interpret, justify or evaluate ideas, principles or theories being taught in the class, irrespective of the answers the process results in improved learning outcomes of understanding and performance.

However, several research studies have also revealed that teachers majorly ask – as high as 80% questions requiring lower-order thinking skills and very few questions- as low as 6-8% requiring students to use their higher order thinking skills.

All kinds of questions fall under the two broad categories of Close-ended and Open-ended questions. If the teacher clearly knows what she wishes to achieve through questioning at various stages of her lesson she will be able to select the correct questioning technique based on the cognitive taxonomy mentioned above. Some effective questioning techniques are also listed and explained below.

Close-ended Questions- require learner to recall and answer yes/no. true/false, MCQs, quiz, rating scale and rank-order questions. They are quick and easy to frame and answer as they require lower order thinking skills. The big disadvantage of close ended questions is that they limit learner engagement as the learners do not get an opportunity to improve, clarify, justify their answers so students tend to venture less to answer them if they are not sure.

Open-ended Questions- cannot be answered with yes/no response and invite learner to pause, think, reflect, and share their thoughts, ideas, perspectives on a given topic. They are conversation starters in the class. Open-ended questions are considered less risky and threatening by the learners as the control of the conversation switches from the person asking questions to the person giving answers. And learners get more than one opportunity to put across their viewpoint and justify it. Some popular open-ended techniques of questioning are –

Probing questions are open-ended questions that are designed as a series of questions to encourage deeper pursuit of the topic. They are effectively used in the classroom to check for gaps in learning, misconceptions, biases of the learners, understanding the big picture and also useful for coaxing a reluctant speaker to interact.

Essential Questions: In a lesson plan based on design thinking essential / guiding question is the line of inquiry that directs the search for understanding of the big idea or concept that is being studied. It is a thought provoking, intellectually stimulating question not having a single correct answer. Learners collaborate to research, discuss, debate, analyse, draw inferences, and justify their answers which may lead to further questions. Essential questions always guide towards enduring understandings leading to transfer of learning in a new context. They are philosophical in nature and reoccur over and over again to sustain learner’s understanding of the ‘big ideas’ of that subject.

Socratic Seminar: In the last couple of decades Socratic seminar has gained immense currency in the classrooms world over as an effective pedagogical technique for improving higher-order thinking skills of the learners. The Greek philosopher Socrates introduced this method of teaching his students in the second half of the 5th century BC to counter the popular teaching style of his
contemporaries who aimed to impress and persuade their learners to accept the teacher’s views unconditionally. Plato writes that Socrates trained his students to eliminate hypothesis with the help of a series of questions formulated as tests of logic. In its current format Socratic seminar is designed as a group discussion where students analyse the text/topic under discussion to help each other understand the concept, ideas and clarify meaning and values. Students adhere to the pre-determined ground rules.

Learner’s Questions
Knowing answers will help you in school, knowing questions will help you in life.

Learning is a generative process requiring learners to actively construct their own meaning that is consistent with their prior ideas rather than passively acquire knowledge transmitted to them. (Osborn & Wittrock 1983, 1985). It would not be an exaggeration to say that in a classroom learner’s questions are more important than the teacher’s question for the simple reason that they help the learner in knowledge construction.

Through their own questions learners fill the gaps and construct missing pieces in their knowledge. Classroom discussions and debates around the learning activity help learners to co-create knowledge with their peers. This process takes them to the ‘zone of proximal development’ espoused by Vygotsky (1978). Asking questions is a social process of voicing thoughts that leads learner to metacognition or awareness of their own understanding and the gaps in it. Metacognition enhances the learning process manifold as the learner begins to assess, monitor, and self-regulate his knowledge acquisition.

A 2005 study conducted by Chin and Kayalvizhi with class VI students during their science lessons found that children preferred investigating their own questions and that generating questions made them feel important, happy, proud, and excited. However, learner questioning can happen only in a learning environment that is open, democratic, encouraging and steeped in the culture of questioning.

Culture of Questioning
The important thing is never to stop questioning.
-Albert Einstein

To create a culture of questioning in the class-room teacher provides a low-stakes environment where participation is stress-free and devoid of constant pressure to perform. Students get enough time to ponder and mull over questions secure in the knowledge that while they are not expected to know all the answers, but their participation is valued and appreciated by their teacher.

Learners are encouraged not only to respond to questions but also create questions for all, including the teacher, to work on in the class to further investigate concepts being learnt. In order to foster the culture of questioning in the classroom teacher actively nurtures learner’s natural curiosity, inculcates the spirit of enquiry, love for learning and respect for disagreement as the core values of the learning environment.


When Jacob Bronowski says that, ‘It’s important that the students bring a ragamuffin irreverence to their studies. They are not here to worship what is here but to question it!’ he brings out the essence of the true learning that puts questioning at the heart of the teaching -learning process and teachers and learners in the role of ‘Nachiketa’ -the seeker of truth!

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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