Developing good question-askers

asking questionsI’ve been mucking around with the Common Core State Standards and have fixated on this English/language arts standard, part of the speaking and listening standards for grades 9 and 10:

SL.9-10.1c: Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.

I love that verb: “propel.” Ask students to propel conversations by posing and responding to questions.

I got to this standard at the same time that I had this trite thought: A party’s more fun when you’re with good question-askers. You find yourself sitting a couch with a good question-asker, and the conversation moves fluidly, naturally, organically from “How you doing?” to “So, how’s your work going?” to “What do you think Hillary’s gonna do between now and the start of her presidential campaign?” (Yeah, we live inside the Beltway.)

A good question-asker is a good listener, genuinely interested in what you have to say. His or her questions tease out more information, move the conversation along – propel, right? In some ways there’s no “self” to those questions – or maybe a better way to put it is that the self is partnered with the conversation. The questions are highly focused on the conversation – on moving it forward or around some – but there’s always something of that person in his or her questions – a bias, different interests, a strong belief or two. A good question-asker is not just a mirror with a mouth. He or she is a conversation’s antagonist and protagonist, rolled up in one.

So, the Common Core and fun people at parties, and I got thinking: Just how do schools create good question-askers? How do they ensure that 9th and 10th graders meet the above standard – that they’re facile at propelling conversations, at posing and responding to questions, at incorporating others into a discussion, and challenging ideas?

One way is to partner with a group like the Right Question Institute, which, as language from its website points out, has a process to help “students…produce their own questions, improve their questions and strategize on how to use them.” The RQI has its own process, one called the Question Formulation Technique, and working with teachers, this organization helps build capacity in schools, teaching them this technique so that it becomes a natural occurrence in the day-to-day of classrooms.

I wondered what some nearby schools were doing to embed this kind of questioning practice in their classrooms and reached out to Joe Manko, principal of Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore. Joe talked about first getting teachers to model the asking of effective questions.

“It’s something we’re working on,” he said, “but I think we’re currently limited in this because of the low level assessment and other materials we’re using. We’re working to make the transition to the Common Core by having teachers create units that help us go deeper into the content,” spending up to two months exploring and using all sorts of books, videos, experiments, projects, activities, and field trips, all around a single topic.

Joe continued: “What we currently do in the best classrooms around questioning is to actually go through and script out the questions. Teachers…flag pages of books and tag them with the questions that will help to push student thinking. This helps us to scaffold our questions better and ensure they’re at a high level.”

I also found this great post by John T. Spencer at the defunct blog Teach Paperless. In addition to this idea of modeling questioning for students, John highlights other strategies that he uses in the classroom to create a questioning culture, which I pasted below:

  • Inquiry Days: Three times a week, we do inquiry days, where students begin with their own question in either social studies or science and they research it, summarize it and then ask further questions. While my initial goal involved teaching bias, loaded language and summarization, I soon realized that students were growing the most in their ability to ask critical thinking questions.
  • Practice It: We do mock interviews, fake press conferences and rotating discussion zones in the first week of school. Instead of spending time on ice breakers or excessive time on procedures, we spend time on learning to ask better questions.
  • Scaffolding: Some students have a really hard time with questioning strategies. So, initially I give sentence stems. At first this was really hard for me. I thought that students would naturally ask questions and grow through accessing prior knowledge. I quickly realized that language acquisition had often been a barrier in asking better questions. So, sentence stems and sample questions became a way that ELL students could modify questions and access the language.
  • Types of Questions: I teach students about inquiry, clarifying, critical thinking and inference questioning. Often the process is messy and there are moments of overlap, but it helps students when they can think, “What needs to be clarified?” or “How does this relate to life?” and from there they can develop better questions.
  • Multiple Grouping Formats: Students sometimes ask me questions. Other times they ask partners or small group questions. Still other times they ask the questions to the whole class. Thus when they do an article summary, they start with individual questions but eventually move into leading a whole-class discussion.

So, just a few ways that teachers can create a classroom culture steeped in questioning – starting with themselves, as they develop and ask their own, and then being very intentional about teaching their charges those same techniques, all to make them good question-askers. If I can get back to that word from the Common Core standard: Not only are students learning to propel conversations with their question-related behavior – asking and answering – but whole classrooms can be propelled along, even whole schools, with careful planning and implementation of an intentionally inquisitive culture.

The above image came from here.

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