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Use Classroom Management to Let Students Ask Questions

Jordan Catapano

Artist Pablo Picasso once commented, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” While computers provide the gateway to limitless quantities of information, it is clear that the task of asking questions is still strictly the domain of humans. In fact, one answer for “What does it mean to be human?” could justly state that curiosity – the art of asking questions and wanting to know what one doesn’t – is one of the central facets of humanity. Unfortunately, our classroom management plans are often devoid of authentic questions from students. Students might ask how many pages their next essay has to be, how many questions are on the test, or when the assignment is due. But authentic, curiosity-driven questions are often squelched beneath the pot cover of classroom management, curriculums, due dates, and grades. If we value student curiosity and want our children to cultivate this most human of tasks, we must use classroom management to make our rooms not only places where questions are welcome, but where questions are necessary.

Classroom Management: The Smartest People Are the Ones with Questions

I’ve asked many groups of students, “What’s more important: having the questions or having the answers?” Students almost invariably say, “The answers are more important!” Of course, this is what we’ve taught students to say. Teachers ask the questions on the assignments, the study guides, and the tests; students prove they have learned by providing the right answers. So naturally, students are led to believe that answers are more important than questions.

While we reward correct answers, we might unintentionally be discouraging questions. When students ask thoughtful questions, how do we respond? Do we see questions as annoying or unjustified (such as when a student might ask, “Why do we have to learn this?”)? Do we think of student questions as a roadblock to completing our curriculum on time? Do we show frustration or impatience when our lesson plan is “Derailed” by student curiosity?

What messages are we sending students about the role of curiosity in learning? One thing I’ve told students for a long time is that it is the smartest people who have all the questions, not all the answers. “Smart” doesn’t mean someone who can ace the tests or breeze through a textbook; instead, it means someone who has curiosity and the drive to satisfy that curiosity with learning. By that definition, can’t anyone qualify as smart?

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Creating an Atmosphere of Inquisitiveness

Much of our students’ experience with school, unfortunately, encourages them to know answers rather than ask questions. One consequence of this is that not only does our system put the focus on answers, but it also makes it feel like not knowing the answer is an embarrassing problem. Students are discouraged from asking questions because asking a question proves they don’t know something.

So part of our job is to help create an atmosphere that encourages question asking. Here are some ways to do this:

Make Asking Questions Safe. I had a teacher with a sign in her classroom that read, “Better to ask a question and feel like a fool for 5 minutes than to not ask a question and remain a fool for a lifetime.” We often avoid asking questions because we’re afraid of revealing our ignorance. The first step for teachers is to make question-asking an emotionally safe, accepted part of your classroom.

Teachers should explicitly encourage and reward question-asking. They should also create activities, games, and lessons squarely centered around the process of asking questions and permitting open curiosity. This demonstrates to students they don’t have to be experts – rather, it gives them permission to acknowledge and pursue their curiosity because the classroom culture is accustomed to inquiry.

Make Asking Questions a Priority. Although most teachers might say, “I value student curiosity” and “Students can ask questions at any time,” the way we prioritize questions in curriculums says otherwise. Make questions an important part of your classroom. When students ask thoughtful questions, don’t think of these as something that derails your pre-planned lesson, but rather as an opportunity to explore and learn together. Ask students to prepare their own questions as part of the next discussion. Dedicate a portion of tests and assignments to student-generated questions, giving them space to ask a question and pursue answers. Offer 20 percent time, Genius Hour, or inquiry-based projects. Show students each day that questions are so important they are going to be given a large percentage of your time and attention.

Make Asking Questions Interesting. Sometimes students sabotage one another when they label certain habits “Cool” or not. In some cases, students make it not cool to do homework, obey the teacher, or ask questions. It can be difficult to change this mindset overnight, but we must work to create a culture that teaches kids that questions are interesting. Questions open up doors of knowledge and wonder that lead us to things we never imagined before.

Keep a proud question chart posted in your room for students to record their curiosities. Model your own inquisitiveness. Even encourage the types of questions that are unanswerable and take us to the edge of knowledge. Tell students about your supercomputer that can answer any question that it’s asked. Play the question-asking improv game.

Make Asking Questions a Skill. Each of our subjects asks students to master certain knowledge and skills and demonstrate mastery on assessments. But do we consider question-asking as a skill that can be developed too?

Our minds have question-asking muscles that can be exercised, or not. Children are born with strong and active question-asking muscles, but those muscles can atrophy if they’re not given the chance to be used. Consider how you can workout students’ question muscles, treating question-asking as a skill whose development has universal application. Consider also how on assignments, assessments, and other classroom activities you can require students not just to produce answers but to produce deep, original questions as well.

Make Asking Questions Necessary. Finally, let’s consider how we might help questions become not just a helpful or interesting part of learning, but a truly necessary component. American novelist Thomas Berger once said, “The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” Motivational speaker Tony Robbins also teaches us that “Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” If question-asking is the key to learning and to success, then it is definitely a skill worth including as an essential part of a student’s learning.

How can you challenge your students to include their own personal questions as an indispensable component of their learning? What questions will guide student learning and growth? What questions will help students reflect? What questions lead to metacognitive processing? What questions spur internal motivation for learning? What questions will students challenge one another with? What questions will lead to interdisciplinary pursuits?

Bring on the Questions

Question-asking is both a science and an art. It’s a native ability and a skill waiting to be developed. It’s both the beginning and the end of knowledge. It’s what makes us human. How could we not make question-asking a centerpiece of what we ask of students?

Questions serve as our guides, yet so often we relegate them to the end of learning or exclude them altogether. But now’s the time to ask yourself, “How can I better include question-asking as part of student learning?”

How do you use classroom management to help to make student questions an essential part of your class? What do you like from above and what would you add? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.