Education, Question Asking, Classroom

Turning Around Question-Asking In Your Class

Three years ago I was nervously facing my first experimental class, a class at the end of which I planned to ask the students what their questions were, and then let those questions decide where we should go the next week. In my mind I’d first see a shining outcome where all the students were smiling and asking questions and sounding eager about the next week. And then I’d see a classroom of closed mouths and uncomfortable, edgy silence, and people dropping the class like it was a wormy apple. I imagined trying to explain the experiment, not being able to find the right words, seeing the expressions going from confused to disinterested.

In the literature, there are many more research papers about the questions teachers ask than the questions students ask. Students are often shy, feeling judged, or not sufficiently engaged to have questions. Sometimes students feel their questions are pointless, or else that their questions are only to demonstrate to the teacher they are playing the game. And frankly, sometimes we teachers are more comfortable keeping the questions for ourselves!

Right away the students were excited to try new thing. They loved the idea of truly pursuing something they were interested in. Several class periods passed before all the students were willing to ask questions out loud — class periods in which I showed them several times that I didn’t know all the answers, and that was fine, in fact it was exciting! We could work on finding the answer together. We passed the semester with a lot of interaction and excitement about trying to reach our class’s goal for the semester.

The idea of turning over the direction of a class to the students even for one week can be daunting

The idea of turning over the class for the whole semester can be terrifying, or even if not terrifying, it can feel then impossible to teach all the specific content you feel impelled or are required to cover.

There are easy ways to get the students engaged in questions. Ways you can add to a complete, successful existing course.

Using a question-driven methodology can be as simple as:

  • having your students practice asking questions in or outside of class
  • using the inquiry cycle as a structure for their individual or team projects or homework, or
  • using the inquiry cycle over and over to drive the whole course and give your students the experience of pursuing new knowledge

The Beagle Inquiry Cycle

To make this kind of rewarding inquiry cycle happen, we follow a process that mimics the way we learn on our own. First, decide on a major goal for the course or section of the course. Then,

  1. Start with a question, and then find some content that helps answer that question (explore)

  2. Respond with some emotion, some discussion, and some new natural next questions.

  3. Decide which question or questions to pursue for the next cycle.

This set of steps can be used as the framework for an entire class, or just for part of it. Broadly, we’ve defined 4 different levels of implementation for this style of teaching:

Question Asking (Respond)

Set a class goal and have each learner share their natural next question(s) at the end of each class period.

Iterative Question Asking (Respond, Decide)

In addition to asking questions, have students discuss the questions and come to consensus on a small number of questions to pursue in the course. Make sure to provide some answer to their questions in the next class.

Iterative Questioning & Research (Explore, Respond, Decide, Repeat)

In addition to asking questions and deciding on them, assign students to find answers to the questions they have collectively chosen. Have them bring in and share summaries of their answers in the next class.

Collaborative mind-mapping (Metacognition)

The question-and-content inquiry cycles can be drawn as a mind map, laying out the geography of the directions of inquiry, the dead ends, the choices made. The whole map of the course is always there to look at, so you know where you are coming from, what you’ve learned, and where you are going next in a graphical format. At least once or twice during the course, review the map with your students and ask, “Are we still headed towards our overall goal?” and “Which questions here have we been unable to answer?”

What can be achieved by working these methods into your classroom?

In the table below, you’ll see some of the learning goals that can be met by using parts of the inquiry cycle, and how you can deploy each part in your classroom, no matter what your topic is.

Inquiry Learning Methodology

I’ve found this methodology to be far more than another new idea to change the classroom. With this methodology, I’ve seen students learn how to learn better, and learn how to pursue open problems and questions, better and faster than with any teaching methodology I’ve tried before. And the students love the engagement and respect and equality of a classroom run this way. We are all seeking answers together.

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About Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Lead of NASA Psyche mission; School of Earth and Space Exploration and Interplanetary Initiative at ASU; co-founder of Beagle Learning (www.beaglelearning.com)
  • Phoenix, Arizona