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Teaching Students to Ask Questions

Submitted by David H. Stringer on Monday, 3/31/2014, at 10:27 AM

Education in the future needs to emphasize teaching kids to ask good questions. Much of what we do now constitutes the generation of answers (think: standardized tests) with penalties for errors, but the revolution in technology suggests that computers will, one way or another, generate a lot of answers by processing and analyzing data. But as far as I know, computers are not very good at asking questions, and questions are what we need for the deep innovation needed to stimulate cultural and economic change. 

I recall an exercise I did with my 10th graders where I assigned each one to "lead a class discussion." I suggested that a good discussion springs from a good question. One kid asked, "Do you mean a teacher question?" 

"What's a teacher question?"

"A question where the teacher already knows the answer."

We went on to make a distinction between "teacher questions" and "real questions," with the understanding that while the former may be useful, the latter should underlie any good discussion.

How do we teach students to ask real questions? Here’s one technique I used: After reading a play or novel with my 12th graders, I would break my seminar into groups of 3 and ask each group to come up with 3 essay questions for the upcoming exam on the book. Each group would have 20% of each student’s grade determined by the quality of the questions. A conversation ensued, of course, about what constitutes a good question. The best questions appeared on the exam.

I am reluctant to prescribe any pedagogy to teachers who know their students better than I do (mine were college-bound high school seniors in Ann Arbor), but I do think teachers need to be exposed to success stories of their colleagues.

--Dave Stringer