Susan Riley | April 2013

How to Ask Interesting Questions

Do you ever find yourself asking bottom-of-the-Blooms-Taxonomy questions in your classroom?  Like, “What is the main character’s name?” or “What note is equal to one beat in this song?”.  Of course – these questions are a necessity when we want to find out certain things about our students, like whether or not they have basic knowledge of a topic.  However, they aren’t very stimulating or engaging and they are very dangerous in the traditional context of school.  If we’re not careful, these questions can take up the majority of our class time and we’ll never find out what our students can truly DO with that basic information.

After all, it’s one thing to know something.  It’s another thing to apply and create something new with that information.  So when we’re looking at lesson design, being able to ask high-level, rigorous questions is something that needs to be built in to our curriculum.  But too often, teachers get stuck with how to ask interesting questions.  How do we ask the questions that force students to go deeper with their thinking and begin to show us more than superficial understanding?  Here are a few ways you can prompt critical thinking and problem solving:

1. Find the big idea

Look at your whole lesson and decide what one thing you want students to walk away with from their time with you.  This is your big idea.  Begin to think about all of the ways you can discuss, show, and manipulate that big idea.  Build a map around your big idea with these pieces.

2. Ask a question

Look at all of the pieces that you placed around your big idea.  Next to each of them, write a question.  At this point, it doesn’t matter what kind of question – just ask one.  You need to get as many questions down about your big idea as possible.

3. Ask another question

Begin the editing process by finding 3 questions that make you pause and think carefully about an answer.  These are the start of high-quality probing questions.  Once you have those 3 questions, ask another question about each one.  For instance, if my big idea is conflict resolution, one of my questions might be “what is conflict?” which is a pretty surface level question (I can find a definition anywhere for this).  So the next step would be to ask another question about it.  For instance, I might ask “what factors contribute to conflict?” which may be found in the background, of may need to be inferred.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3.

Continue to ask yourself questions around the first question you chose.  In my conflict example, my next question might be “why do we allow outside factors to cause conflict?” and this is the one I may choose to ask my students.  Just as I scaffolded my own thinking, I will want to scaffold the questions posed in my classroom.  So as you work through your lesson, be sure to ask your scaffolded questions until you get to the essential one for the topic.

5. Think bigger.

Interesting questions are not what, when, or where; they are the WHY and HOW questions.  They are the ones that are open-ended and allow our students to make meaning over time.  They give us a glimpse into a student’s thought process, making it more transparent so that we can push them to the next level.  This is hard fun.

You tell us: what are some of your favorite “interesting questions” that you ask your students?

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan