What to Question in a Question

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By Umair Qureshi

Qureshi Question in a Question 300x300Questioning is considered one of the most powerful instructional techniques. We as teachers appreciate powerful questioning to ignite our students’ thinking processes and engage them in meaningful learning. Questioning is vital to gaining more information and communicating effectively—we all ask and are asked questions when engaging in conversation.

However, in this era of high demands and expectations, many teachers find it difficult to craft questions. Despite the variety of literature on questioning that is available, teachers need more guidance and support to analyze questions and weigh their usefulness.

As a high school physics teacher, I use questioning to engage my students, explore the big ideas behind the content, and challenge their misconceptions. Over the last 15 years, I’ve learned that the skill of questioning is something that can be refined every day. Although there is no specific recipe to formulate a question, I recommend that teachers follow these steps to help them determine what to question in a question.

  1. Start with the End: Before writing a question, teachers should try to find the end or the termination point of the question—that is, the core reason for crafting the question. It is important to acknowledge that any powerful question has a certain final goal and will have multiple sub questions. Then, teachers can plan formal and informal formative assessments to judge students’ understanding during classroom instructional processes. In my modern physics classroom, I try to leave my students with some enduring understandings at the end of the course. For instance, the idea that it’s the appearance of a thing in front of a human that determines its recognition as waves and particles is one such glass ball that I always want my students to keep with them for life. To reach to this conclusion, I need to craft an array of sub questions to help them to reach the final answer.
  2. Expand the Life of the Question: Every question has a life. If teachers ask students a close-ended question—such as “Can you name the characteristics of a particle?”they can only expect a simple yes or no answer. Questions starting with the word can are more likely to die out quickly, so teachers should refrain from such questions. I tend to ask my students an open-ended questions like this: “With the concept of wave-particle duality, how does the idea of no life or no death emerge?” This question provokes thinking, intellectually engages students, and makes them eager to answer philosophically. Thus, the question never dies out and always leads to further thinking and new ideas and dimensions.
  3. Establishing Multiple Levels of the Question: A valid question will have multiple layers, and teachers must be able to identify those layers. To start, they can pose a really big question and then break it down into sub questions. For example, once I ask the question about the blurred idea of life and death in the context of wave-particle duality, I am then ready to ask the next question: “Why does a wave only at times behave like a particle and why does a particle only at times behave like a wave?” These are big topical questions that lead students to learn more about waves and particles. My next question might be something like this: “Why if a thing is born as a particle can it die as wave, and vice versa?” Every new level of question should have a different dimension of thinking and that should keep the students engaged.
  4. Don’t Just Hook, Hook and Move: Some teachers are tempted to ask questions to simply hook their students. It is really important to realize that questions should not just hook and stay but hook and move. Students’ brains will keep on working if the ideas and questions generated in the classroom extend their thinking. A question that only hooks the learners and does not lead to another step will lose its significance. Powerful questions hook students, keep them engaged, and lead to many “aha” moments.
  5. Assess the Effects of the Question: Teachers can assess the effects of a question on their students’ learning giving them an exit ticket at the end of the class period. My exit tickets usually have three prompts on them:
    1. List three question that made you think about something new.
    2. List two questions that were not new for you.
    3. List one question that you did not understand.

This helps teachers filter out bad questions and design better questions.

Posing powerful questions to ensure enduring student understanding is an art. Like any skill, it can be learned and groomed. With practice and a will to improve, all teachers can become wonderful instructional leaders who know and use the most effective questions to maximize student learning.

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Umair Qureshi is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders class of 2015 and currently serves as a physics teacher at Beaconhouse School System, Margalla Campus Islamabad, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Connect with Qureshi on Twitter @UmairSQureshi.

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