Questions: Fueling The Discovery Engine In Your Class

Questions: Fueling The Discovery Engine In Your Class

One of my many favorite parts about teaching is the discovery process that comes through questions, dialogue, and answers in a classroom. 

It is discussion, in this collaborative learning environment, where I feel the reach of understanding in a palpable way. 


Because questions provide the framework for exploration, not just regurgitation. But in large ensemble classes I can feel overwhelmed to acknowledge as many students in the conversation as I would like. 

So I’ve been working on this.  A lot. 

Here are some things I’ve discovered. 

  • Wait time. Be willing to walk around the room and give students a chance to reflect on their answer and to unpack their baggage around if it is OK and safe to raise their hand to begin with. I have gotten very comfortable with 30 to 45 second periods of silence while the kids snicker and giggle waiting for someone to talk.
  • Raise an obvious question that will lead to an obvious answer. There’s a place for some low hanging fruit now and again. I just own it by saying exactly that. “Alright, coming your way. An obvious question with an obvious answer…” And these seemingly obvious questions also give some of my more timid students an opportunity to feel like they can participate. A soft lob in the direction of a student who doesn’t always engage in conversation will help to build their confidence.
  • Make sure your questions are specific in scope and framed ahead of time when possible. Give the students every chance to succeed and participate by setting them up to form opinions ahead of the actual dialogue. 
  • I try to avoid asking questions with the end goal being my appeasement. I really want to know what they know. And I overtly state that guesses are welcome and wrong answers are OK. Wrong answers are simply a chance for us to understand new things. An opportunity for growth.
  • Good old-fashioned “think-pair-share.” Give the students a prompt and ask them to take 30 seconds to discuss with the person next to them. Then go around the room and have students share what their partner discussed. Then they are simply reporters. 
  •  Instead of asking for volunteers IF they know the answer, ask for volunteers WHEN they know the answer. Give it a few seconds and watch the hands come up. I did this just today in one of my classes and the rate of hands raised went from 3 or 4 to over 50% in a class of eighty 9th graders. All by shifting “if” to “when”
  • Be ready to support a student who gives an answer that doesn’t quite land correctly. You might be ready to offer a lifeline so that another student can step in to assist. If your read is that the student is comfortable, then you could walk them through possible solutions to get to a different answer. 
  • I find that when I ask opinion questions I have to frame them very specifically as such. By opening the door to the possibility that we could disagree and have different ideas there is a tendency to have more active participation.
  • I ask for mimimun numbers of participation. “After this next rep I’d like at least 2 volunteers ready to share their opinions about how the trumpets did in matching resonance player to player.”
  • Sometimes the “wrong answer” is an opportunity disguised as a mistake. What would happen if you went off script when a student took something in a direction that you didn’t plan for? Some of my most exciting moments have been the moments where I had to punt and figure out a new direction based on the information I was dealing with in real time. 

The final thought I want to share is that it is critical that you are willing to reframe a question if it seems like the dialogue is falling a little flat. Often times students know more than they are able to provide because the question is unclear. 

It is up to me to know if my questioning is clear and is leading the discussion in a direction that is helpful. As a teacher I must be willing to continually flex and adapt in order to get a true understanding of what my students are learning under my care.

Socrates was on to something.