Happy Birthday to me: 30 years of learning how to ask the right questions

Posted on 12.23.2012


Student Generated Inquiry Questions on Race

Student Generated Inquiry Questions on Race

I like asking questions better than I like getting answers. This may be due to the fact that the quality of the answer depends on the quality of the question. I’m much more interested in honing my questioning ability with the hopes that it will produce a good answer. Over the past 30 years I’ve gotten better at asking good questions in two senses:

  1. Asking a quality question, in the right moment, to get a productive answer out of someone.
  2. Creating or finding opportunities to ask good questions and bring new/old ones into a discussion to get more, productive, quality answers from people.

I’ve gotten better; at least I hope so. After all. I’m 30 now. (had to get that in there)

These two aspects of questioning are so important to teaching and reflecting – which I think ultimately leads to new learning. Two examples that can illustrate this:


Asking a quality question, in the right moment, to get a productive answer out of someone.

Last week my class stalled – it’s a sinking feeling of squandered time and energy. It just felt like a waste. The students had just completed a difficult reading about ancient China and Salt. In the reading, it talked about Confucianism and Legalism – two philosophies on social economics. I had 10 minutes left to discuss the reading’s content, the underlying economic principals and clear up any confusion students might have had. Students were totally into the reading; they just were into different parts: some wanted to go over the difficult vocabulary and content while others wanted to jump straight to the interesting discussion about which philosophy is best. It should have gone perfectly but the class stalled as I tried to decide what questions to ask the students.

Ironically, I had many options and good questions to ask:

“So, what did you think of the reading? Any questions?” – could have easily cleared up any confusion and drawn out the interested students in the class

“Lets go over the content reading questions to make sure we are all on the same page; what’s the answer to…?” – could have cleared up confusion over content and led us into a great discussion about critical analysis of differing theories.

“Which theory do you like best?” – is a great critical thinking question that could have drawn out content and led to a very in-depth discussion.

Any of these questions would have been great. Instead I tried to ask all three at once and the class stalled and a few more students got that glazed-eyed look that breaks my heart. I should have asked just one – I got confused, my students got confused and no one knew which question to answer or even which question I was really asking. I panicked.

Upon reflection, I should have taken another breath and tried to figure out what the room wanted/needed. Often the students can help guide me to the next step in the lesson. Part of asking good questions is listening to the people in the conversation and figuring out which question is right for them. Ultimately I needed to trust that the first question I ask is only the beginning to the conversation. Zac Chase has been writing about this for some time; he’s worth reading.

Creating or finding opportunities to ask good questions and bring new/old ones into a discussion to get more, productive, quality answers from people.

One aspect of my teaching practice I really have been trying to improve upon is creating structures in class to facilitate on-going inquiry in the classroom: from the beginning of the year, to the end; from the beginning of a unit to the end; to always be asking questions, trying to answer them and revisiting the questions to reassess the answers. I’ve found some great solutions but most of them are useless for the following two reasons:

  1. I teach out of 4 different classrooms throughout the building and that is exhausting on so many levels. I simply do not have the energy to be organized enough or to recreate the same things in each room.
  2. Lack of technology.

I am really excited about a simple practice I started in the last unit I did with the sophomores in the African American History class I teach 3 period each day. In an earlier Post I wrote about rewriting the African American History and right now the students and I are exploring how race is understood in America. Usually a unit starts off by creating a KWL chart on the board for one lesson (if you’re lucky) and must be erased and promptly forgotten.

Inquiry I guess.

Not this time! At the beginning of this unit, we spent a few days building up to generating inquiry questions on race that we need to answer throughout this unit. (See the somewhat complete lesson plan here) Students then asked their questions which I put on flip chart paper which I then hung around each room I taught in. Simple, yet effective. We then refer back to this list throughout the week when the opportunity presents itself. At the end of the unit, students will create an infographic that sets to answer these questions – or at least provide insight into the questions.

I turned 30 today and it feels great to celebrate it with my family and friends (whether in person or over some sort of media). I have inevitably been asked, “how does it feel?” I am not sure how to answer that…

it feels weird.

and exciting.

Ask me another question for a better answer!