The Importance of Student Questions

We’re grateful to Joel Pardalis, sixth-grade teacher at New Fairfield Middle School in New Fairfield, Connecticut, for writing this guest post about how he discovered the benefits of effective questioning and how to get students to ask their own questions.

Early in my teaching career I wanted certain things from my students, but my behavior told them otherwise. I wanted them to look deeper into texts—I wanted them to be curious and engage with literature. But when I worked with texts everything I did screamed the opposite. I handed out discussion and comprehension questions with no input from my students. I interjected my opinion into discussions, and they went with their at-school instinct of agreeing with the teacher. My classroom environment did not breed curious and innovative students. But, constantly learning myself, I discovered new strategies that helped me create the classroom I envisioned.

First, I read Make Just One Change, by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, and their Question Formulation Technique (QFT) challenged my thinking. The book preached the importance of students learning to brainstorm,  revise and ask their own questions that lead to discussions and research projects. Initially, I used the QFT process during research and as a means to determining essential questions for units. Second, and the defining moment for me, I was introduced to the Shared Inquiry™ method and discovered the natural partnership between student-created questions and discussing literature.

Teacher Joel Pardalis, center, works with students in his sixth-grade language arts class at New Fairfield Middle School in New Fairfield, Conn. Thursday, March 21, 2013.

Teacher Joel Pardalis, center, works with students in his sixth-grade language arts class at New Fairfield Middle School in New Fairfield, Conn. Thursday, March 21, 2013.

Questioning is the basis of curiosity which leads to engagement and authentic learning. Yet, often when we enter the classroom and examine literature, the questions come from the adults in the room. When I changed this approach, the level of my classroom discussions changed as well. Giving students ownership over questions shifted the dynamic—it allowed students to engage with literature through their own eyes, with their own thoughts and ideas.

So, how do you get students to ask their own questions? These 7 tips helped me to hand over the questioning process to my students:

1. There is no such thing as a dumb question. Look, I get it. There will be students that test your patience and test this statement every year and sometimes every time you brainstorm questions. But as soon as you pass judgment on a question, students lose trust in the process, and the teacher becomes the most important opinion in the room again. A big piece of teaching students to question is stepping back and allowing them to learn from their mistakes.

2. Question everything. Students need to get used to asking their own questions early and often. They need to practice questioning like they practice reading and math. It needs to be a part of the everyday process. Give students the opportunity to talk about and share questions from their independent reading. Brainstorm questions about art, music, or quotes to practice the art of inquiry. Continue to encourage students to ask questions in all of their class. We want curious students; kids who are willing to ask the tough questions.

We’ll share the rest of Joel’s tips later this week!

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