The Art of Questioning (What Makes a Good Teacher Series)

When one thinks of what makes a great teacher many different ideas come to mind:  Patience, love of people, love of developing people and relationships, or even a love of content that can be shared through the teaching process.  Overall, I think that a mark of a great teacher is to seek truth or at least to ask good questions that push the learners in the room to discover themselves, while immersing themselves in content that is being shared by a passionate individual that loves to help people grow.  This post is going to deal with the art of creating the question and how as teachers we need to master this skill before we can begin to hope to reach students.  

When thinking back to the ancient world where there was no technology and a lot less in terms of the written word available to the student body I remembered that Socrates was the one who had perfected the methods of relentlessly asking questions that continued to bring the students deeper and deeper into the pursuit of knowledge.  His method was to continuously ask his students questions that would lead the learner deeper into the content, which caused the learner to defend his beliefs and understand at a spiritual level why they believed the answers to be true.  In our modern context, I believe we have a lot to learn from Socrates in so much as teachers we need to master the art of questioning if we ever hope to push our students into a place where they can learn the meaning of material, the deeper connotations the content provides, and have any hope of challenging our students.  

I know that on a personal level, I spent years struggling to craft difficult questions that did not require an overabundance of material to be barfed back on the page.  I spent years thinking a “hard question” meant making students find lots of material, but in reality most of my students spent the bulk of their time sitting in the identify level of Bloom’s taxonomy.  I was delivering content, but for my students who needed a bigger challenge I was not delivering the quality instruction they needed. It took me a long time to understand that something difficult had to do with the complexity of the question and the complexity of thought the question was demanding instead of asking them to write out a million pages of information.  The concept of a “hard question” had to do with the mental gymnastics a person had to do to find meaning instead of how many pages of information they had to relate to me the teacher.  

I didn’t learn this concept until I began working in a magnet program with students who could complete the tasks I was used to giving in about five minutes.  I also found that when I gave students projects with lots of requirements, they were still bored.  I had not asked them to think.  That first year I failed to meet their needs in terms of difficulty of thought and the second year I got closer, but was almost there.  This year I will be working with a different group of learners who are not in the magnet program, but I plan to use some of the things I learned there about crafting questions for my advanced and comprehensive students.  

As I was going through this process I had often wondered why I was never asked to work at creating content driven questions that were also crafted in a way that provided depth to what they were thinking about in my teacher training.  I learned many valuable things in my time at a four year university getting my degree in education, but this seemed to be missing.  Most of the time what I did in my classes was praised by my professors and I thought I knew what I needed to know to be a successful teacher, but today I know I had a long way to go.  I supposed that what I went through was a good program of teacher training for the time I went in 2002-2006, but today the world has certainly changed and the demands are different.  Today I really believe that teachers need to be better at asking questions that demand more of our students.  

So how do we asks these questions to help our students practice answering them and show our students how a scholar goes about forming questions?  Personally, I began on my journey by reading Ian Byrd’s blog about gifted education and he had some great blog posts about helping students ask good questions when doing research and posing questions that did not have simple answers.  Personally, I think these concepts about depth, complexity, and content imperatives should be taught to every student in a teacher training program regardless of who they plan to teach in the future.  Below are his posts that helped me begin on my journey: 


Last year, I also created a tool that I could have my students use when they were crafting research questions for the C-SPAN and they were trying to select topics.  I had each group craft several different questions using the tool and then each member of the group had to pursue an answer to that question they had crafted by researching different types of documents and write a DBQ essay response using the documents they had found.  The results of the activity were much stronger topics and answers for each group that resulted in better documentaries, which were rewarded by C-SPAN.  Below is the tool that I created to help my students:

Use the Chart below to design higher level thinking questions to help you with your research.  Brainstorm 1st with your group and then settle on 4 overarching questions that can help you create a dynamite documentary.
Example:  Mr. Schwarten has decided he wants Congress and the President to deal with performance enhancing drugs in sports.  Mr. Schwarten’s topic is Performance enhancing drugs,  which needs an upgrade.  Using the chart below, the topic is now upgraded into questions like, “What is the purpose of making performance enhancing drugs illegal?”  or,  “Explain the motivation of players who are using performance enhancing drugs.” or even, “How do ethical problems, such as performance enhancing drugs, influence the public at large?”  The possibilities are endless.

Question Word
Thinking Skill

Thinking Tools
Ethical Problems
Different Perspectives

As the year progressed and I began changing my materials to reflect what I wanted to class to be, I found that I also found my tool to be really helpful in crafting questions for my everyday activities that allowed for deeper discourse and made students think on a deeper level.  I kept referring to my tool and eventually I taped it to the wall next to my desk near the computer.  I think overall, the result was better questions that resulted in a better class overall.  I used this tool when crafting questions to capture sheets that included readings, videos, and discourse, which most of my students told me they had to stop and think about when they were doing the activity.  Below are a few samples that I used when creating some DBQ questions that many students told me were challenging:

  1. How did the rules that governed the Antebellum South in the early 19 th century influence the lives of people and what were the different perspectives/responses when dealing with the injustices of those rules within the enslaved community? (Rules can include Federal and State laws, social customs, rules of particular plantations, love (marriage and family traditions), institutions, etc)

  1. What influences from Andrew Jackson’s origin story might have affected his motivations as an adult and how might those influences have affected his sense of purpose, personal rules, and how he choose to live his life?

  1. In September of 2016, people organized and  converged on Andrew Jackson’s Statue in new Orleans to advocate for it’s removal and for the removal of Confederate memorials throughout the city.  
Compare and contrast the ethical ramifications of keeping the statue in the square by looking at the consequences for both sides of the issue. After conducting a thorough analysis, explain if you think the Jackson statue should be removed and why.

  1. Compare and contrast how women of different social classes are influenced by their life experiences in the period of the Early Nation and determine the consequences (+/-) this had on relations between men and women, the rights and responsibilities of individuals, and American Culture/Values.

  1. Judge the use of heroification and Live Action Role Playing as historical methods and analyze the ethical problems/consequences (+/-) of using them to teach history.    
  • Pick a side that either supports or refutes the use of heroification and LARPing as a method for relating history, but also include a counterclaim to cover your bases.
  • Use the con-con process as a case study to answer the question.
  • Use your character as an example to support your claim.  
  • Give details and examples.
  1. Judge the influence of the Enlightenment in creating the culture, values, and beliefs of the Revolutionary period in the colonies AND describe the ethical ramifications surrounding those thought patterns.  Remember to include details and examples from history, the MCPS principles, and thinkers/philosophers from quarter 1.
  2. Explain the traits of social contract theory, the origins of the theory, how the theory affected the American Revolutionary period, and how it was used to define the actions of the Colonists and the Crown.  Remember to include details and examples from history, the MCPS principles, and thinkers/philosophers from quarter 1.
  3. Compare and contrast the narrative of the colonial/revolutionary period offered by the MCPS curriculum VS. Howard Zinn’s narrative in his book A People’s History of the United States.  What different perspectives do each offer to our understanding of American history and how does each answer the question:  Was the American Revolution a true revolution?  Remember to include details and examples from history, the MCPS principles, and thinkers/philosophers from quarter 1.  

If you like these questions that I have developed you are more than welcome to use them in your classes.  What other methods have you found helpful in helping create questions that can challenge your students?  I would love to hear what others have done. 

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