I have blogged on the many aspects of this topic several times, but the subject is worth repeating. The questioning is only important when what is asked is worth answering. Both your questions and students’ questions need to be significant.
Your questions should begin with the Essential Questions you focus on in framing a project. My post on the topic in November 2014 noted that EQs can deal with concepts which are core to the discipline but not necessarily obvious to those not in it or look at broader ideas designed to open minds to the real-world implications of what they are studying. Even understanding what they are, doesn’t make them easy to construct.
When I first wrote about EQs I suggested if you were faced with teaching the Dewey Decimal System (which you really shouldn’t ever do) an EQ might be, “How do libraries arrange material to help users find what they need?” After doing many of these, I don’t like that question because it only has one answer – by subject. Instead I would put piles of books on a table and ask them how they would group them so that others could quickly find what they are looking for? They might arrange alphabetically or color of covers. When they were finished, they would have to explain their thinking. Encourage the class to discuss how well that would work. You could then guide them to recognize librarians had to deal with that problem and also came up with different solutions (Dewey, LOC, and now genre-based), but all these work because they have one thing in common – subject arrangement. By having them work on developing an answer to the EQ they understand the how and why of classification rather than the specific answer.
In an article in the September 2015 issue of Educational Leadership, Grant Wiggins suggests in studying the Vietnam War, a rather than, “Why did we fight the Vietnam War and was it worth it?, the EQs should be “Why have we gone to war? When was it wise, and when was it foolish?’ There are no right answers to those two questions, and answers will change over time and experience. Of course, students would have to explain/justify their answers, and the second question cannot be Googled.
Beyond EQs are the questions you ask students. They, too, need to be open-ended. When I was an elementary librarian a long time ago, I foolishly asked such questions as “What do we call the person who writes a book?” Not only was there only one right answer, but students were aware I knew that answer and their job was to find it. This is not deep, critical thinking.
Ask a good question and then wait. It’s really hard to do this but you want to encourage thinking time. When you get a response wait again. This lets the rest of the class reflect on what was said. For a follow up ask, “Why do you think that?” “Does anyone have any other ideas?” Make sure your tone is one of interest not judgement. It must feel safe. The answers aren’t wrong, they represent one way of looking at the question.
Encourage students to question what you say. It’s all about not accepting facts being given to you, but about exploring deeper to find out what’s underneath. With you as a model, students can learn to create their own Essential Questions and to learn to ask quality questions rather than focus on being able to provide the right answer.
Your guidance will re-connect with the curiosity that is innate in humans and the quality and depth of what they research will improve. Thinking about a topic and developing questions about it is intrinsic to Inquiry-based learning and lifelong learning. Creating a safe environment for questions provide the foundation that will help students in everything they do.
I once again recommend you check out Edutopia on 5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners.