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Asking Questions: The Best Way to Open Student Discourse

empty classroom

While students and teachers experienced many consequences of spending time away from in-person learning in 2020 and 2021, conducting classes at a distance caused an unintentional but unfortunate paradigm shift: a return to teacher-centered classrooms. With online learning, teachers were often forced to direct more of the class and students did not have the same opportunities to lead in a remote space. In many classrooms, this structure continued when everyone returned to buildings. For several reasons, including not just force of habit but also a desire to stabilize learning in a highly unsteady time, instruction often continues to exemplify a model in which teachers talk and students listen. How can this new normal be shifted back to a more student-centered approach? One way to begin is grounded in the questions teachers ask, and how the process of inquiry provides opportunities to facilitate more profound student engagement. 

Avoid Yes/No

One of the most common teacher-to-student prompts I hear when I observe a class is, “Any questions?” At least 90 percent of the time, nobody says a word, and that is probably not because students understand the content perfectly. For one thing, it can be hard for anyone to admit that they need more help in front of a group, but another issue lies in the structure of the question itself. When teachers ask questions that can be answered in one word (i.e., “yes” or “no”), they can expect to receive very little in response. Instead, it helps to pre-alert students that in a moment, they will be asked to answer a specific, open-ended question like, “What is one thing that you would like to know more about from today’s lesson?” Then, give students a minute or two to process (alone or with a partner) before calling on individuals with an equitable, random sharing protocol. The answers students provide will give teachers far more information about what is clear, and what needs more attention.

Open Access

Sometimes, a question can feel more like a trap or a “gotcha,” particularly if students have had unfortunate experiences in the past while being called upon. When teachers make questions less threatening, students are more likely to respond. Suppose a history class has been studying the Red Scare. Consider a direct question like: “What consequences existed for someone accused of communism?” There is nothing wrong with that question per se, but its specific tie to an aspect of content knowledge holds higher risk than a question with a more accessible entry point. Instead, the teacher might ask a question like, “What sorts of consequences do people face when they are accused of a crime?” A more open starter question includes all students in the room, not just those who understand the nuances of what is being studied. If the discussion begins with a more general, approachable question and then narrows to a more specific focus, students will not feel as intimidated when they jump into a conversation.

Don’t Jump In

When teachers ask a question and students are silent, our first instinct is to save them by giving them a piece of the answer, or by guiding their thinking. Instead, what would happen if we just remained quiet for several seconds and waited? Processing time is important. If students have time to think and are still silent, asking a careful follow up question might be warranted to elicit a response. It might be something like, “How can I clear up confusion about what I just asked?” Another option is to pause and ask students to talk with a partner before posing the question once more, this time with the understanding that any pair may be called upon to respond. If students are confused, they can also be encouraged to share their thoughts with the teacher during the pair discussion so that they do not feel put on the spot. 

Let Students Drive

Students are accustomed to being on the receiving end of questions, but they are not always given the opportunity to develop queries of their own. From a cognitive perspective, developing questions requires a complex understanding of content that is far more academically rigorous than providing answers to a question someone else generates. When students learn something new, encourage them to develop higher-order, complex questions (again, that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no”) about their learning. They can do this in small groups, on a shared document or paper, or in any other collaborative way that encourages more discourse and academic risk-taking. As an added benefit, teachers who see the questions students pose have a far better handle on what they understand, and how new information is being processed.

Allow Tangents

Teachers are understandably wary of tangents, especially when students intentionally derail the learning process by bringing up arbitrary ideas. However, tangents do have an important role in the classroom. When students seek to verbally process new information and pull in tangential ideas, that is their way of interpreting unfamiliar content by connecting it to something more accessible. If teachers shut down tangents to stick with the lesson plan as written, we miss opportunities that make student thinking visible. If a tangent is way off base, it makes sense to redirect the conversation. However, if students are genuinely trying to make sense of what they are learning, we should encourage that and allow them to speak about their ideas.

Sometimes, quiet learning spaces are indicative of student focus. Other times, an absence of noise points to a possible lack of engagement. Is a student who silently nods along with a lesson tuned in, or is the nodding a reflex that presents a façade of attentiveness when the opposite is really the case? Unless students engage in regular language production, teachers have no way of checking for understanding with ideal accuracy. Teacher-directed methods might have been unavoidable in remote spaces, but now that students are mostly in physical classrooms, it is once again time to make room for discourse and collaboration through questioning that encourages the maximum amount of student-centered learning.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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