Just as teachers are role models for learning, they are role models for asking questions. Think of it this way: Statements, with that period right at the end, bring thinking to a halt. Questions, on the other hand, are what initiate and encourage thinking. And that, of course, is what teachers are trying to do. Imagine how many questions a teacher asks in just one day. The questions range from “How are you?” or “How was the [game, performance, play, concert, etc.] last night?” to “Who will show us how to balance this equation?” At times you may hear questions related to safety and the learning environment, such as “Does everyone understand why you should wash your hands with soap?” or “Do you need to move so you can see the SMART Board?” Typically you hear lots of questions about the application of concepts that are the focus for the day’s lessons, such as “What is the answer to the third problem?” or “What is the next word in the sequence?” or “Which strategy did you use to solve the problem?” Occasionally there are reflective or philosophical questions, such as “What did you learn today that surprised you, or that interested you, that you want to talk about when you get home?” While these reflective questions are the least often asked, they may be the most important. What kind of questions do you frequently ask? As we have said, it is the asking of questions—of ourselves or as teachers—that initiates thinking.

Lower-Level and Higher-Level Questions

There are various ways of classifying questions, with the two most frequent ones being in terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy and convergent vs. divergent thinking. As we have seen, Bloom’s taxonomy has six distinct levels and questions can be made to match those levels quite easily. For example,

  1. Knowledge What is the word for a group of turkeys?
  2. Comprehension What is the purpose of a topic sentence when writing paragraphs?
  3. Application Using our numerical code rather than the alphabet, how would you write your name? 
  4. Analysis In what ways are deciduous trees and evergreen trees similar? 
  5. Synthesis How could you use a barometer to determine the height of a building?
  6. Evaluation What do you think will be the most significant change that individuals can make to offset global warming? Why?

Perhaps more frequently, questions are classified into two subdivisions of the taxonomy: higher-level thinking questions (often referred to as higher-order thinking, or H.O.T.) and lower-level thinking questions. Lower-level questions are those on the Knowledge level. Using this system it is easier because identifying questions for specific higher-level questions, especially application and analysis, sometimes depends on the context or setting. For example: What is the nutritional value of mushrooms? For this question the level of thinking depends on the situation. Did the lesson on nutrition state the value of mushrooms? If so, the answer would require recall. If the lesson provided a list of foods but did not include mushrooms, the thinking involved in answering the question would be more challenging. The following are other examples of low-level vs. high-level thinking questions:

Lower Level

  • What is photosynthesis?
  • What is the name of the main character in the story?
  • 9 × 3 = → ?

Higher Level

  • How is the formula for photosynthesis similar to respiration?
  • Who is your favorite character in the story? Why?
  • How could you simplify this equation: 9x + 27y = 153?

Convergent and Divergent Questions

Convergent questions are those that typically have one correct answer, while divergent questions, also called open-ended questions, are used to encourage many answers and generate greater participation of students. Besides engaging students’ memory through recall, convergent questions can be used to guide students’ observations, perhaps during a demonstration. Divergent questions, on the other hand, stimulate student creative or critical thinking, encouraging students to be better observers. These open-ended questions can guide students as they discover information for themselves, analyze data, make inferences, and identify relationships.

Examples of convergent questions: 

  • How many of the pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower survived the first winter?
  • Which is smaller, 5/16 or 3/8?
  • Is saltwater denser than freshwater?

Examples of divergent questions:

  • What do you predict will happen?
  • What can you tell me about shadows?
  • What sacrifices made by settlers traveling west by covered wagon would be most difficult for you?
  • What different strategies can we use to solve the problem?

Questions That Can Derail Thinking

Teachers typically ask many more convergent questions, perhaps 85 percent of the time. A more balanced frequency will assure a value of and an emphasis on student thinking. By making audio recordings of your instructional time, you can determine the level and frequency of your question types.

Sometime teachers ask the wrong question. For instance, does a teacher really want to know the answer to the question, “Who can tell me how a sundial works?” “My dad” is probably not the answer the teacher was expecting. What about questions such as this: “Using information in the data table, can you construct a graph comparing the size of the fish in the aquarium?” There is great potential for H.O.T., but the way the question is worded, the answer is either “yes” or “no.” In each case, however, there is potentially a good question that will encourage students to think.

Another category of questions that you will want to use sparingly includes those that employ guesswork. For example,

  1. Only women have femoral arteries. True or False
  2. The average number of times college students change majors is ______. a) 2 times b) 4 times c) 6 times

There is a 50 percent chance of guessing the answer to the first question, and a 1:3 chance with the second one. If the students’ answers are correct, you are not going to know whether they guessed correctly or actually knew the information.

Of course, there are times when you, as teacher, must ask convergent questions. They are an appropriate part of the curriculum as long as you avoid limiting your questions to convergent ones.

Why? Questions

The “why?” question is a wonderful question. It can stimulate one’s thinking, encourage creative and critical thinking, and open up a whole realm of possibilities. It is a question that typifies four-year-olds but engages adolescents and adults as well. Why does thunder have to be so loud? Why don’t I understand algebra? Such questions are asking for explanations (inferences) from someone perceived to be wise or at least more experienced, or are pointing the way toward further understanding.

But why stop there? Yes, four-year-olds ask those questions that sometimes challenge adults to really think about something. Rather than stifling the questions of young people as they continue their efforts to understand the world around them, teachers can capitalize on their natural curiosity. By encouraging children to develop their own questions related to the topic of study, the search for answers becomes a great motivation for meaningful learning. Ultimately, the teacher can help the student to change those “why?” questions into questions more suited for investigation: What causes thunder to be so loud? What is preventing me from understanding algebra?

Taking their cue from the teacher, students place value on the types of questions asked most frequently or those questions that dominate the lessons. If you want to value a particular level of thinking, consider the amount of time or frequency with which you encourage that level.