The Benefits of Learning 8: Questioning

Do a quick survey of your students: In school, which do they do most – answer questions or ask them?

I can probably tell you the results, though, if your school is anything like mine. They answer many, many more questions than they write. Short answer, long answer, fill in the blank, true-false, and, of course that cornerstone of all educational truth, the multiple choice question.

But most students tell me they don’t often get to ask their own questions in class, though many of them do it after class, or in the privacy of their own heads during class.

What does all of this have to do with writing? Well, over the years I have tried to define writing various ways – a task that seems ever more urgent in the age of automated writing. One of the best definitions I have come up with is this: Writing is the act of asking yourself hard questions and then trying to answer them. I have to confess, I may have run across this definition somewhere and adopted it as my own, but my Google searches to find that definition attributed to someone else have proved fruitless, though I have found many other teachers and writers extoling the value of questioning as a writerly practice.

We live in a culture that loves certainty, distrusts uncertainty and ambiguity, and wants clear, black and white, binary answers. To say, “I’m not sure…” smacks of intellectual laziness, fuzziness, or even stupidity. And yet over-certainty comes with its own, I hope, obvious dangers. The cult of certainty has filtered its way down to school writing lessons: We tell our students to have a clear, unambiguous claim, to choose a side, to refute counterclaims, giving the impression that the best way to win an argument is to knock down the other side, not to try to win them over and also giving the impression that if we can’t be certain – or at least feign certainty – we shouldn’t be writing in the first place.

But writing, in my experience, has always been about working out my own thoughts and questions, dealing with ambiguity. I mentioned my play about Johannes Kepler last month. Writing that play was (and continues to be as I revise it) a process of dealing with questions about the relationship between religion and science and faith and doubt. The 23-year run of my comic strip has been a long, long record (over 6,000 strips by now, I think) not just of funny things that have happened in my classroom, but of my own questions about education, literacy, classroom discipline, and the politics of education.

This past week I taught James Clavell’s “The Children’s Story” – his short story about an alternate history where the United States has been conquered by a foreign power. It takes place in a second grade classroom where the New Teacher from the conquering power sends the “old teacher” out and then proceeds to win over her pupils and make them good citizens of the new regime. Cavell’s handwritten note at the end of the book says that the book began with him questioning the fact that his daughter came home from school saying she could say the pledge of allegiance, but couldn’t tell him what it meant. Although the obvious villain of the story is the New Teacher, the story also questions the culture of rote learning in America. In his note, Clavell says the story “keeps asking me questions. . . Questions like – What’s the use of ‘I pledge allegiance’ without understanding? Like why is it so easy to divert thoughts and implant others? Like what is freedom and why is it so hard to explain. “The Children’s Story” keeps asking me all sorts of questions I cannot answer.” The story began in questions but it also raised new questions.

The importance of questioning has been researched in depth by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, who started the Right Question Institute and wrote the book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Their work began when they discovered that many people trapped in poverty didn’t know what questions to ask to get assistance and to find their way out of their situation. They decided the best place to teach people good questioning techniques was while they were still in school, before they hit adulthood. The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is incredibly easy to use – check it out at the link in this sentence. The questions they ask at the start of a unit often turn into the topics we discuss later in the unit and the topics they write about at the end.

Questioning can benefit our students in many ways. Asking good questions often requires more real thought than answering them. I don’t ask my students questions when we read a novel together; I ask them to ask questions, and they lead the discussion. A few years back, when we were reading and discussing Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (a book I’ll be teaching again in about a week, and which seems more relevant than ever on its 70th anniversary – especially here in Florida), I had a student ask a question I had never thought of. “Did Mildred watch Montag (her husband) running away from the police on television – and if she did, did she care about whether he got caught and killed on a personal level?” That question stopped all other discussion and led to so many other questions. We hadn’t finished plumbing its depths by the end of class.

Questioning is necessary in a democracy. I spoke at our school board meeting here in Florida last week to question our classroom library policies. More importantly, one of my students spoke at the meeting to question the policies as well. When our students are bombarded with prompts (usually about low-stakes topics they don’t care about) they are not learning to question the things happening in the world around them.

Questioning can also be turned inward. We often need to question are own assumptions, our own perspectives, to get past our own biases and the online information filter-bubbles we live in.

Questioning helps us not just solve problems, but identify the correct problems. In life, we often worry about problem-solving, when in fact we should be more concerned about identifying the real problem. For instance, our school systems have spent well over 20 years asking how to solve the problem of low test scores. Perhaps we should be questioning whether test scores are the real problem. Maybe the tests themselves are the real problem. Maybe the problem to solve is how to get kids truly engaged with the material – including writing – we are trying to teach them.

So – how do we get students to ask more questions when they are stuck in “answering” mode? (As an aside, having students answer text-book questions is probably not “best practice” these days; there are now websites that have all the answers to all the textbook questions!)

I have… some answers.

Use the Question Formulation Technique. I cannot recommend it enough. It is quick. It is engaging. It works.

Another idea comes right out of my classroom, and I have mentioned it here before: The Wonder Map. At the start of the year, I have students do idea-maps at the start of their writer’s notebooks – the Enthusiasm Map, the Frustration Map, the Worry Map, and the Wonder Map. The Wonder Map is a place for students to list things that give them a sense of wonder, but also things they wonder about. They tend to ask some pretty cosmic questions.

I also came up with a new map I’ve added for my Creative Writing Students: the Ambiguity Map – things they have mixed feelings and uncertain thoughts about. I wasn’t sure it would work, but students understood and had plenty to write. They were ambiguous about things like religion, social media, school, going to college, and… fast food. Exploring ambiguities leads to asking good questions, and often to good writing.

Of course, the one place we sometimes ask students to use questions is at the end of essays. That is the one place I have found questions often fall flat. “That was my opinion of _______. Now, what’s yours?” Kind of awkward and amateurish. There are better ways to use questions.

But I’m going to end with an amateurish question anyway. How do you use questions in your classroom to inspire writing?

Image via Created by David Lee Finkle

You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or engage on Facebook at to continue the conversation.  

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