The art of questioning is a major key in engaging students in learning. Good questioning skills may be the world's most unsung talent. Ask the right questions in the right way, and you'll engage people; do it differently, and you'll put them off.
Anyone who's ever worked with kids knows how hard it can be to elicit information or opinions from them when they've got a case of the "idunnos." Certainly, for an inquiry-based learning program there's no more important talent, and by understanding the art of the question, you'll not only get children more actively involved, you'll help them learn this important skill themselves. Who knows? Maybe you'll be the one to inspire the next great TV journalist.
Types of Questions
There are three main types of questions: Factual questions have only one correct answer, like "What did you have for breakfast this morning?" The answer is not always simple, however; it depends on how broad the question is. "Why does a curve ball curve?" is a factual question that can have a very complicated answer. Factual questions usually make the best inquiry-based projects, as long as they are answerable and have room for exploration.
Interpretive questions have more than one answer, but they still must be supported with evidence. For example, depending on their interpretations, people can have different, equally valid answers to "Why did Ahab chase Moby Dick?" The answers are not wrong unless they have no relationship to the text at all, such as "Because aliens from outer space controlled him!" When exploring any type of text (video, fiction, nonfiction, a painting, poetry, etc.), it is important to ask interpretive questions that build on one another because students will have to refer back to the text. Interpretive questions are effective for starting class discussions, for stimulating oral and written language exercises and, sometimes, for leading to good inquiry-based learning projects.
Evaluative questions ask for some kind of opinion, belief or point of view, so they have no wrong answers. Nonetheless, the answers do depend on prior knowledge and experience, so they are good ways to lead discussions (e.g., "What would be a good place to take the kids on a field trip?") and explore books or other artistic works (e.g., "Do you agree with Ahab's views on whales?"). They rarely make for good inquiry-based projects because they are internally focused, but they can be a great way to connect with and elicit interaction from young or shy students (e.g., "Who's your favorite Pokemon?")
The Structure of Questions
In general, start questions with "how," "what," "where," "why" or "when." Think that's obvious? Well, how many times have you begun a question in class with "Tell me…" or "Describe for me..."? When you frame questions in that manner, you take control of the learning process because you're giving commands as well as asking for input. When you ask a question, however, there's nothing more important than generating a true and honest curiosity about the answer. That's why open-ended questions are best for most learning situations, unless you have a particular reason for leading someone to a specific conclusion or actually need a fact supplied to you. Try to avoid yes/no questions because they're usually a dead end. In contrast, open-ended questions:
• invite opinions, thoughts and feelings;
• encourage participation;
• establish rapport;
• stimulate discussion; &
• maintain balance between facilitator and participant.