Updated: Jul 31, 2019
It would be trite to say that "questioning skills and critical thinking are more important now than they have ever been"; such a claim is, itself, highly questionable. So many of the worlds problems for the last few hundred years may well have been avoided had people been given the thinking-skills to question what various authorities had been telling them and to think critically about the norms and conventions of the social and political milieu in which they found themselves.
Perhaps it's safe to say, however, that our students are presented with a never before seen range and quantity of false-information, propaganda, deceptive 'marketing strategies', paranoid conspiracies, "fake news", and political extremism than ever before.
Either way, there are some fairly timeless and solid reasons a teacher should be fostering questioning skills in their students:
they are an essential component of Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS)
questioning skills allow students to critically engage with information they encounter outside of school - this makes independent learning more effective and reliable
a sceptical mindset is a fairly essential survival tool and can provide lifelong protection against various harmful deceptions: cons, cheats, "clever advertisements", and various other forms of manipulation and exploitation; the ability to question everything is at the heart of such a mindset
How to Teach Questioning Skills - Best Practice, Ideas & Activities
1. Regular use of Question Generation Tasks
Question generation tasks can be fantastic hooks or starter activities in a lesson: "Generate a list of questions about X, Y & Z" or "Based on the image/video displayed, generate a list of questions". Question generation tasks are also ideal extension tasks for use in a differentiated classroom: higher-ability students may finish a task first and having them generate critical questions is a great way to foster higher order thinking skills. Since question generation tasks have no end, they're a handy way for teachers to get the most out of allotted time when planning and designing lessons (especially in a mixed ability classroom). It can be useful to explain what kind of questions you are looking for in this task: generally it is best to ask students to create "Philosophical Questions" [i.e. questions that are deep, important, fun to debate and difficult or impossible to answer] or "Critical Questions" [i.e. questions that challenge a theory or idea]. You can follow-up this task by asking students to identify and select the most important questions from their list and allowing some time for group feedback and (time permitting) discussion of these questions.
2. Teacher Modelling of Questioning Skills We've written an article about how to model questioning skills - read it here. In that article we explain the 'What's that all about?" method, whereby teachers will 'think aloud' their own lists of critical questions which they ask rhetorically to the class as a whole. By doing so the students are clearly shown the teacher's own questioning skills which they can then internalise: they are learning (largely unconsciously) that it is normal for adults to question things and to question the basic assumptions that most people seem to live by.
For example, an English Literature teacher might be teaching about War Poetry to a group of teenagers and might reel off the following list of rhetorical questions: "Let's look at that quote 'Dulce et Decorum est' which means 'it is sweet and honourable to die for one's country' [...] 'Dying for one's country' what's that all about? [...] is it really 'sweet and honourable' to die for one's country? Is it equally honourable for a Nazi soldier to die for his country as for an allied soldier? Who get's to decide that? If it's 'sweet and honourable' why do some people get to stay at home whilst others get sent to die? What does "honour" actually mean anyway? 'Conscription'... why? [...] These officers tended to be educated in fee-paying schools, the rest are from more working-class backgrounds: what's that all about? What's going on there? Whose interests are being served by that slogan 'Dulce et Decorum est'? Is it an objective fact that's being stated or... something else?' The purpose of this role-modelling isn't to illicit answers to the questions: it is to show students how to question things and the kinds of questions it is useful to ask when critically analysing a claim or piece of information.
3. Regular Discussion of "The Big Questions"
Not all questions are equal, and some questions are so valuable that they've been discussed for thousands of years. A simple way to help develop questioning skills is to simply show students what a good question looks like and have them discuss that question [perhaps before generating their own questions related to it]. The following are some of the most famous philosophical questions ever asked:
Is our universe real?
Do we have free will?
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Does God exist?
Is there life after death?
Can you really experience anything objectively?
What is the best moral system?
What are numbers?
When students discuss how best to answer questions like this, they may find themselves having highly stimulating and enjoyable discussions and debates: all because of a question. Regular discussion of 'Big Questions' is an advert for questions and questioning-skills in general and it provides students with examples of what "the best" questions look like. It can be good practice to ask students "Why is this a good question?" or "What makes this type of question different to a more day-to-day one?" so that students are encouraged to reflect on what, precisely, makes a good question. There's a couple of relevant resources that can facilitate these philosophical discussions you should check-out:
The Metacognitive Thunk Generator - we've compiled a resource that contains over a hundred questions that are focused on metacognition: these model questioning skills whilst fostering metacognitive awareness and development.
The Whole-School Philosophy for Children Resource Pack - which contains twenty learning, discussion and debating sessions covering a wide-variety of different philosophical issues.
4. Play 20-Questions Through Mystery Skype (Link). Skype, through Microsoft classroom, offer teachers and their students a chance to play 20 questions with classrooms around the world. Just project one screen to the front of a room and get the students ready to try and figure out where their counterparts are from using yes or no questions. 5. Interrogate the Speaker Tasks & 90% Stories In 'Challenge the Speaker' tasks, students are presented with an account and have to challenge it only through the questions they ask. For example, in taking a 'World Religions' class a teacher can play the role of a person who believes in miracles due to various experiences they have had, stories they have read, and sources of authority they trust. Students have the task of asking critical questions to interrogate the witness and challenge their position. With more advanced classes, perhaps in post-16 revision sessions for example, it can be useful to have different students play the role of 'speaker'. Likewise a Physics Teacher might play the role of a "Flat-Earther" or a Biology Teacher might play the role of an "Anti-Vaxxer": they can explain the various reasons and arguments for "their view" and challenge the students to prove them wrong using questions alone. In a similar approach, the general premise of a '90% Story' is that you tell a slightly deceptive story and students have to use questions to interrogate the account and find the truth. A historical event, scientific discovery, or personal narrative that is “mostly true” (thus the 90%) is researched and questioned by the students in order to find the lie. These stories can be told by teachers or can be written accounts that students work on alone or in groups.
Download Our Free Printable Metacognition Question Prompt Cards for Teachers!
Recommended Resources to Teach Questioning Skills
Download our Questioning Skills Training Resource Set today, Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) and critical-thinking skills. Each of the sessions contains four phases:
'What Makes a Good Question?'
Generating Philosophical Questions
Using Questions in Critical-Thinking
These PowerPoint sessions are fairly flexible and consist of many shorter tasks instead of more lengthily ones: each one contains 25+ slides. The exercises generally involve question-generation: the prompts deal with both metacognitive issues and broader questions from the wider curriculum.