Teachers: How to Model Questioning Skills & Encourage Critical-Thinking

"Questioning Skills" - what's that all about? "Critical Thinking" - why? "Higher-Order Thinking Skills" - what's the point? In the age of "fake news", where our students' main source of information is littered with conspiracy theories, political and religious extremism, hate speech, government propaganda, manipulation and outright lies: never before has critical-thinking been more essential.

Questioning skills are at the heart of critical-thinking. Teaching students to ask the right questions is not just teaching them an essential life-skill, but also an essential metacognitive skill: after all, how can students be expected to develop their independent research skills if they lack the thinking skills to interrogate the claims they find on the internet and from various information-sources in their lives.

This article explains a simple strategy for modelling questioning skills in front of your students...

How to Model Questioning Skills: The 'What's That All About?' Method

Modelling questioning skills is an important behaviour teachers must engage in. I want to briefly explain an easy way to do this that I observed in my own teachers. Many years ago, whilst a student at Magdalen College School in Oxford I had an amazing teacher named Dr Brunton who forever changed my attitude to learning and, more importantly, my style of thinking; it was only when I trained to be a teacher myself and researched the literature on metacognition, pedagogy and teaching critical-thinking skills that I came to understand his unique approach - now I do, it is easy to explain and share.

His approach is what I am going to call the 'What's that all about? Method' - the goal of which is to model questioning skills in front of students in order for them to internalise those questioning skills. It's quite simple: you say what you want students to question and then simply ask, as if truly baffled yourself, "What is that all about?" or "Why?" Let's say it was a Media Studies class, he would reel off his own stream of thoughts/questions as such:

"Tabloid newspaper - what's that all about?"

"Adverts disguised as news - why?" "Front-page of this news paper, it's all about celebrities: what's that all about?" "Who decided that? Why?"

No text can do his glorious Liverpudlian accent justice, but a stream of rhetorical questions rolled off his tongue effortlessly: truly he was a human-being who genuinely questioned everything and genuinely wanted to understand the baffling things he found within a given topic. Perhaps that was why he was such an exceptional teacher - he wasn't 'teaching questioning skills', he actually had them and used them and genuinely enjoyed questioning everything.

As a student, his questions would send my mind into a state where all assumptions were rendered uncertain, my mind was filled with great doubts, all the things that seemed obvious and stable seemed questionable and dubious. That's the trick with critical-thinking and questioning skills: learning to question the unquestionable, or the things that we assume to be unquestionable: you have to question the most obvious, most "given", most common-sense assumptions in a given topic.

Let's say your a Physics Teacher:

"Gravity - what's that all about?" "Why? Why do things fall when I drop them?" "'I've never seen gravity - no device can detect it - what's that all about? Why?" "SCIENCE... why? Why bother coming up with theories like 'gravity'? "What. Is. That. All. About?" or let's say you're a Mathematics Teacher:

"Numbers - what is a number anyway?" "Mathematical Laws - where do they exist? In our minds or in the world?" "Algebra - what's that all about? Why? Why do we do algebra?" "What is Mathematics anyway?"

You're not asking these questions to get answers, you're asking these questions to model questioning-skills: intentionally going for the most fundamental assumptions and claims underpinning a given topic. You can round off your stream of questions with a simple declaration like "These are the kinds of questions you need to be asking yourself..." or "Questioning these very basic assumptions is essential".

It became a bit of a running joke amongst my peers and myself, we'd impersonate him and his thick Northern accent: "what's that all about?" we would joke about this and that... little did we realise that we would, because of him, all be asking "what's that all about?" for the rest of our adult lives!!

I will be forever grateful to Dr Brunton for showing me how to question the assumptions most people take for granted, truly I wouldn't be who I am today without his incredible influence. I hope you can use the "'What's That All About?' Method" in your lessons today!!

Resources That Develop Students' Questioning Skills

[Click Here to Download]

We've created a set of five fun and engaging learning sessions designed to foster questioning skills. The purpose of these sessions is to foster questioning skills, Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) and critical-thinking skills. Each of the sessions contains four phases:

  1. 'What Makes a Good Question?'

  2. Generating Philosophical Questions

  3. Using Questions in Critical-Thinking

  4. Questioning Experts

These PowerPoint sessions are fairly flexible and consist of many short discussion questions instead of more lengthily tasks: each one contains 25+ slides. The exercises generally involve question-generation: the prompts deal with metacognitive issues and broader questions from the wider curriculum.