We all appreciate the value of questions in the classroom. They are a fundamental means of students and teachers finding out what each other is thinking. But the concept of questioning itself is poorly theorised and not well researched.
While questions can of course come from both teachers and students, let's just consider teacher questioning for the moment.
There is a lot of talk of "open" questions, for which no definitive answer might exist, and "closed" questions, for which there are a limited range of possible answers. An example of an open question is "Why would we value tolerance?" Example of closed questions include "what is the square root of 64?" and "Is it raining?"
A common idea is that open questions are more effective at getting students thinking than closed questions but that's not always the case.
Consider the closed question "Are octopuses intelligent?". While it requires a yes/no answer, it's pretty clear that the conversation would not usually stop there. We would want to explore the concept of intelligence—quite a deep subject—before we could make a judgement about octopuses.
So not all closed questions limit student thinking, nor do all open questions expand it. You can think of some pretty trivial open questions, I'm sure.
There are many ways we can categorise questions but here is one categorisation based on why teachers question that is quite useful -- the RUST model of questioning.
The RUST model of questioning categorises four reasons for teaching questioning, including:
- To test if information can be recalled (R)
When we need to find out if students know that something is the case (what is?, which bit?, how many?, when did?, etc.).
- To discover student interpretations and conceptualisations and to develop student understanding (U)
When we want to test relational knowledge or how students are conceptualising or integrating information we have given them into their own mental models (what would happen if?, why is this aspect important?, how does changing A influence B?, etc.).
- To open lines of inquiry and develop skills (S)
When we want to give students opportunities to engage in a broad and deep range of cognitive skills to provide opportunities for cognitive skills development (are octopuses intelligent?, does it matter if species go extinct?, why are there 3 laws of motion and not four?, etc.).
- To apply values of inquiry and give feedback on thinking (T)
For feeding back on the quality of their thinking and inquiry (why is that significant?, could you elaborate?, can you be more precise?, what other ways of looking at this are there?, etc.).
Of course, sometimes questioning to open lines of inquiry also develops understanding; and sometimes questions targeted to test understanding develop recall; but we are speaking here of the primary intent of the teacher.
Thinking about our questioning using this system can open up rich veins of inquiry into our classroom practice. For example, these questions can be:
- a useful tool of reflection,
- an audit of classroom practice and
- a planning aid in lesson development.
And it's a great way to promote those professional pedagogical conversations about Teaching for Thinking.