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6 Keys Culture of Inquiry You Need to Know in Classrooms

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Creating a Culture of Inquiry

Table of Contents

    Create Questioning Culture

    Six key things educators can do to create a culture, atmosphere, and environment where students are more comfortable asking questions and more inclined to do so are:

    • Foster an appreciation of questioning
    • Create a stimulating environment for questioning
    • Make it safe to question
    • Make questioning a team sport
    • Provide a basic questioning “starter kit”
    • Reward and celebration

    Foster an Appreciation of Questioning

    Students need to understand why they should make the effort and take the risk of raising a hand and asking about something they don’t know or are curious about.

    Authors Warren Berger and Elise Foster, in their book Beautiful Questions in the Classroom, like to frame questioning as a set of “superpowers” that can help you explore, think like a ninja, discover new possibilities, create cool new things, and maybe even change the world. Plus, it’s fun.

    There are eight questioning superpowers:

    1. Questions solve problems

    2. Questions can help us create cool new things

    3. Questions light up the dark

    4. Questions help us dig deep

    5. Questions connect us with each other

    6. Questions take us to new places

    7. Questions give you a voice

    8. Questions change the world

    Create a Stimulating Environment for Questioning

    What might a questioning classroom actually look like? How is it arranged? What’s on the walls (besides that eight questioning superpowers poster)?

    Authors refer to one of the first classroom design rules cited by Murdoch and other educators, which is: Let your students be part of designing the classroom environment. The goal is to get them to feel it is their space, which is more likely to make it seem like a safe place to explore and inquire. Murdoch says one of the first things teachers can do is ask students how they’d like to design the room. Some initial questions she suggests posing to students: “How can we get to know each other as people and learners?” “How can we make this classroom a place where learning thrives?” “How can we connect and with ourselves?”

    As students become involved in the actual design, Murdoch suggests you can help guide them with these questions: “What do we need to have in this space to help us as learners?” “What could we do without?” “How do we want to feel in here?” “What parts of the space should be shared, and what will be personal?” “What do we need to do to ensure we care for the space?”

    Clusters, Not Rows

    Murdoch recommends, if possible (and if budget allows), furnishing the room with various tables and seating in different sizes—including low tables for sitting on the floor and higher ones to encourage standing. “Like adults, children like to work in different places at different times,” Murdoch writes. “Flexible learning spaces allow students to position themselves in different places in the room for different purposes.”

    The classroom design could also carve out dedicated spaces for various creative functions. Murdoch suggests such stimulating possibilities as a tinkering station, a laboratory for experiments, a mini art studio, a “cave” for quiet thinking, a cabinet of curiosity, a display of plant life. You can use portable room dividers to wall off dedicated spaces (and to provide barriers as kids break up into groups). Mini whiteboards are also recommended.

    What a questioning safe haven looks like:

    • Questioning safety rules are posted.
    • Desks are set up for groups (in clusters) and peer-to-peer questioning.
    • The room has walls that teach.
    • Information about questioning is readily available.
    • It is designed by students.

    Walls That Teach

    Murdoch (2015) says inquiry teachers should ask themselves this question: Do my walls teach or simply display? “Rather than the walls being seen as a place to display finished work, the walls [should] become a visual record of work in progress,” Murdoch believes. The idea is to show student thinking as it is happening—descriptions of processes being used, as well as work in various stages of completion.

    Make It Safe to Question

    Some type of official “rules” statement that lays out what is expected, in terms of student and teacher behavior around questioning, should be prominently displayed on the wall.

    A key first step is to ensure students understand the rules (those rules include: ask as many questions as possible, do not judge or discuss questions, and write down all questions). While those rules are geared to a specific exercise, I think a more general set of rules could be developed that are designed to announce: Here is how we ask—and encourage others to ask—questions in this classroom.

    Sample List of Question Safety Rules

    In this classroom, we all agree to the following “questioning rules”:

    • We value and welcome questions from everyone (and the more, the better).
    • In this classroom, we don’t judge questions. All are evidence of curiosity and worthy of consideration.
    • Questions in this classroom will move in all directions: from teacher to student, student to teacher, and student to student.
    • When asking questions, we will do so respectfully and with genuine curiosity (no “counterfeit questions” allowed!).
    • While we’ll ask all kinds of questions, big and small, we’ll also sometimes aim for ambitious un-Google-able questions.
    • We’ll do our best to document questions as they come up and pursue them—sometimes on our own, sometimes in groups.

    Authors suggest you should be careful communicating even a positive judgment about student questions, because if you say “Great question!” to one student’s question and not to the next, “students will then try to figure out what type of question will please the teacher—or they’ll never venture a question again.” You can affirm a question by repeating it—and then addressing it or asking students to address it (or if it’s potentially diverting, promising to get to it later).

    Make Questioning a Team Sport

    Breaking up students into small groups of four to six. This dramatically lowers the stakes for kids. It’s much easier to ask questions in front of a small group, where everyone is seen as a “partner.”

    By having students work in groups, you also build camaraderie, which can encourage more questioning. “When students are surrounded by friends, they’re more willing to ask questions,” says teacher Trevor Fritz. There are many ways to encourage more peer-to-peer questioning among students. For example, teacher Brandon Readus shares this one: At the beginning of the year, instead of having students write a paragraph about what they did over the summer, Readus asks his students to question each other about the summer. He asks each student to come up with one question to ask everyone. “As much as it’s an activity for the kids, it’s also a chance for me to assess their ability to ask questions,” he says. He also teaches them how to follow up on the answers to their question. “If we learn that 13 out of the 20 people left our city for the summer, what questions does that then make us want to ask? What else might you want to know? I’m trying to show them getting an answer might lead you to another question.”

    Peer-to-Peer Questioning Tips

    • Have students interview each other about something they’re interested in.
    • Per teacher Emily Underwood, assign each student to explain what a fellow student thinks about a given topic or subject. (To do that, the students must ask each other questions.)
    • When it’s time for questions, instead of having individuals raise hands, put students in small groups. Each group must collaborate to come up with three questions.

    Provide a Basic Questioning “Starter Kit”

    Helping kids understand that questions come in different types. There are various taxonomies that can be used, some more complex than others, and the ones you opt for may depend on the age and sophistication of your students.

    Authors suggest don’t get too far in the weeds with questioning in terms of overemphasizing complex levels or focusing on pedagogical terms such as “higher-order” questions. Questioning should be simple, accessible—and fun.

    Authors provide educators with the following you can use

    • Fritz’s categorization of Google-able versus un-Google-able questions is a great way to distinguish practical questions from more ambitious ones.
    • Teacher shared the pebble/rock/boulder taxonomy—the easiest questions are pebbles and the hardest are boulders.
    • Teacher Natasha Schmemann, who teaches her first-grade students about penny and dollar questions.

    Open-ended versus closed questions should be taught to students, and make sure they’re crystal clear on how an open-ended question differs from a closed one, but why that matters—in terms of how we can use each type of question.

    Question stems should be front and center in a questioning classroom. Authors favor lots of labeling of questions, based on what they do. It can help us categorize the options available to us, as we’re trying to find the right question for a particular situation.

    Frank Sesno’s Taxonomy of Questions

    A former CNN anchor, Sesno wrote the book Ask More (2017), in which he lays out different categories of questions based on the key functions/uses of those questions. Here are 10 question types, per Sesno:

    Diagnostic questions: What’s going on here?

    Strategic questions: What are we trying to do and why?

    Empathy questions: How did that make you feel?

    Confrontational questions: Did you say this?

    Creativity questions: What if there were no limits?

    Mission questions: How might we bring about change?

    Scientific questions: What do we know and what do we need to figure out?

    Interview questions: What motivates you? What are your goals?

    Entertaining questions: If you had three wishes, what would they be?

    Legacy questions: What do you want to be remembered for?

    Authors suggest borrowing bits and pieces that you like from the various taxonomies out there to create one that works for you and your students. Better yet, decide with your students to create your own original taxonomy of questions, using language or themes that most resonate with your group.

    Reward and Celebrate Questioning

    It is important that students feel that the questions they ask are acknowledged and appreciated—or they won’t keep asking them. And it’s not enough to say, “That’s a good question.” People often say that, and then ignore the question that was just asked.

    The best thing you can do with a student question is to treat it as something worthy of discussion, worthy of sharing, worthy of documenting and preserving. It may not be possible to do all those things all the time, but that is the best reward and should be bestowed as much as possible.

    One of the best ways to document and share questions is to post them on the wall. Theresa Fox, instructional coach at Menlo Park City Schools, says when you put questions on the wall, you’re making that learning and thinking visible all around you. As she says, “What you value, you put on your walls.”

    Activities authors suggest:

    “Wonder walls”

    “Scholar wall.”

    Intriguing Question of the Day (or Week, if you like)

    A Question of the Day bulletin board

    Designating a Question Week for your class (or if possible the entire school)?

    If you want to create the sense that questioning counts, keep counting the questions asked. Assign a student to be the question tracker, keeping a daily tally. Set standards for what constitutes a good questioning day. And every now and then, encourage students to try to set a new questioning record that day.

    Parting Questions to Think About

    • Which questioning superpowers are your favorites?
    • Can you think of any that you would like to add to the list?
    • What are some fun ways to bring the superpower theme to life in your classroom?
    • What are ways to bring questioning to life on the walls of your classroom?
    • If you were composing your own list of safety rules for questioning, what would you include?
    • What are some ways to recognize and celebrate a good question?

    This post is part of Power of Learning Something New Series

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