Getting students to ask questions: Expanding the Socratic focus

By Ashoke Menon, Founder of Ignite for Schools

The average preschooler asks about 100 questions a day, by grade school this  sharply drops and by middle school it dwindles down to nearly zero.

While reading and writing skills show a steady climb by the time a student reaches age 18, his or her ability to ask questions show a downward trend after age 6.

  • And yet--- Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google says '...we run this company on questions, not answers'
  • Greg Dyker, Director general of BBC in 2000, made a name for himself by visiting all the major BBC locations and started his new job by asking employee questions....relevant questions that would help him lead.
  • Isaac Newton asks the question: 'why does the apple fall from the tree?' And proceeds to unravel a segment of Science.
  • Reina Reyes, a 29 year old astrophysicist recently astounded scientists all over the world when she led a Princeton University research team in 2010 to prove how galaxies up to 3.5 billion light years away are clustered together, in exactly the way that Einstein's General Relativity predicts. They came up with a new astronomical measurement, which indicates how galaxies are pulled together by gravity, just as Einstein theorized. And she started by asking questions at a young age!
  • The great philosophers of our times have been asking questions of the great mysteries of life offering their insights to us.

What happened? What have we done to stop this inquisitive mind?

In our work with schools, especially in working with student mentors, we have found that when students are engaged and empowered to be part of the solution, they do incredible things and make a difference. What if we applied  similar practices in the classroom?

As Dan Rothstein aptly remarks--- questions can be  a renewable source of intellectual growth.

Teaching student skills of asking questions

After posting the learning target for the class, a teacher might pose and ask students to respond to a question like: 'what might be some key obstacles to my learning in this class today?' and then frame other questions surrounding the obstacles to their learning.

Then have students work in groups (using the 4 keys recommended by smart & good schools research on developing performance character and mortal character) to work through Dan Rothstein's The Question Formulation Technique (QFT).

This technique can be an excellent tool for classroom teachers. It is an outcome of twenty years of work in developing and simplifying a straightforward, rigorous process that helps all students learn how to produce their own questions, improve their questions, and strategize on how to use their questions. In the process, they develop divergent, convergent and cognitive thinking abilities.

Example stated by Dan Rothstein's group:

"Students in Hayley Dupuy’s sixth-grade science class at the Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto, Calif., are beginning a unit on plate tectonics. In small groups, they are producing their own questions, quickly, one after another: What are plate tectonics? How fast do plates move? Why do plates move? Do plates affect temperature? What animals can sense the plates moving? They raise questions “that we never would have thought of if we started to answer the first question we asked,” says one of the students. “And just when you think you already know the question you want to focus on, you realize: ‘Oh, wow, here’s this other question that is so much better, and that’s really what you need to think about.’”

Far from Palo Alto, in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Mass., Sharif Muhammad’s students at the Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) have a strikingly similar experience. Many of them had transferred to BDEA for various reasons from other schools and had not always experienced much success as students. But working individually, they find that formulating their own questions engages them in a new way. One of the students observes: “When you ask the question, you feel like it’s your job to get the answer, and you want to figure it out.”

"These two students—one in Palo Alto, the other in Roxbury—are discovering something that may seem obvious: When students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater ownership of their learning, deepen comprehension, and make new connections and discoveries on their own. However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school. Typically, questions are seen as the province of teachers, who spend years figuring out how to craft questions and fine-tune them to stimulate students’ curiosity or engage them more effectively. We have found that teaching students to ask their own questions can accomplish these same goals while teaching a critical lifelong skill".

While it may seem like a detour to inject this question focused approach, it will come as no surprise that it is indeed a short cut to work through your curriculum. It s an outlier idea and out of the box. But the research shows that we need to let our students take ownership through specific rigorous practices like those mentioned here.

So let's take Socratic teaching to the next level--teach students to ask their own questions, be engaged in their own learning and see their intrinsic motivation make a difference in their outcomes.

Please Note: In this piece, I reference Dan Rothstein's work and his article in the Harvard education letter and from his book 'Make just one change'---all dealing with this premise---that teaching students the skills to ask questions will pay off big time in improving their accountability and ownership of their own learning. He references a NY times article. When asked what students should know after 4 years in college----Leon Botstein , president of Bard College says----'they should know how to frame questions" and Nancy Cantor, President of Syracuse University says, ' the best we can do for students is have them ask the right questions'. 

So what questions will you ask regarding the unit you are now teaching or about to teach?

Will you be excited and open minded to hear their answers?

If this is a new strategy for you, then be patient and let the students get used to this new way to engage their critical thinking skills.

Be aware of what you ask, they just might come up with a question that you might not know the answer to........how engaging that would be!