The Art of Questioning

Wolf, Dennis Palmer. "The Art of Questioning."
Academic Connections; p1-7, Winter 1987.

[This article was originally a talk delivered at the Summer Institute of the College Boards Educational EQuality Project, held in Santa Cruz, California, July 9-13, 1986. At the institute more than one hundred high school and college teachers convened to consider how concerns raised by the education reform movement can be translated into improvements in everyday teaching practice. One topic given particularly close attention was that of questioning in the classroom. Dennie Wolfs remarks provided the keynote for these deliberations, and the version of her talk presented here has been expanded slightly to take into account questions raised by institute participants.

The observations that appear in the article come from classrooms Wolf visited while working as a consultant to the College Boards Office of Academic Affairs and as a member of a research project on assessment in the arts currently funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. She especially thanks teachers in Boston, Cambridge, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and St. Paul for their generous cooperation. Wolf works with Project Zero, Harvard University Graduate School of Education.]

Ask a teacher how he or she teaches and, chances are, the answer is, "By asking questions." However, if you go on and ask just how he or she uses questions or what sets apart keen, invigorating questioning from perfunctory versions, that same teacher might have a hard time replying. In itself this is no condemnation-there are many occasions when we do magnificently without explicit knowledge: Few of us can explain transformational grammar, but we can form questions, all the same. A major league pitcher is sure of dozens of algorithms for trajectory, though his theory is as much in his elbow as on the tip of his tongue.

Still, a growing body of observation and research suggests that teachers' uncertainly about how they question cannot, or should not, be explained simply as a lack of explicit knowledge. Consider several observations that have emerged from recent educational research:

There are many classrooms in which teachers rarely pose questions above the "read-it-and-repeat-it" level. Questions that demand inferential reasoning, much less hypothesis-formation or the creative transfer of information to new situations, simply do not occur with any frequency (Gall 1970; Mills, Rice, Berliner, and Rousseau 1980).

The questions and answers that do occur often take place in a bland, if not boring or bleak, intellectual landscape, where student answers meet only with responses from teachers at the "uh-huh" level. Even more sobering is the observation that teachers' questions often go nowhere. They may request the definition of a sonnet, the date of Shakespeare's birth, the meaning of the word "varlet"- but, once the reply is given, that is the end of the sequence. Extended stretches of questioning in which the information builds from facts toward insight or complex ideas rarely take place (Goodlad 1984, Sadker and Sadker 1985).

Classroom questions are often disingenuous. Some are rhetorical: "Are we ready to begin now?" Others are mere information checks-a teacher knows the answer and wants to know if students do, too. Missing from many classrooms are what might be considered true questions, either requests for new information that belongs uniquely to the person being questioned or initiations of mutual inquiry (Bly 1986, Cook-Gumperz 1982).

The very way in which teachers ask questions can undermine, rather than build, a shared spirit of investigation. First, teachers tend to monopolize the right to question -rarely do more than procedural questions come from students (Campbell 1986). Second, the question-driven exchanges that occur in classrooms almost uniformly take place between teachers and students, hardly ever shifting so that questions flow between students. Moreover, classroom questioning can be exclusive. It can easily become the private preserve of a few- the bright, the male, the English-speaking (Erickson 1975, Erickson and Schultz 1981, Hall and Sandler 1982).

Questions can embarrass, rather than inquire. They can leave a student feeling exposed and stupid, more willing to skip class than to be humiliated again (Bly 1986).

While this account of classroom questioning is grim, it is also partial. In writing Academic Preparation in the Arts (College Board 1985) and working on a study of assessment in the arts funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, I have spent a number of hours in the back of classrooms. From there I have seen skilled teachers raise questions that ignited discussion, offer a question that promised to simmer over several days, or pursue a line of questioning that led to understanding. Those teachers suggest a counter-portrait of classroom questioning, one that contains detailed clues about how the language of classroom dialogue can be used to establish and sustain not just a momentary discussion but a lasting climate of inquiry. My examples happen to come from arts and humanities classrooms, but I can think of no reason why they should not apply in other subject areas as well -granting, of course, that transferring them may reveal interesting differences among subject areas.

However, before turning to these classroom observations, I want to suggest that the issue of what questions are asked and how they are posed is, or ought to be, part of a much larger inquiry. Currently, there is a deep concern about how -or even if we teach students to think. There is startling evidence that many high school students cannot draw inferences from texts, distinguish the relevant information in mathematics problems, or provide and defend a thesis in an essay. We have apparently developed a system of education in which rote learning occurs early and inquiry late. We teach the skills of scribes and clerks, rather than authors and mathematicians (Reznick 1985, Wolf et al. in press). We have come to accept a view of education that sees the experience of schooling largely in terms of its power to produce employable, rather than intelligent, students and that suffers from basic confusion over the conflicts between pluralism and excellence (Lazerson 1986).

Embedded in this broad concern, however, there is-or ought to be-a second critique-one that points out that the situation of disadvantaged, minority, female, and handicapped students is still more dire (National Coalition of Advocates for Students 1985). For many of them, skills such as analysis, hypothesis testing, discussion, and essay writing may not just be taught late and meagerly-they may be virtually unavailable. Hence, when we examine skilled questioning (or instruction of any kind), it is essential to learn from those teachers who understand how to engage a wide community of learners. As one college teacher put it, "It's not hard to teach philosophy to students who learned the rules of argument and evidence at the dinner table. That's a matter of dotting the i's and crossing the t's. The real issue is whether I can teach students who don't come already knowing."

Independent of whom they teach, skilled teachers question in distinctive ways: they raise a range of questions, they sustain and build arcs of questions, their inquiries are authentic, they inquire with a sense of respect flail decency.

A Range of Questions

Thirty years ago, Benjamin Bloom (1956) suggested that the same information can be handled in more and less demanding ways-students can be asked to recall facts, to analyze those facts, to synthesize or discover new information based on the facts, or to evaluate knowledge. My own classroom observations suggest that there is an even greater range of challenging questions than Bloom's familiar taxonomy indicates:

Inference Questions. These questions ask students to go beyond the immediately available information (Bruner 1957). For example, a high school photography teacher held up a black-and-white portrait of a machinist taken by Paul Strand, and asked, "What do you know by looking at this photograph?" Through careful questioning and discussion his students realized that the image contained hints that implied a whole network of information: clues to content (where and when the photograph was taken), technique (where the photographer stood, where the light sources were located), and meaning or attitude (what Strand felt about industry and workers). To push beyond the factual in this way is to ask students to find clues, examine them, and discuss what inferences are justified.

Interpretation Questions. If inference questions demand that students fill in missing information, then interpretive questions propose that they understand the consequences of information or ideas. One day when her English class was struggling to make sense of Frost's poem, "The Silken Tent,' a teacher asked, "Imagine if Frost compared the woman to an ordinary canvas tent instead of a silk one-what would change?" Faced with the stolid image of a stiff canvas tent, students suddenly realized the fabric of connotations set in motion by the idea of silk-its sibilant, rustling sounds; its associations with elegance, wealth, and femininity; its fluid motions. In a similar spirit, during a life-drawing class, a teacher showed his students a reproduction of Manet's "Olympia" and asked them, "How would the picture be different if the model weren't wearing that black tie around her neck?" A student laid her hand over the tie, studied the image and commented, "Without the ribbon she doesn't look so naked. She looks like a classical model. With the ribbon, she looks undressed, bolder."

Transfer Questions. If inference and interpretation questions ask a student to go deeper, transfer questions provoke a kind of breadth of thinking, asking students to take their knowledge to new places. For example, the final exam for a high school film course contained this question: "This semester we studied three directors: Fellini, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa. Imagine that you are a film critic and write a review of "Little Red Riding Hood" as directed by one of these individuals."

Questions about Hypotheses. Typically, questions about what can be predicted and tested are thought of as belonging to sciences and other "hard" pursuits. But, in fact, predictive thinking matters in all domains. When we read a novel, we gather evidence about the world of the story, the trustworthiness of the narrator, the style of the author, all of which we use to predict what we can expect in the next chapter. Far from letting their students simply soak in the content of dances, plays, or fiction, skilled teachers probe for predictions as a way of making students actively aware of their expectations. For instance, as a part of preparing "The Crucible,' a drama teacher suggested the following.

Teacher: Find a scene where you have an exchange with a character in the play. Then find a place where you can open up the dialogue and insert three or four new turns -ones you make up. I want half a page at least.
Student 1: Yeah, but it's all done.
Student 2: How can we know, anyway?
Teacher: You have all the evidence you need in the scene. What are you going to build on?
Student 1: It would have to be about the same thing.
Teacher: Mmmm mmm.
Student 2: They'd have to talk the same way they've been talking. I mean with the same kind of emotion. Also right for that character-just what they know.
Teacher: Okay, you're on.

Reflective Questions. When teachers ask reflective questions, they are insisting that students ask themselves: "How do I know I know?"; "What does this leave me not knowing?"; "What things do I assume rather than examine?" Such questions may leave a class silent, because they take mulling over. Nonetheless, they eventually lead to important talk about basic assumptions. Consider how, at the end of the year, students often read the chapters in their texts that discuss non-Western music, art, or drama. Consider, too, the power of the following question, which a music teacher asked his class on a May afternoon: "What would it mean if I called all the music we've listened to up until now, "non-Eastern music?" With that, he lifted the grain of a whole set of usual assumptions and asked that students consider what is implicit in terms such as "non-western" or "primitive."

An Arc of Questions

But simply posing a variety of questions hardly creates a climate for inquiry. At least as important is the way in which teachers respond to the answers their questions provoke. Thus, recent research (Sacker and Sadker 1985) suggests that too often students' replies meet with little more than a passing "uh-huh" Such responses can stop inquiry dead in its tracks. In place of such dead-end situations, skilled teachers give an exchange of questions a life-course. Across a long arc of questions and answers, they pursue an investigation in which simple factual inquiries give way to increasingly interpretive questions until new insights emerge. For an observer, there is an impression of a kind of mutually constructed improvisation unfolding (Mehan 1978, 1979). In this improvisation, teachers keep questions alive through long stretches of time, coming back to them days, even weeks, after they have first been asked.

Take, for instance, this exchange, which occurred between a teacher and a student, as the student worked on an essay about the meaning of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Session 1
Teacher: Who is Eckleberg?
Student: Not a real character, I mean, he's just a sign by the road.
Teacher: What's he doing in the story then?
Student: Well, Nick passes the sign when he drives to East and West Egg.
Teacher: When does he show up in the story-every time Nick goes driving that way?
(The student leafs through the book to pick out the instances. )
Teacher: So now what do you think?
Student: (looking over the list) The times he gets mentioned are when Nick's driving and thinking. Usually when something bad is about to happen or did just happen.

Session 2 (several days later)
Teacher: Why does Fitzgerald bother to mention the Eckleberg sign, when there are probably hundreds along the way?
Student: Maybe it's an odd sign. See, it's this giant pair of glasses that are up there advertising an oculist, you know, an eye doctor.
Teacher: Why didn't Fitzgerald make Eckleberg a bumper sticker, instead of a billboard?
Student: 'Cause if he's a billboard he can look out.... He's like a god, up above everything.
Teacher: Why is he located out there between East and West Egg?
Student: Maybe 'cause it's like being stranded, like in heaven, away from things.
Teacher: Why do you think he's an oculist?
Students: (puzzled, slightly exasperated at being made to dig like this) Fitzgerald said. . . because he's an ad for an oculist. The guy who put him up there was an oculist.
Teacher: But it could have been a car dealer, too. Why those enormous yellow spectacles?
Student: Yeah.... (pauses, thinking) Maybe that says something about the idea of watching and seeing.... It's not ordinary eyes, it's extraordinary eyes... like the eyes of God, he takes it all in.
Teacher: Remember what you said about when he shows up?
Student: When there's evil-like judgment.

This arc of questioning allows information to accrue a kind of satisfying depth and complexity. Gradually, the student pieces together an idea of Eckleberg as a watching god- looking out, being raised above, apart, as if in heaven, seeing all. It is almost as if the questions posed form a kind of catwalk of realizable possibilities along which a student can move toward new insights (Luria 1976, Vygotsky 1978, Wertsch, 1978).

The Authenticity of Questions

Many of the questions that occur in classrooms aren't genuine. Some-such as, "Will you please put away your brushes and paints?"-are purely rhetorical. Others-in fact, the majority-are insincere in another way. They are not requests for information the speaker genuinely needs; rather, they are checks to see if a student has the information a teacher already knows (Cook-Gumperz 1982). These covert commands and information checks are not necessarily bad-unless, of course, they are the only questions students hear. In that case, students lose the opportunity to see their teachers engaged in serious inquiry, in which questions function as bona fide tools for thinking and understanding.

One important occasion on which students see teachers ask genuine questions is when a teacher tries seriously and persistently to get to the bottom of what a student is after but cannot express or attain. Here is a student trying to write about why To Kill a Mockingbird is a good title for Harper Lee's novel. He has opened with Atticus's quote about not killing mockingbirds but cannot figure out how to get from the quote to the introductory paragraph of the essay.

Teacher: You have a quote and then you need to get into the part about what happens in the book, right?
Student: Yes (annoyed; he can smell that rewriting is coming).
Teacher: I think you need a transition between the two.
Student: I know, but I don't want to sound stupid by telling them (very slow and pedantic): This-is-my-bridge-between-these-two-thoughts.
Teacher: Is it the idea that you don't like or that it sounds so obvious?
Student: It sounds so dumb.... I don't want to be someone in the story.
Teacher: (not sure what he means yet) Let's think about a comfortable way for you to make the connection. What about if you have something like, "In the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, the central character, Atticus, says...." Then you will have started in your voice, and when you go back to explaining the quote, it won't be barging in?
Student: I can't be in the story.
Teacher: How's that you being in the story?
Student: It's me explaining something.
Teacher: But an essay is a place where you do explain.
Student: I just want to go on with what happens in the story. They'll understand the connection.
Teacher: Okay, how about saying something like, "In To Kill a Mockingbird
two characters, Tom and Boo, are like the mockingbirds Atticus describes"? Student: Okay, let me see what I can do. (He goes back to his desk and writes his own version of this transition.)

At the outset, the teacher is not sure what it means "to be in the story" or why that should be so troubling. But sticking with her instinct that it is troubling, she tries-through asking genuine questions-to pin down what is bothersome. Together she and the student struggle to explain what each values or wants for the opening of an essay. At one level their communication is not smooth or particularly effective, but at another the student hears his teacher asking questions to carve out mutual understanding.

One-on-one exchanges are not the only occasions on which genuine questions arise. For instance, in arts classes -as well as in history and science classes-there are often chances to study the way a particular experience is interpreted by different individuals: a trip to see a surrealistic interpretation of Hamlet or a breakneck performance of a Brahms symphony. Alternatively, teachers have the option of showing students that deep into adulthood people run into serious questions that may consume or puzzle them, or may give them deep pleasure to solve, or both. A particular dance teacher comes to mind. In talking about her teaching she says: "My students know I choreograph and perform outside of class. Every so often I run up against a problem in my own work-the dance and the music start to rub each other the wrong way, a dancer has qualities that begin to transform the part, or I feel the dance grinding and creaking in the same old ways. So I show it to them. I say to them, "This is going wrong. Watch it and tell me what you think"

Decent Questions

The way in which teachers question provides a kind of barometer for the social values of classrooms-particularly questions of who can learn and who can teach. For instance, the way in which teachers question reveals whether they suspect learning flows only from a teacher or whether it can come from other students. In the following example (also found in Academic Preparation in the Arts) a teacher encourages students to exchange ideas about two shirts: one a polyester shirt printed with a sharp, yellow-and-black checkerboard pattern, the other an Apache overshirt of painted buckskin:

Ms. V (the teacher): By looking just at the shirts, what can you tell me about these cultures?
(Several students make contributions.)
Peter: The buckskin shirt was made in a culture that loves nature, and the polyester shirt was made in a culture that doesn't care about nature.
Ms. V: That's a big statement. What do you see in the shirt that lets you say that?
Peter: The polyester shirt hasn't got anything natural in it. The buckskin shirt is all natural: skin, hand-painted, looks to me like vegetable dyes.
Nava: Yes, but you could have a culture that loved nature but used plastics and chemicals to express it.
Peter: NO, that's not what I mean.
Ms. V: Look again at the shirts. What else do you see that's evidence for your idea?
Nava: The images on the shirts. The modern one has got just black and yellow squares, nothing like plants or water. But the buckskin shirt has all those lines of raindrops and stars.
(She points to strips of painted and drop-like shapes in the border.)
Peter: But maybe those are just decorations. How do we know that those are raindrops? Maybe they are just patterns like the checkerboard in the other shirt.

Through their questions teachers have the power to offer opportunities for dialogue to particular groups of students or to withhold opportunities from them. Along these lines, in a 1982 study, Hall and Sandler found that, when compared to their female peers, young males are much more likely to ask questions and to have them answered in a serious way. Minority students' participation in classroom discussion is similarly endangered. We know that sometimes there are culturally organized differences between classroom and home regarding the appropriateness of asking questions, the rules about who can be questioned, or what forms inquiries should take (Boggs 1972, Heath 1983). Yet, when minority students fail to join in classroom inquiry, teachers may interpret their hesitation, not as uncertainty about the rules of communication, but as lack of ability, and may cease to consider them valuable, contributing members of a class (Bremme and Erickson 1977, Erickson 1975, Erickson and Schultz 1981.)

Clearly, teachers can use questions to embarrass or to empower. For instance, questions can be designed to smoke out guilty parties-students who didn't do their homework, who fail to answer quickly enough, or who can't think on their feet. But it is equally possible to use questions to promote students' sense of themselves as knowledgeable and skilled. Thus, even though the student in the following example does not yet know what she thinks, her teacher takes her search quite seriously. In back of his questions is the assumption that the student can come to know.

(In a print-making class, a teacher leans over a large linoleum print with a student.)
Teacher: What's bothering you about it?
Student: I liked the idea, but I don't like the print.
Teacher: Let's track down where you lost it. Get out your portfolio.
(At this juncture they pull out the student's portfolio and turn to the sheaves of sketches and trial runs of the print. )
Teacher: Okay, page through these until you come to the one where things go wrong for the first time.
(The student studies the portfolio, finding the moment when the original incised-line print is cut away drastically, leaving only the outlines of the face.)
Student: That's where I don't like it.
Teacher: Have a careful look and tell me what exactly changed.
Student: I can't tell.
Teacher: Okay, talk out loud about each part of it, the hair, the sun, the neck-why are they there, what's in them, what do you want them to do?

Had there been a videotape of this exchange, it would have revealed still another level at which questions embarrass or empower: nonverbal performance. The teacher looks at the student when he poses questions; he studies the prints when she does; he respects, rather than cuts off, the student, even when she gropes for an answer; he waits for her to formulate a reply. Studies of just these kinds of subtle phenomena- such as, how long a teacher waits for a reply-indicate that small changes, even in the nonverbal integrity of questioning, can have measurable effects on the quality of classroom inquiry (Tobin 1986).

Then Why So Few Questions?

Teachers know questions to be one of their most familiar- maybe even one of their most powerful-tools. But if observations are accurate, much of classroom inquiry is low-level, short, even exclusive or harsh. Moreover, these qualities turn out to be remarkably resistant to change. Thus, an early study of questioning done in 1912 (Stevens 1912) found that two-thirds of classroom questions required nothing more than direct recitation of textbook information. Now, more than 70 years after the original study, research suggests that 60 percent of the questions students hear require factual answers, 20 percent concern procedures, and only 20 percent require inference, transfer, or reflection (Gall 1970).

Why is this the case? Here, ironically, where the vital issue of what fuels or explains these persistent patterns of questioning emerges, there is little or no research. But each time that I have talked with teachers about questioning, they have had explanations. While teachers freely admit they have colleagues who are simply not interested in the work of questioning, they also point out that there are hurdles even for the committed. Here, in their own words, are some things they have pointed out to me.

It takes skill and practice to build a climate of inquiry, and there are few forums in which teachers can be helped in -or rewarded for-this endeavor.
"There are 34 students in the room. Some have read the story, others haven't; some understand, others are lost. It takes skill-lots of skill-to put together a discussion for those 34 people. Frankly, it is often easier for me to take charge."

It is a formidable challenge to establish and maintain a climate of inquiry with students of widely varying backgrounds and skills.
"Questions work fine when you have students who have a set of prior skills-I mean, who know about listening to what someone else says, who can follow up with a question of their own, who are used to digging for information. But what do you do when you don't find that? Do you stop to teach it? And how do you teach it, anyway?"

"My classroom has everything in it: kids whose families have taught them the 'right' thing is to be quiet and respect the teacher, kids who argue for the sake of arguing, girls who take neatly indented notes and never say a word, boys who like hearing themselves talk. How do you make it work for all of them?"

But even with such problems as class size and diversity, teachers rarely cite students as the major obstacle. Instead, they describe the culture of schools as one that dampens their own investment in inquiry.
"Don't forget that teachers live day in and day out in a school culture. That culture teaches. In most places it teaches you to suspect that there is nothing to learn from students. It puts textbooks-not primary sources-in your hands. Textbooks make for the recitation of facts. It's a culture that puts coverage above all. You have to cover all of Macbeth in twelfth-grade English, never mind how your students read. You have to get through WWII. What textbooks start, tests often enforce. In that world, questions, especially big messy ones, are dangerous. You have to keep too many of them from happening."

So what do these interested teachers want? Concretely, they ask for time and opportunity to think about their classes as moments of joint inquiry-time to observe skilled colleagues in action, time to see themselves on videotape, time to think through not just lesson plans, but process plans: when to ask, who to ask, and above all, how to ask and respond (Kasulis 1986). Teachers want not just to hear about how "prejudicial teacher questioning patterns" are, they want time to grapple with equity and excellence issues head-on, at the level of values and ethics. And, most profoundly, skilled teachers want to be engaged in inquiry themselves. Teachers want to join with scholars to think about curriculum, as occurs in the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and in the university-school collaborations of the Los Angeles-based Humanitas Academy. They want to have their own skills probed and honed in the way that the Bay Area Writing Program and the Dialogue program in St. Paul do by offering them (not just their students) time to write. Simply put, many teachers want to learn about the skills demanded in questioning and other forms of inquiry-but they want to learn in ways that will sustain their own abilities to inquire and reflect about their own subjects of interest.

Why Question?

These examples suggest their own reasons for why we must bother about questions despite the obstacles. Let me further venture that there may be two additional outcomes of fine questioning that often escape the notice of traditional measures of classroom achievement.

First, there is a social outcome-students need the face-to-face skill of raising questions with other people: clarity about what they don't understand and want to know; the willingness to ask; the bravery to ask again. It is as central in chasing down the meaning of a dance, the lessons of the Korean war, or the uses and abuses of nuclear reactors. One could rephrase the Chinese proverb: Ask a man a question and he inquires for a day; teach a man to question and he inquires for life.

And, second, there is a creative or inventive outcome. Being asked and learning to pose strong questions might offer students a deeply held, internal blueprint for inquiry -apart from the prods and supports of questions from without. That blueprint would have many of the qualities that teachers' best questions do: range, arc, authenticity. But if the sum is greater than the parts, there might be an additional quality-call it a capacity for question finding (Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi 1976). Question finding is the ability to go to a poem, a painting, a piece of music-or a document, a mathematical description, a science experiment-and locate a novel direction for investigation. This ability is difficult to teach directly, yet it may be one of the most important byproducts of learning in an educational climate in which the questions asked are varied, worth pursuit, authentic, and humanely posed. Here Gertrude Stein comes to mind. As she lay ill, someone approached and asked, "What is the answer?" and she-so legend has it -had the energy to quip, "What is the question?"

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