The Art of
Palmer. "The Art of Questioning."
Academic Connections; p1-7, Winter 1987.
was originally a talk delivered at the Summer Institute of
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.
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
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.
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
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
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.
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).
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."
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.
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:
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Teacher: Who is Eckleberg?
Student: Not a real character, I mean, he's just a sign by the
Teacher: What's he doing in the story then?
Student: Well, Nick passes the sign when he drives to East and
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.
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
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
Teacher: Remember what you said about when he shows up?
Student: When there's evil-like judgment.
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).
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.
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.
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
Student: It sounds so dumb.... I don't want to be someone in
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
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
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.
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"
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
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
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.
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.)
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?
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).
So Few Questions?
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.
skill and practice to build a climate of inquiry, and there
are few forums in which teachers can be helped in -or rewarded
"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
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?"
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?"
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
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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