Questioning the questioner

This week we are including a resource to help facilitate student engagement when using questioning in the classroom. Sometimes students don't respond to a question or prompt because it's either too complex, ill-structured, or inaudible. The trick is to teach students the art of questioning the questioner (adapted from:


During a 12th-grade English discussion years ago, I asked a question that nobody answered. Wanting students to do more heavy academic lifting, I decided to wait until someone spoke before saying another word. A minute crept by. The class fidgeted while I waited. Ninety tense seconds passed. Students' faces registered confusion and frustration at my brinkmanship. At the two-minute mark, I continued to wait. . .We've all experienced whole-class discussions where students don't play along. You've begged, "Anybody?” “Take a guess?” then perhaps picked on someone who is consistently keen or very able to rescue the situation.

To begin, I describe all the things I don't understand:

  • Why do electrons change behaviors when they are observed?
  • If two husbands pass away, which life partner do you spend time with in heaven?
  • Why is the plot of Game of Thrones such a chore?

Fuzzy questions

Questioning in the classroom is a social interaction which encompasses a range of variables, some of which are not easy to control. Consequently, sometimes questioning is ‘fuzzy’. So here are some question prompts to give students to help them respond to fuzzy questions:

"Would you please. . .
. . . state the question in a different way?"
. . . break that question into parts?"
. . . give me an example?"
. . . repeat the question more slowly?"

If they comprehend the question, but their answer is tentative, here are some alternative question prompts for students:

  • "Please may I explain the part/idea/key term/theory that I do know."
  • "Would you please come back to me after I've given the question more thought?"
  • "Please may I ask a friend (receive peer help)?"
  • “Please may I look through my classwork/homework/the textbook to remind me?”

There are some templates here and lesson ideas here if you would like to use these prompts in your classrooms.

Demonstrate that you are happy to be questioned and celebrate contributions. “One time, I telephoned the mother of an at-risk learner to describe how her son made an astute point during class. "Someone that profound is going to experience a lot of success in college," I said. There was crying on the other end of the line, and I followed suit. During class talks for the remainder of the semester, the boy's eyes sparkled.