Thought-provoking reading and exercises for teachers and students on the importance of good questions.

Please answer the following questions:

1. Do you ever assign students a reading, to which they are to respond by writing several good questions? (In this context, a "good question" is one the writer believes that, if answered well, would lead him or her to a clearer, better understanding of the reading. The writer need not be able to answer any of his or her questions.)

2. If your answer to the above is yes, do you then use student questions as a basis for classwork? Yes No

3. Do you ever require students to prepare a set of questions for a test on the subject the class has been studying and grade them not on answers, but on the quality of questions? Yes No

4. Who asks most of the questions in your classroom? The text? You? Students?

In my first 15 years of teaching I would have answered 1) No 2) Doesn't apply 3) No 4) The text and you.


A James Thurber Fable

"Several summers ago there was a Scotty who went to the country for a visit," James Thurber begins in "The Scotty Who Knew Too Much." The Scotty was contemptuous of the farm dogs he met. These dogs were afraid of a creature they encountered that had a white stripe down its back. The aggressive Scotty announced that he would take the creature on. "Don't you want to ask any questions about him?" a farm dog asked. "Naw," said the Scotty, "you ask the questions."

Undeterred by a squirting and the odoriferous result, the Scotty was soon ready to confront another animal all the farm dogs were afraid of. "Don't you want to ask any questions about him?" a farm dog asked. "Naw," says the Scotty, "just show me where he hangs out." The farm dog showed the Scotty where the animal lived, and within moments, the farm dog was pulling quills out of the Scotty.

Infuriated, the Scotty announced that he had now learned how to fight in the country and would beat up the farm dog. He held his nose with one front paw to ward off squirts and odors and covered his eyes with the other to keep out quills. "The Scotty couldn't see his opponent and he couldn't smell his opponent and he was so badly beaten that he had to be taken back to the city and put in a nursing home," concludes Thurber.

"Moral: It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers."

—Thurber's Fables for Our Time


Some Comments about Question-Asking

Think of the Scotty as the victim today of a city school system where he is required period after period, day after day, year after year, to answer other people's questions—questions in the text, the teacher's questions, questions on standardized tests. Rarely, if ever, does anyone help the student to learn how to ask, to analyze and to answer his or her own questions.

I was one of the questioners. I put effort into framing what I thought would be useful and intelligent questions for a class session. But it did not occur to me to help students learn how to ask questions themselves. I was convinced that I was teaching students to think. But I was oblivious to what is central to thinking—asking intelligent questions.

I thought of myself as a follower of John Dewey, but did not attend to him: "Thinking is inquiry, investigation, turning over, probing or delving into, so as to find something new or to see what is already known in a different light. In short, it is questioning." —John Dewey, How We Think

Not until the 1960s when I began working with Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, authors of Teaching As a Subversive Activity, did I become aware of what I was not doing with students and learn how to help them learn how to learn.

In Subversive 's chapter on "Languaging," they write, "Questions are instruments of perception." That is, questions focus our attention, direct our seeing, tell us what to think about and, by omission, what to ignore. If our questions are confused or ambiguous, our perceptions are likely to be clouded; if they are coherent and probing, they can lead to understandings and discoveries.

They write: "The nature of a question (its form and assumptions) determines the nature of its answer." Its form tells us what kind of answer to give—factual, judgmental, reasoned, explanatory, predictive. Its assumptions contain conclusions that direct an answer and may be faulty. If they are, they will lead to faulty conclusions or nowhere.

They write: "Meaning is in people. Without people there are no meanings." These are deceptively simple sentences. Someone asks, "Is opposition to the Iraq war patriotic?" The assumption embedded in the question is that the meaning of "patriotic" is self-evident, that a dictionary definition reading "love of country" means the same thing to everyone. But words don't mean. People mean.


A Place to Begin with Students

A. Present the following or a similar set of questions to students:

1. Is British English better than American English?

2. Why are UFOs studying the earth and its creatures?

3. Who was our greatest president?

4. Is civil disobedience the appropriate response to an unjust law?

5. Who was the inventor of the cotton gin?

6. Will sea levels rise over the next century?

7. How are you?

8. You're not suggesting that the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq, are you?

9. Why aren't you paying attention?

B. Ask students to answer the following questions about the nine questions above.

1. Which of the questions can you answer with absolute certainty?

2. Which questions require predictions as answers?

3. Which questions restrict you to giving factual answers?

4. Which questions may contain false assumptions?

5. Which questions contain words that require definitions before you try to
answer them?

6. Which questions require responses from experts?

7. Which questions assume the answerer is the expert?

8. Which questions require opinions for answers?

9. Which questions require yes or no answers?

10. Which questions probably anticipate no answer at all?

C. Discuss student answers. Then ask: What kind of answer does each question demand? Emphasize that you are not asking students to answer any of the questions; you are asking them about the kind of answer the form of the question requires. For example, #1 requires a yes/no/maybe answer; #2 a reason or reasons.

D. Examine the original questions once more and ask some other questions about them.

Question 1: Is a definition of "better" necessary before an answer to this question is attempted? Why or why not? How, in this context, would you define "better"? Is it possible that one language might be "better" than another? How would you attempt to answer this question? The original question?

Question 2: If you accepted the assumption that UFOs are studying the earth and wanted to pursue the question, what kind of answer(s) does it require? Can you think of any process that would make such answers possible? If you can't, what does that say about the question?

Question 3: An answer calls for a name—perhaps Abraham Lincoln's. What follow-up question might be useful?

Question 4: Questions frequently include words requiring clear definition if a worthwhile answer is to be pursued. How would you define "unjust law"? "appropriate response"? After you had workable definitions, how would you then proceed?

Question 5: If you think you can answer this question with absolute certainty, what makes you think so? How would you verify your answer?

Question 6: Is one expert sufficient for an answer to this question? Why or why not? What would make someone an expert on this subject? How could you tell? Might an expert's view be biased? How might you answer this question? What would you then do to answer the original question?

Question 7: What kind of answer do you expect to this question when you meet someone on the street? How often do you get a specific, detailed answer? Why?

Question 8: What might the form of this question tell you about the questioner's opinion? Why?

Question 9: The question of course assumes you are not paying attention and in its form requires an explanatory response. How do you think your responses might differ if the questioner is your teacher? Your mother? Your best friend? Explain.


An E-mail Warning and a Problem in Question-Asking for Students

The value of asking questions, analyzing questions, thinking about how one might answer them, and pursuing answers has everyday practical value. Present the following case to students for their thinking and questions.

You open an e-mail from a relative. Its opening sentence: "I received this from a good source." Then comes the following:


Several shipments of bananas from Costa Rica have been infected with necrotizing fasciitis, otherwise known as flesh-eating bacteria. Recently this disease has killed most of the monkey population in Costa Rica.

We are now just learning that the disease has been able to graft itself to the skin of fruits in the region, most notably the banana, which is Costa Rica's largest export.

Until this finding, scientists were not sure how the infection was being transmitted. It is advised not to purchase bananas for the next three weeks as this is the period of time for which bananas that have been shipped to the U.S. with the possibility of carrying this disease. If you have eaten a banana in the last 2-3 days and come down with a fever followed by a skin infection, seek medical attention!

The skin infection from flesh-eating bacteria is very painful and eats two to three centimeters of flesh per hour. Amputation is likely, death is possible.

If you are more than an hour from a medical center, burning the flesh ahead of the infected area is advised to help slow the spread of the infection. The Food and Drug Administration has been reluctant to issue a country-wide warning because it fears a nationwide panic. They have secretly admitted that they feel upwards of 15,000 Americans will be affected by infection but that these are acceptable numbers.

Please forward this to as many people you care about as possible as we do not feel 15,000 people is an acceptable number.

—Manheim Research Institute, Center for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia


1. After students have read this e-mail warning, ask them to write three good questions about what they have read. A "good question" in this context means one which, if answered well, would lead to an appropriate response to the warning.
2. Divide the class into groups of three students. Ask students to read their questions to each other. The group will then discuss the questions and decide which is the best question. One person in the group should be named as the reporter to the class.

3. Have the reporters read their group's best question. Write each on the chalkboard without comment.

4. Invite student analysis of each question in terms of such questions as the following:

a. Is the question clear? If not, how might it be clarified?

b. Is it useful? If not, why not? If so, how?

c. Do any words in the question need defining? Why and how?

d. Does the question contain any assumptions? If so, are they reasonable? If not, how might the question be reworded?

e. What kinds of information satisfy the question? Facts? Whose? From what source(s)?Judgments? Whose? Why?

f. Does the question lead to other questions? What?

g. What are the three best questions? Why? Does it matter in what order we attempt to answer them? If yes, what should that order be? If no, why not?


Two assignments and their results

"Perhaps all education is questioning and good education is simply ordered questioning... Knowing and questioning, of course, require one another. We understand nothing except in so far as we understand the questions behind it—and that is never very far."
—I. A. Richards, Speculative Instruments

Inquiry: A Daughter's Story

My sixth-grade daughter Ann came home from school one day and asked for help on a paper she had been assigned to write. I asked for the subject. Her answer: "Germany." Ann was on the verge of tears. I didn't want to laugh at the absurdly broad topic, so I asked her what there was about Germany that might interest her. She said, "Hitler." What about Hitler? And we began. What were her questions?

Ultimately, she produced an original paper. The teacher's comment: "This paper has integrity." The grade: C-. Ann came home in tears. Friends who copied from encyclopedias had received no such comments, but their grades were A's. We talked again—this time about education.

Inquiry: A Teacher's Story

For a high school class I assigned students to work on a project—independently, in pairs, or in small groups. They were to choose a subject, frame questions to guide an inquiry, then meet with me to discuss how they would proceed. Two girls chose racism as their subject. Their chief question was "Is our school system racist?"

I asked how they proposed to go about answering it. They thought for a moment, then one answered, "We'll go into history classrooms and listen to what teachers say." "Listen for what?" I asked. "Well, do they use the 'N' word?" "Have you heard teachers using this word?" "No." "Does that mean none of them are racists?" "No."

So we began to talk about racism, some of the forms it takes, and some of the questions the girls had about it. We considered their assumptions, what they meant by certain words, differences between factual and judgmental statements. They abandoned questions, thought of new ones, and as we talked, honed them down, always keeping in mind their interest in investigating racism and our school system.

What gradually emerged was "Is X elementary textbook racist?" It was a textbook they had used a few years earlier. Given the form of the question, what kind of answer did it require? What follow-up questions would be necessary? How would the girls go about answering them? What problems, if any, did they foresee? How would they deal with them?
We had a second session to consider background reading, to talk about age-appropriateness for an elementary text, to begin to develop criteria that could be used to study it. In later meetings we talked about notes they had submitted, issues in African-American history they needed to learn about, inclusions and omissions in the elementary text.

They produced a draft of their findings. But what would they do with it? They wanted to have some impact. They suggested a letter to the principal of the elementary school where the text was used. We talked about content, tone, length. They drafted a letter, submitted it to me for comments, then polished and mailed the letter.

About two weeks later the principal responded. He had considered their criticisms and discussed them with several teachers. They concluded that the text needed to be replaced and would be. He thanked them for their work. (This is a true story.)



Two Possible Assignments on Controversial Issues

1. Security Leak

Late last year New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote a story reporting that President Bush had authorized a National Security Agency surveillance program to prevent terrorist acts. The program allowed authorities to eavesdrop on American citizens without a warrant. The story set off a storm of controversy.

President Bush called the disclosure "shameful," contending that it damaged national security. He argued that if anyone is talking with Al Qaeda, American officials want to know about it. He and his supporters see the NSA eavesdropping as an essential effort to save American lives.

The president's critics view his action as a violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which bars "unreasonable searches and seizures." They also see it as a clear-cut violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), which was passed by Congress after the Vietnam War. The act was intended to prevent actions like President Bush's, but instead allows the government to easily obtain court-approved warrants, even up to 72 hours after the eavesdropping.

The president's defense is that 1) when, just after 9/11, Congress authorized "all necessary and appropriate force" against those responsible for terrorist acts, it gave him the power to order the NSA surveillance program and 2) in Article 2 the Constitution gives the president inherent powers as commander-in-chief to defend the nation.

The critics say these arguments are weak, because 1) most legislators, Republican and Democrat, do not believe that in authorizing "appropriate force" against terrorists they were authorizing a violation of FISA and 2) a commander-in-chief, in any case, does not have the right to override the Constitution's guarantees against invasion of privacy.

2. Impeachment Investigation

In late 2005, Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced House Resolution 635, which calls for "creating a select committee to investigate the Administration's intent to go to war before congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment" of the president. As of late February 2006, the resolution had been cosponsored by 25 representatives.

Both of the issues described above raise many questions and have profound implications for the future of American democracy. Help students develop an inquiry into one of the issues. A suggested approach:

1. Initiate a class discussion of the NSA action or the impeachment resolution. What do students think they know about the issue? From what sources? How accurate is their information?

2. What don't they know but would like to? Assign them to write three good questions to which they would like to get answers.

3. Divide the class into small groups to analyze their questions, rewording where that seems necessary. Ask each group to select the two or three questions they think are best.

4. Have group reporters read these questions to the class. Write them on the chalkboard without comment.

5. Have students discuss, analyze, reword where necessary, then select those questions they think most important.

This process takes time and demands rigor. Especially if students have not done this sort of work before, they are likely to produce cloudy questions and will need to work for clarity. As questions are examined, substantive matters will probably arise and they in turn may generate additional questions.

1. As far as possible, let students (individually or in small groups) pursue the questions they are most interested in.

2. Meet with students to consider how they will proceed.

3. Regularly check on students' progress through meetings or by reviewing students' notes.

4. Suggest possible methods for reports: panel presentations, letters to officials, talks to the class, debates, TV or radio programs, inter-school assemblies, analytical papers.

In outline, this same process can be used for inquiry into other controversial issues. For teacher background, see "Teaching on Controversial Issues." "Teaching Critical Thinking: The Believing Game and the Doubting Game," and "Working on WMD: Inquiry in a Science or Social Studies Class" provide inquiry-oriented materials for study of specific controversial issues.

The "believing game" section of "Teaching Critical Thinking" offers a method for entering into the views of others that is especially useful when students are examining a controversial issue.

"Studying a Poem: Inquiry in an English Class," also available on this site, involves students in asking questions about a non-controversial subject.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: