The importance of questioning

picture1Kyogen’s man up a tree

‘A man up a tree hangs from a branch by his mouth; his hands cannot grasp a bough, his feet cannot touch the tree. Another man comes under the tree and asks him the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West. If he does not answer, he does not meet the questioner’s need. If he answers he will fall and lose his life. At such a time, how should he answer?’

The Gateless Gate (13th century)


Tonight’s 15 Minute Forum was led by Dr Tim Brinded (second year History Teacher) and focussed on the importance of questioning in the classroom. Tim began with the Koan above, which is associated with The Rinzai tradition of Buddhism from the 9th century. Essentially it is a nonsense question which encourages the student to recognise the limitations of logical thought and instead requires them to solve the problem by achieving an inner understanding, leading to transcendence.

The word transcendence is derived from ‘trans’ (meaning beyond) and ‘scandare’ (to climb) and links strongly to our role as teachers, to allow our students to reach beyond their current academic level and to achieve the best possible outcomes. This is heavily linked to Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset where we, as teachers, attempt to express to our students:

  • To see their faults and help them to work on them
  • To challenge them to become a better person
  • To encourage them to learn new things.

What is the importance of questioning in the classroom?

Paul and Elder (2000) state that ‘Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. Had no questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field…the field would never have developed in the first place’. In order to keep a field of thought (or a concept/topic) alive teachers have to constantly ask questions of it, rather than simply allowing that field to close down. Teachers are then able to challenge existing or established answers through questioning to challenge students’

Research by Smith (1998) states that language-rich classrooms are more conducive environments for learning and thus progress. Objective studies conducted by Smith have shown that young children have a higher IQ at a younger age if their parents regularly spoke to and questioned them, compared to those whose parents did not engage them. In our classrooms, the ability of students to be able to express their views and thoughts is generated through our questioning of them.

As well as these two functions, there are more basic functions of questioning in our classrooms:

  • To develop interest and motivate students to become actively involved in lessons.
  • To develop critical thinking skills.
  • To review learning.
  • To stimulate students to pursue knowledge on their own and ask their own questions.

Cotton (2001) outlined these functions of questioning and states that ‘Instruction which includes posing questions is more effective in producing achievement gains than instruction carried out without questioning students’.

What types of questions can we use?

Essentially there are two categories of questions that we use within our classrooms:

  • Lower cognitive questions: lower order, convergent or closed questions.
    • Usually require memory recall of previously learnt information.
    • There is often only one right or wrong answer such as ‘When was the Battle of Edgehill?’ The only answer to this is October 1642.
  • Higher cognitive questions: higher order, divergent or open questions.
    • These require students to analyse information and apply their knowledge.
    • An example would be ‘what were the consequences of the Battle of Edgehill?’ There could be a range of possible answers to this question, but they would all require the students to think and engage with the learning.


However, the research conducted by Cotton (2001) and Hattie (2012) showed that:

20% of classroom questions are higher cognitive questions

20% are procedural questions (‘have you got your books with you?)

60% are lower cognitive questions.

Immediately, this suggests that teachers need to increase their use of higher cognitive questions, in order to stretch and challenge their students’ thinking. However, it is not to underestimate the value of lower cognitive questions.

Benefits of closed questioning

Practice at retrieving new knowledge or skill from memory is a potent tool for learning and durable retention’

Brown et al., 2014

Retrieval of knowledge is an important aspect of embedding knowledge and Ebinghaus’ ‘Forgetting Curve’ shows the impact that regular quizzing can have on the retention of knowledge. As a result, lower cognitive questions play an important role in developing and embedding the core knowledge that students need to be able to successfully engage with higher cognitive questions.

Benefits of open questioning

Cotton (2001) states that divergent questioning results in the following, amongst high school students:

  • On-task behaviour
  • Speculative thinking on the part of the students
  • Relevant questions posed by the students.

However, he also states that ‘Simply asking higher cognitive questions does not necessarily lead students to produce higher cognitive responses’. This view is supported by Lemov (2015) who states that ‘without sufficient factual knowledge this (divergent questioning) will lead to unfounded speculation’. As teachers, it is important that we plan the use of open questions carefully and attempt to foresee the potential pitfalls of our questions.

The importance of teacher reaction to students answers

‘To raise your hand is a critical act that deserves some reflection…In a micro-sense, every time students raise their hands, a milepost passes…To raise your hand is to mark the passage of an event worthy of action…’

Lemov, 2015

Lemov’s quote is an important one and something which has to be seriously considered by teachers. Lemov is stressing the importance of the student answering the question, not from the actual level of knowledge but from the act itself. This student has shown a considerable level of cognitive effort and has gone through the following processes:

  • attending to the question (thinking)
  • deciphering the meaning of the question (understanding)
  • creating a covert response (forming the answer in their own mind)
  • generating an overt response (raising their hand and then speaking their answer).

It is vital that, we as teachers, recognise this but once a student has actively engaged in the learning that we develop that learning further through:

  • Probing – eliciting further information by asking more questions
  • Counterfactual answers – asking students for alternative answers or different points of view
  • Playing devil’s advocate – to challenge the students’ conviction with their answer

In essence, we are trying to develop greater levels of critical thinking within our students.

How should we ask questions?

Wait Time

It is also important to consider how we ask questions to our students. Studies have shown that on average a student is given 1 second of thinking time before being required to answer a question. By extending the ‘wait time’ for higher cognitive questions we can:

  • Increase the number of higher cognitive responses
  • Increase the length of responses
  • In crease student achievement
  • Generate greater participation and increase student-student interactions.

Cold Calling

Lemov refers to the ‘culture of engaged accountability’ where every student knows that it is a possibility that they will have to answer a question. However, in order to achieve this a ‘safe’ classroom environment needs to be created. The advantages of selecting students to answer (rather than hands-up) are:

  • It sets clear expectations in your classroom – everyone participates.
  • It removes the chance of relying too heavily on one or two confident students

As with all teaching strategies, a mixed approach is beneficial. Calling a students’ name first can be beneficial; as it focuses them on the question. In addition, posing a demanding question at the beginning of the lesson and stating that you will select students to answer it in 10 minutes or at the end of the lesson, provides the opportunity for all of the students to think about the question.



In summary questioning in lessons is an important aspect of teaching because it:

  • drives learning
  • creates a language rich environment
  • reviews learning
  • encourages engagement and motivation
  • develops critical thinking

However, the type of and way in which we use questions needs to be carefully considered if we are to maximise the potential of our students.

Posted by Martyn Simmonds

Tim Brinded 15 min forum from Jason Ramasami on Vimeo.

This entry was posted in 15 Minute Forums, General Teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The importance of questioning

  1. Reblogged this on Design Technology & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    The importance of questioning…

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