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November 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 3

Helping Students Ask the Right Questions

By learning question-based problem-solving strategies, students become more effective thinkers and learners.

Instructional Strategies
Who are the teachers who have influenced us the most? Perhaps we think of a high school history teacher who forced us to reevaluate a romanticized view of westward migration by reading diaries of pioneers. Or we remember a middle school science teacher who helped us learn all the names of plants and trees as we built a nature trail.
We doubt that these teachers would have described themselves as constructivists. However, they shared a fundamental belief in the potential of a child's mind, in the need to challenge and refine students' thinking, and in their ability to make curriculum come alive. The teaching world is filled with natural constructivists. Yet how do the rest of us—who clearly embrace its ideals—employ constructivism's principles?
The overarching goals of constructivism are commendable and straightforward: helping students become autonomous learners and thinkers, explore important questions, and build and integrate deeper understandings of knowledge. Of course, the challenge lies not in embracing the theory but in implementing it.

Thinking Skills and Constructivism

Underlying the constructivist theory and its goals is a recognition of the value of the student as thinker. Without an appreciation of and a belief in the capability and value of the student's thinking ability, constructivism would not exist. After all, why would we need to understand the student's point of view if the teacher's view is the only one that matters?
The ability to think—to be a lifelong seeker and integrator of new knowledge—is based on the ability to ask and consider important questions. How else can we gain, analyze, and integrate new information unless we can ask questions that force us to do these things? People are not simply receptacles of information. Indeed, the whole constructivist theory rests on this belief. People gather, organize, and analyze information and then reach conclusions that make sense to them.
  • The complexity of the world is increasing rapidly with the rise of technology. We have access to much more information than the generations before us did, and that information changes with intimidating speed. The half-life of an engineering degree is currently estimated at four years. That is, in four years, half of what an engineering graduate has learned becomes obsolete (Rubenstein, 1998)—a daunting statistic. Unless that engineer can access and integrate new information, he or she cannot remain current. In the face of such rapid and exponential change, no one can rely solely on experience and accumulated knowledge. Content mastery is not a static state but an evolving and lifelong process.
  • The workplace and schools increasingly call for teams of people to work effectively to analyze and resolve issues. It is important not only to ask the right questions but also to ask them in a logical sequence. Without a sequential questioning strategy, groups often flounder, go off track, or overlook essential information.

Appropriate Strategies

  • Most questioning strategies, although effective at stimulating thought about a given point, do little to help students integrate their thinking and produce a logical, well-considered conclusion or point of view that builds on previous questioning or thinking. Questions appear to be almost random.
  • The questions still reside with the teacher. But to develop the thinking and questioning abilities of students, the questions must reside with the students. We need to help students develop the capability to ask tough and meaningful questions. Effective teacher-generated questioning strategies encourage students to think but not necessarily to become better questioners. Indeed, Carin and Sund demonstrated that students attain significantly higher levels of thinking when they are encouraged to develop skill in generating critical and creative questions and when they are provided opportunities for dialogue with classmates about the questions posed and conclusions derived from information they encounter. (Cecil, 1995, p. 36)
  • comprehensive—they invite consideration of all relevant variables, perspectives, and information;
  • adaptable—they apply to student populations that vary by grade level and by ability and to different curriculum material;
  • discriminating—they accommodate the requirements of different situations;
  • productive—they produce some outcome, resolution, or conclusion; and
  • transferable—students can be taught these strategies so that they ask the questions.
These strategies need to be sophisticated enough to account for the complexities of a wide range of issues or dilemmas, yet simple enough for all age and ability levels to apply.
Most problem-solving strategies use the same approach for all situations, and they are typically not question-driven. Questions enable us to access and analyze information and draw sound conclusions. In addition, good questions stimulate thinking and creativity.
Different types of situations require different approaches. For example, gathering facts to determine why something has occurred requires a different type of thinking—and a different approach—than projecting into the future to anticipate what might happen. We have identified four types of situations, each with its own characteristics: complex situations, problem situations, decision situations, and implementation situations. Each situation also requires a different path toward resolution. In our work with schools and with the ASCD CompassQuest consortium (see sidebar), we teach four question-based problem-solving strategies, one for each situation. We derived the strategy names from the problem-solving steps: SCAN, FIND, SELECT, and PLAN (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Problem-Solving Strategies from CompassQuest

Helping Students Ask the Right Questions - table




CompassQuest Strategy

Complex situationMultifaceted scenarios have multiple variables and opinions.Understanding of relevant variables, their priorities, and possible action plansSee the issues Clarify the issues Assess priorities Name next steps
Problem situationSomething has gone wrong or an unknown cause has produced some undesired effect.Analysis of relevant data to evaluate possible causes and determine true causeFocus on the problem Identify what is and is not Narrow possible causes Determine true cause
Decision situationOne course of action or solution must be selected from among several possible options.Selection of the best possible option after evaluating options against criteria and then considering risksState the decision Establish and classify objectives List alternatives Evaluate alternatives Consider risks Trust your work—pick a winner!
Implementation situationUpcoming plans, changes, and actions will be implemented.Indentification of actions needed for successful implementation after identifying potential problems and how to handle themPredict potential problems List likely causes Agree on preventive actions Note contingent actions

  • NASA used them to avert disaster on its Apollo 13 mission.
  • Honda uses all four strategies in its quality assurance program.
  • Uniroyal Chemical uses the strategies to help its quality improvement teams work effectively.
  • Hewlett-Packard's customer engineers better serve customers by using these techniques.
  • Students at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton, New Jersey, pose as members of the Supreme Court to consider the Brown v. Board of Education decision and make a ruling.
  • At Whitman Middle School in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a 7th grade social studies class examines the U.S.-China trade policy from the standpoint of various stakeholders, such as Chinese citizens, U.S. citizens, human rights advocates, U.S. businesses, and the U.S. military.
  • Students in a science class at Gonzales, Louisiana, Middle School select topics for their science project.
  • Students in 8th grade consumer home economics at Scranton Middle School in Brighton, Michigan, identify how best to respond to typical job-related issues or problems, such as finding that a coworker is stealing from the cash register.


The 12 schools in the CompassQuest consortium are working to infuse into their curriculums decision-making and problem-solving skills that are based on proven and successful corporate models.

Begun in 1998, the consortium is a three-year collaboration among four groups. The Tregoe Education Forum provides and teaches problem-solving strategies to school teams. The school teams create classroom-based lessons and models that enable their middle school students to use rational decision-making and problem-solving techniques and strategies.

Corporate partners, who are trained in the Kepner-Tregoe methods and use them in their own corporate operations, coach the school teams throughout the three years. ASCD provides the logistical support for the consortium and, with the help of consortium team members, is developing resources that will enable the wider education community to use these skills in their own school settings.


Practical Examples

These strategies have been successfully used in other classrooms around the country. Two examples illustrate how teachers apply these strategies in the classroom.
Tara Anderson's 1st grade class at Pyles Elementary School in Anaheim, California, is reading Franklin Wants a Pet (Bourgeois & Clark, 1995). After Franklin the turtle finally convinces his parents to get him a pet, he needs to decide what kind.
Ms. Anderson uses this opportunity to apply the SELECT questioning strategy, which is appropriate for a decision-making situation. Because her students are young, she focuses only on key steps. First, she has the class think about objectives by asking, "What are some things that you would like in a pet?" She writes their responses in a matrix. This graphic organizer helps validate student responses by making them visible.
Next she elicits alternatives: "What kinds of pets could Franklin get?" She lists these across the top of the matrix. Using student input, Ms. Anderson fills in the cells with information about each type of pet and how it meets a given objective (fig. 2). She has students consider risks by asking, "What could go wrong if Franklin got a snake? What could go wrong if he got a tiger?" With this technique, she uncovers student suppositions about the pets and their care requirements.

Figure 2. The SELECT Problem-Solving Matrix


Helping Students Ask the Right Questions-table2






Easy to take care ofFeed once a weekNeeds cage and a lot of foodFeed each day—clean tankFeed and walk twice a day
Can learn tricksNoYes, like at circusNoYes
Fit in apartmentYesPretty crowdedYesYes
CuteSlimyBaby tigers are cuteMaybe certain ones areYes
Not dangerousCan bite; Can scare someoneLooks scary; Might go wildNot dangerousNot dangerous
First graders evaluate the characteristics of potential pets

By the end of the lesson, the students have shared their experiences of pets and thought about things to consider in choosing a pet. Although Franklin chooses a goldfish, the 1st graders have used the objectives and risks that they identified to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each pet.
Tom Purdy's 8th graders at Thurston Middle School in Laguna Beach, California, are studying the end of the Civil War. Mr. Purdy has struggled in the past to help students understand the enormous implications of Reconstruction, especially the challenges to specific groups. Because the situation is complex, he decides to apply the SCAN strategy and to have the class work in small groups. Mr. Purdy sets the stage by reviewing Reconstruction in the South, the Homestead Act of 1862, and the industrialization of the North. He reminds the class of the profound impact that the end of the war had on four groups: Southern soldiers, Northern soldiers, Southern women, and freed blacks. After separating the class into four teams to represent the groups, he asks each team to picture its members as part of the population at the end of the Civil War. Each team uses the SCAN strategy:
  • See the issues: What are you concerned about in this situation? What fears or hopes do you have? What needs must you address?
  • Clarify the issues: Why does each one of these issues concern you?
  • Assess priorities: Which issues are your priorities and why?
  • Name next steps: How will you address your high-priority issues?
The teams record their answers on easel paper and present their work to the class. By the end of the exercise, the students have considered and experienced in some way life at the time of Reconstruction. They have seen how the needs of different groups varied. The lesson provides a basis for understanding some of the actions and societal changes that followed the Civil War. In this complex situation, the SCAN process is a framework to guide questioning and problem-solving efforts.

Questions and Constructivism

The classroom examples demonstrate that these question-based approaches help implement constructivist theory in the following ways:
  • Relevance for the students increases as they use these questioning strategies. Students become more invested as they apply their judgments and conclusions to the situation. They become interested in seeing what really happened or in comparing their conclusions with those of others. In addition, they see opportunities to apply the strategy to their own situations. As Mike Roche, a high school English teacher from Laguna Beach, California, High School says, It puts the students in a position to recognize that when they leave school as young adults, they are going to face many situations that they will have to sort through. No one is going to be there with the right answers—if there even is a right answer. They are going to have to make a decision or formulate an action plan on the basis of the best information available.
  • These strategies encourage and make visible student thinking and points of view. This allows teachers not only to assess student perspective and understanding before introducing a concept, and thus make meaningful linkages, but also to assess learning afterward. As Bob Klempen, deputy superintendent of Orange County, Florida, Public Schools, says, The process reinforces that everything said is important. And that brings dignity and respect into the discussion. It doesn't matter if the participants are students or faculty; the mutual respect that the process builds enables everyone to participate and listen.
  • These approaches provide a road map to guide group work. This questioning framework becomes a jumping-off point for further student inquiry and allows the teacher to always have some notion of where each group is in its analysis.
  • By learning these question-based problem-solving strategies, students become more effective questioners, thinkers, and learners. They learn from one another as well as from the teacher and the materials.
  • As students examine and work with content, they acquire a deeper understanding of curriculum material, which helps move material from mimetic, short-term memory to comprehension and long-term understanding.
  • The tools or strategies themselves become relevant to students as they see opportunities to apply the questions to real-life situations. For example, high school students in Warren County, New Jersey, used all four strategies in developing a countywide substance abuse policy.

Implementing the Theory

The central problem that Constructivist educators face is not a [lack of] guiding theory, but concrete strategies and tools for institutionalizing these theoretical and practical understandings into more inclusive classrooms. (Hyerle, 1996, p. 15)
  • express, evaluate, and reevaluate their own opinions and comprehension;
  • expand their understanding on a given topic;
  • seek out and consider alternative viewpoints;
  • experience the dilemmas of others by sorting through and weighing similar issues;
  • refine their understanding by accommodating and considering relevant data and alternative perspectives; and
  • demonstrate their understanding by considering relevant facts and issues.
The constructivist toolbox needs many tools, but surely one is a systematic approach that helps students ask important questions to successfully assess or resolve a difficult issue or problem. Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, proclaimed, "An educated person today is someone who knows the right question to ask" (Fiske, 1995, p. 65). By helping our children learn how to ask—as well as to answer—important questions, we help ensure that they have an education for life.

Bourgeois, P., & Clark, B. (1995). Franklin wants a pet. New York: Scholastic.

Cecil, N. (1995). The art of inquiry: Questioning strategies for K–6 classrooms. Winnipeg, Canada: Peguis.

Fiske, E. (1991). Smart schools, smart kids: Why do some schools work? New York: Touchstone.

Hyerle, D. (1996). Visual tools for constructing knowledge. Alexandria VA: ASCD.

Rubenstein, R. (1998, March 18). Invest in brains. Electronics Weekly, p. 17.

Cynthia Richetti has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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