Ideas to Help Students Develop Higher-Order Questions

As a middle grades teacher, there are certain questions from your students that you see coming: Why are we doing this? Is this for a grade? When is this due? Can we work with a partner? Is it lunch yet?

And then there are the other questions. These questions poke their smiling faces around corners, surprise you, and make you happy that you’re a middle level educator. One day as a sixth grade social studies teacher, I had such a joyous occasion.

I had about six students in my classroom eating lunch as they were working on a project about the Middle East. They were moderately productive amidst their lunch trays, notebook paper, and pens, and I had already fielded several of the standard “oh-my-gosh-Mr. Tomlin-this-project-is-like-impossible” questions–when I was faced with a question that only a middle school student could ask.

With a Jell-O cup in one hand, a boy named Jamie got up from his desk and asked most genuinely, “Mr. Tomlin, what’s your favorite smell that you’re not supposed to smell?”

Now, I don’t know why he wanted to know my personal answer to this riddle, and I don’t even remember what I answered. But I remember Jamie. I remember my feelings of joy and bewilderment. And I remember that awesome, novel question.

I think back on this story about Jamie and wonder, “How can we help our students ask thought-provoking, robust, and amazing questions every day?” As middle level educators, we feel a great deal of pressure to create lessons that climb the rungs of Bloom’s taxonomy ladder: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. We work hard to ensure that our plans are populated with higher-order, text-dependent questions to challenge students.

We prepare units with essential questions and enduring understandings for students to take away when they’re done. We may even attend professional development workshops about how to write (and assess) higher-order thinking questions. Because we are critical practitioners in the art of teaching and learning, all of that effort has its place.

However, as I think about Jamie’s question from lunchtime, I wonder how we can do more to develop student inquiry—to help students develop their own higher-order questions, which they can use to approach any learning situation.

There are 9 simple steps that we can take to build a culture of student inquiry in our middle level classrooms now.

  1. Model curiosity. Ask big, higher-order novel questions, and do so as a learner. What are you curious about? Bring your own interests and big ideas into the classroom and share them with passion! Relate them to your content, but push back against the content. “Hey, y’all. Have you ever wondered why people wrote letters back home during WWII? What do you think it would have been like to write one—or to receive one and to write back?”
  2. Build a culture of inquiry by cultivating relationships through questions. Solid relationships are the foundation upon which we build everything in the middle level. Therefore, with students, your fellow teachers, and staff, build relationships on genuine inquiry. Ask questions about each others’ lives, interests, and (yes the dreaded “F” word) feelings that push boundaries and deviate from the script—like Jamie’s.
  3. Provide rich stimulus to inspire rich questions. Don’t settle for tepid non-fiction or fiction—get the good stuff! Find well-written, progressive pieces about cool topics that get students interested, excited, and involved, so they start asking higher-order questions. And appeal to your students’ minds through their ears and eyes as well by using provocative music (i.e., The Rite of Spring, Thelonious Monk, DJ Shadow) and art and photography (i.e., Dali, Banksy, Arbus)
  4. Give students examples and keywords for novel questions. As they start building and asking, some students will need words to get them started. Here are some great sources for that:
    . Use these words yourself orally and in print. Make them available for families, too, so they can ask novel questions at home.
  5. Leave judgment at the classroom door. Honor a student’s effort to ask a novel question—and tell him/her, “I like the way you’re thinking!” That genuine, immediate praise will embolden him/her to ask more and to ask deeper questions.
  6. (At the same time) Push students to give you more. Be bold. When students ask higher-order questions, make them explain those questions, provide the reasons why they asked them, and give additional follow-up questions to add more layers.
  7. Document and celebrate novel questions. As soon as a student asks his/her big question, say, “WHOAAA! Gotta write that down!” Then grab that marker, run over to the wall or chart paper like you’re literally on fire, and write it down with deliberate fury! And then use those questions later to show students that you value their thinking throughout the year.
  8. Make the novel questions part of a project-based learning unit or Genius Hour (see Welcome to the Genius Hour and If we celebrate students’ questions and connect them with authentic, self-selected learning goals, they will be even more motivated to ask novel questions. They will see how higher-order thinking questions can turn into something actionable and productive.
  9. Question any list that declares absolutes about student inquiry. These 9 simple steps are not meant to be the end of the inquiry about student inquiry, so model the expectation and keep on asking your own higher-order questions about what works in the classroom. True pedagogical artists never rest!

So what’s your favorite smell that you’re not supposed to smell? What student questions will make you smile, make you push your fence lines, blow your hair back, make you question your notions, and make you ask more questions?

When you help students become great with inquiry, your classroom will be enriched by fields and fields of novel questions. Perhaps reaching every student and creating great schools is more about asking great questions than coming up with easy answers.