Book Review: The Power of Questioning

It’s Teacher Check Out Day, so I read a book. Relax! It’s only 55 pages long. I’m not that much of an overachiever.

The Power of Questioning, by Starr Sackstein*

This 55 page long book is about why and how you should teach your students to ask questions. There are seven chapters.

Chapter 1: Setting the Stage for Inquiry and Self-Exploration

This chapter is about why you should turn over the role of questioner to students. The author posits that far too often teachers ask all the questions and categorize the answers as “correct” or “incorrect.” It’s better learning, she says, if you teach kids to ask their own open-ended questions, and then find answers to them. Before you do that, you have to develop a strong classroom community, build trust, and develop an inquiry vocabulary with the students. Students must also have a deep understanding of the learning objectives and state standards, and should be familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Chapter 2: Understanding Bloom’s Taxonomy When Teaching Questioning Skills

Students will need to understand that some questions have more power or merit than others; this is when Bloom’s Taxonomy comes in handy. Students should also know that questions can’t have yes/no answers (unless ‘why?’ is asked immediately after) and/or must use a strong/debatable verb such as ‘explain.’ Questions must provoke a continued conversation, and not all questions need to be in question form. (“Explain the point of this blog entry” is an example of a question that’s not in question form.)

Chapter 3: Dissecting Questions

This chapter had a lot to do with test prep. Basically, it says that you can take a multiple choice question and teach kids how to break it down into parts and analyze it so they can figure out what the best answer would be. It’s somewhat different from the usual “this is how you teach a kid to answer a multiple choice test question” stuff. This chapter was the least interesting, but that may be because I hate standardized tests.

Chapter 4: Building Questions

In contrast, this was a good chapter. Caveat: it’s clear that students will need to have developed the skill of dissecting pre-existing questions before they can write their own, so the process really does need to be laid out the way the author has done so. But regardless, this is where the book became interesting for me.

Sackstein describes how to teach kids to build open-ended questions that are useful tools to gain information or knowledge. She teaches journalism, so her examples (and the anecdotal ones) are from journalism interviews. “What is your favorite color” is less useful than “Can you tell me about why you chose to wear that band’s t-shirt?” There’s some information on fishbowl activities.

Chapter 5: Applying Questioning Skills to Content Learning

I had a lot of great ideas while reading this section and I’ll go into them below, when I’m done summarizing this section. This was a great section. That said, most of this section was written by other people. There’s a terrific example by Mr. Sosa about how to use open-ended questions to generate really cool Socratic seminars, and another example by Mr. Provanzano about using Google Classroom to generate discussions, thus including people who don’t often speak aloud during class.

Chapter 6: Discovering Self Through Questioning

Another great section, and another section mostly composed of anecdotes/examples written by other teachers. One anecdote has to do with a science teacher who had an extremely advanced and inquisitive student in her class who asked questions far past what other kids could, and another had to do with seminar creation surrounding Fahrenheit 451 and related texts. There was some useful information about how to create units around questions, but it’s hard to summarize.

Chapter 7: Encouraging Continued Exploration and Conversation

This section is almost entirely an anecdote by a librarian, so it’s about libraries vs. Google. The anecdote’s author had some smart things to say about curated information and how to teach kids to curate their own.

All in all: The book was worth the time it took me to read it, mostly due to the ideas it generated, but at $9.99 (Kindle) to $20 (paperback) it’s too expensive for what you get. At least 50% of the book is anecdotal information, and the anecdotes are the most interesting parts to read.

What I liked the best were the ideas I got.

  • A living K/W/L chart for each unit, where students start by writing what they know and want to know, and then fill it out with what they’ve learned. Each time they learn something, they generate another “Want to know” section.
  • A synthesis project, where students must use information they’ve learned in other classes to complete the assignment. (E.g. using their knowledge of biology and disease from science in a research paper about Civil War health and medicine.)
  • A Google Search scavenger hunt to prompt students to use their Search skills (which you teach them first)
  • Running class discussions by posting a video clip or reading and asking a question
  • Better Socratic seminars and fishbowl activities

*I get no kickbacks from anyone.

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