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How to Create a Classroom Culture Where Students Ask Questions

ask questions

At the time I’m writing this, I have only been a parent for about 4 years, so by no means am I a pro. Very much the rookie league over here! But if there is anything I’ve observed as a parent of 3 tiny humans is that HOLY COW, they ask questions all.day.every.day.

Based on the gamut of questions my kids ask, they pretty much think I am a genius (which I humbly appreciate but constantly have to correct). Questions range from, “Who is that person driving that car over there? Where are they going?” to, “When we die what will happen?” and the ever popular, “When can we have a snack?”

And while in the moment it may seem that they are purposefully trying to test the very minimal functioning brain cells I have left, that isn’t why they spend 12 hours a day asking me questions. They ask questions because that’s how we learn as humans.

We start being scientists as preschoolers. My 4 and 3 year old live their lives by making observations about the world around them (“Look at that tree! It’s brown instead of green.”) and then asking questions about what they observe (“Mommy why is that tree brown?”) My budding scientists then collect data from mainly one primary source (hi, it’s me) to then learn and draw conclusions.

They learn because they ask questions.

Becoming a parent has changed me in more ways than one. From the start, it has been a growing experience (if you’ve been around It’s Not Rocket Science from the beginning, you know that it took us years of unexplained infertility to start our family and I do NOT take that for granted).

Being a parent has truly changed the way that I think about pretty much everything, and I KNOW it has changed me as an educator. So much of what I do in my role as a parent translates to my role as a teacher.

And thus just like I’ve seen in my children, I truly believe that learning happens most naturally when our students:

  1. Ask questions
  2. Make mistakes

You can read more about creating a classroom culture where students feel comfortable making mistakes here, but in this post, I want to talk to you about:

  • Why getting our students to ask questions is so important
  • How to create a classroom culture that fosters this
  • Quick tips to get started changing your classroom culture – even if you are reading this mid-school year

Why is it so important to get our students to ask questions?

ask questions

We need to prioritize getting our students to ask questions because asking questions is foundational to thinking and acting like a scientist. It is in the very nature of our subject area that our students ask questions.

Asking questions also engages our students’ minds in what they are learning. Think about the example I told you where my children were noticing the color of trees. Could I have just spontaneously started explaining why some trees are brown to my kids while we drove to the grocery store? Absolutely. Could they have learned from me telling them that? Of course.

But wasn’t the learning so much more meaningful because my children were the curious initiators of the learning process?

It’s so easy as teachers to become the centers of our classrooms and the primary force and solitary source of learning. But I believe so passionately that learning happens best when the student is at the center and the STUDENT becomes the primary force seeking MANY sources to learn from.

This is why it is SO important to get our students to ask questions. Asking questions is a requirement to move students to the center of their learning and make them the primary force that drives their learning.

Side note: I have a lot to say about student-centered pedagogy. If you are interested in hearing more thoughts on this, check out the following podcast episodes:

How do we create a culture in our classrooms that fosters question-asking?

ask questions

At this point you may be thinking, yea yea yea, I get it, Rebecca. We need students to ask questions. I WANT my students to ask questions. BUT HOW IN THE WORLD DO I GET THEM TO DO THAT?

It all goes back to the classroom culture that you create. We HAVE to create a culture in our classrooms that fosters question-asking. Our students will never ask questions if they don’t feel comfortable doing it. So how do we do this?

Unfortunately, we can’t just completely change our classroom culture overnight. You start establishing a classroom culture (whether consciously or unconsciously) from the moment your students walk through your doors at the start of the school year. To create a classroom culture that prioritizes asking questions we need to focus on: relationships, discussions, and relevancy.

Relationships:

Our students need to see that we see them as a person apart from being a student (something I learned from my own high school chemistry teacher). Make this distinction! Start building a relationship with them as a person from day 1. This will help them to feel comfortable with you as a student when they know you care about them as a person. Not sure where to get started? Here are four tips for building relationships with your students.

Discussions:

Our students need to see that discussions are an integral part of our classroom culture. They will be expected to speak in our classrooms. We will have a running dialogue going with them at all times. This is not a “sit and get” classroom but an “engage, ask, and apply” type of classroom. They are expected to play an active role in their learning, not a passive one. You can read more about how to engage your students in discussions here.

Relevancy:

Our students need to see that what they are learning has meaning in their lives. When we make our content relevant to them they will naturally become more engaged in the learning process, and this will lead them to ask questions. I don’t care what science subject you teach, you can make it matter to your students – and you must if you want to have a classroom culture that fosters asking questions because if they don’t care enough about the content, they won’t ask.

You may be reading this halfway through the school year and thinking it is too late. It is NEVER too late to change up what you are doing in the classroom. It just may take more time and energy than if you had started from day one because instead of creating a classroom culture, we have to transform a classroom culture we’ve already established. But it CAN be done. I have 3 tips for you on how to get started.

What are some ways we can quickly get started transitioning our classroom culture?

ask questions

There are no quick fixes but I do have three action steps you can take TODAY to start transitioning your classroom culture to be one where students ask questions.

(1) Model it!! Some of the best parenting advice I ever heard was, “More is caught than taught”. So I model for my students how I hope they will behave and think. If I want them to be kind, I can’t be rude. If I want them to be patient, I can’t rush them. If I want them to ask questions, I need to ask questions. Verbalize your own curiosities. Asking questions requires an ounce of humility. Show that to your students!

(2) Start a running dialogue. Make a point to ask each student a question in every class period. I know this can seem lofty if you have 25+ students, but make an effort to do so and connect with students this way. This will also get a running dialogue going between you and your students. Will your classroom be noisier? Yes. But will it foster deeper connections and comfort that will then lead to more question-asking and learning? ALSO YES.

(3) If you still feel like you are pulling teeth to get them to speak in your class, ask them why they won’t ask questions. I found out that my son, Tee, wasn’t talking in his preschool class unless he was at lunch or recess. I asked him about it and come to find out, he doesn’t like having to raise his hand to talk, so he just doesn’t. It could be as simple as this!! Maybe you need to eliminate the hand-raising requirement when it comes to your students asking content-specific questions. Maybe not! We won’t know what’s holding them back unless we ask.

I hope this post leaves you encouraged to make your classroom a place where students more readily ask questions so that learning can better happen!

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