Good questions are essential to sound pedagogy and solid teaching. As teachers, we spend countless hours creating questions for exams and structured discussions. We even construct questions spontaneously during dialogue with students, hoping to generate critical thinking and deeper cognition. At Echoes & Reflections, our pedagogy guides us to encourage inquiry-based learning; the best way to do this is to inspire students to create their own questions and drive their own learning. Here are five tips to do just that:
1. Make Question Asking the Norm
One of the tenets of our pedagogy is to ensure a supportive learning environment. We often discuss this in terms of “Safely In and Safely Out” when studying the horrors of the Holocaust. However, there is so much more to creating a safe, trustworthy, and fun environment in the classroom. Do more to encourage questions than just for clarity. Challenge students to think deeper and more critically: just because you are the teacher does not mean that information presented cannot be critiqued, challenged, and discussed. Welcome these questions as an opportunity to facilitate learning through discourse.
2. Model Good Questions
Creating a culture that encourages questions includes consistently providing examples of good questions. Students typically do not focus on the quality of questions; they focus on answers. Incorporate good questions into your lessons. If at first, they don’t come from the students, they must come from you. This is especially necessary at the beginning of the year. Good questions build on prior knowledge, expand perspectives, and challenge students to think in more depth. For example, in our Nazi Germany unit, we ask: “What was the significance of the destruction of cultural institutions, such as synagogues? What message did this communicate to Jewish people? To German society more generally?” Many of our other units include essential questions to guide you in helping students to ask good questions on Holocaust topics.
3. Have Students Construct their own Questions and Provide Feedback
The ability to ask good questions is a skill that needs to be practiced, fine-tuned, and requires feedback. Students should be consistently tasked with creating their own questions. This is a great addition to a homework assignment that can serve as solid prep work for a class discussion. Teach students how to develop good questions by giving them concrete and critical feedback to hone this valuable skill set.
4. Ask Clarifying Questions and Dig Deeper into Student Responses
We want students to do more than remember or understand a concept; we want them to think critically, defend their position, and analyze the information being presented. Do not be satisfied with a simple answer to a question but probe deeper, ask clarifying questions, and provide other students the ability to chime in, voice their thoughts, and learn together. This is demonstrated in our Document Analysis handout which challenges students to explain their answers, infer from what they’ve learned, and drives further student inquiry. It provides a helpful blueprint into how to incorporate these techniques into your classroom discussions.
5. Embrace the Silence
Silence can be uncomfortable, especially for our students who are constantly inundated with media, noise, and distractions. If we want students to think critically and deeply, we need to give them time to do just that. Embrace the uncomfortable silence: your students are thinking and that is exactly the reason we asked a question in the first place.
For more insight on how to support asking good questions, join Echoes & Reflections webinar on 4/6 where we will address questions submitted by students to serve as a springboard to open up important classroom conversations that are vital to Holocaust education.
About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Operations and Outreach Manager for Echoes & Reflections. He holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and is a current Ph.D. student beginning his dissertation on female concentration camp guard Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan.