Asking questions happens to be one of my favorite things to do. I used to run a discussion club in Kazakhstan where students could just come and chat about some topic or another. It was my favorite thing to do, to get students up and talking.
So I thought I would share two things here. One is a set of questions that DOES not work to get students thinking. These are questions that have obvious answers, or answers the students think are obvious.
Avoid the Obvious
I wrote a bit about this topic in getting students to speak already and one of the most important insights I think I made there (if I can be so egotistical) is that questions with obvious answers do not get students to talk and do not get them to think. Sometimes as teachers we try to play devil’s advocate or feign ignorance in order to elicit student participation. That can work well for grammar or vocab exercises but in critical thinking exercises it can often fall flat.
For example, ask a student, “Why should we exercise?” and he or she may say, “To be healthy.” You can’t really go on to say, “Well, why do we need to be healthy?” For the average student, this will sound so silly and they will be unable to articulate reasons because those reasons are so obvious to them. Can you articulate in relatively simple language why being healthy is important? Or can you formulate an interesting answer to why being healthy is BAD?
These may vary from culture to culture and place to place but questions that tend to have “obvious” answers include, “Should we have rules?”, “Should we learn English?” “Is terrorism bad?”, “Is being poor uncomfortable?”, and “Is the environment good?” So I don’t think asking these kinds of questions helps students think critically.
Challenging Their Culture
A side note here. We are sometimes tempted to push our views on students. We see something in their culture that we don’t like and we think that by raising this issue we can start a critical discussion AND maybe teach them some values. One example of this I see from time to time with my Muslim students is, “Why should women wear a headscarf?” or, “Why can’t women work?” It seems like asking these kinds of questions would generate a lot of language as they defend their position. And it can work. However, there are a few problems here.
First, to many students these cultural issues are obvious so the students aren’t going to have much to say about it. How much language would I get out of you if I asked you, “Why are women treated equally to men in the US?” Could you really talk about it all that much? It’s not something we question or believe should be questioned so the question is the answer. Women are treated equally because we believe that women should be treated equally. That’s not much language practice, is it?
Second, for that tiny bit of language you have raised a controversial issue that may make students feel attacked. Many of my Saudi students have a huge chip on their shoulders when it comes to women’s rights. Even saying the word, “woman” puts them on the defensive. Defensive students (or offended students) talk less, not more. So by making them feel attacked, I’m discouraging them from talking. And possibly losing any rapport I have with them.
Finally, I don’t think it’s our job to correct their values. It’s our job to teach them English. I’m not saying we let them run amok or let them say whatever they want, but ultimately our goal is to have them speak English better than they did when they met us. If a female student who used to wear a head scarf and veil came to me and said, “Teacher thank. I learn now 1 year you with. Learn me strong woman. No wear veil. Veil bad. Be engineer. Strong women me good. Thank thank teacher good yes,” I would feel like a failure. I taught her to be independent, which is excellent, but I didn’t teach her English.
That’s not to say that with the right group of students at the right level on the right day, you can’t have a wonderful discussion on women’s rights in Islam or political freedom in Belarus or female circumcision in Africa. But the assumption that challenging the students’ culture will automatically lead to lots of productive discussion AND leave them weeping and thanking you for freeing them from their inferior mindset is a big one.
Scaffolding for Critical Thinking
So enough about how NOT to do critical thinking. The biggest strategy I know of to get students to think critically is to scaffold your questions. This doesn’t mean dumbing down the questions until you get an answer. That is usually the opposite of encouraging critical thinking. I do mean bringing it down to their level. Here’s an example of a class discussion we had the other day when discussing why bystanders who are doctors don’t help people in emergency situations. It went more or less like this:
Me: So why do you think the doctor didn’t want to stop and help the people?
Student A: *after a long pause* the Doctor must help, because it is his job.
Me: It’s his job to help people in general, but is it his job to help THIS guy?
Student A: No.
Student B: Why not?
Student A: He is just driving by.
Student B: No, a doctor must help all people.
Student C: Teacher, in the US do you have this saying that doctors must say it, to help everyone.
Me: The Hippocratic Oath? Yes. They swear to help everyone and not harm anyone. Do they do this in your country.
Student C: Yes.
Me: How about in China, Student D?
Student D: I think so, I think yes. I don’t know.
Student E: Yes. My mother is a doctor, yes.
Me: So your mother is a doctor. Has she been in this situation?
Student E: What situation?
Student A: She sees an accident and has to help?
Student E: No. I don’t think so. Maybe. I ask her.
Me: Ok, awesome. So doctors have to promise not to hurt people. And to help people. So it’s weird that this guy doesn’t help. Isn’t it?
Me: Did we read anything about this before?
Student A: Yesterday, about bystanders. They are not involved.
Me: So is it his job to help this guy in this accident?
Students: Yes, No, maybe….
Me: Why is it hard to tell?
Student A: Because of the oath.
Student B: Because he is a bystander.
Student C: What does it mean, residency?
Me: Why do you ask?
Student C: In the story it says he is doing a residency. Is it the same as doctor?
Me: Good! No. That’s important.
I then briefly explained the medical education system in the US, and the fact that this guy wasn’t licensed yet. That, of course, helped them to clarify a huge problem and then we went on to discuss the nuances.
What I tried to do here, even when scaffolding was to ask open questions that didn’t have Yes/No answers. But I also tried to involve weaker students by asking a smattering of easier questions. Obviously, this was an advanced class so weak is a relative term here. Shy students also need easy Yes/No or short answer questions to warm up and loosen their jaws a bit. But in general scaffolding should involve open questions and bringing in more resources.
I also think an important principle here is balancing guiding students to a right answer and having no idea what they are going to say. On the one hand, if there’s no “right” answer in your mind, then the discussion will go on forever. I wanted students to mention that this guy wasn’t legally a doctor yet and therefore he could be sued if he practiced medicine. That point was complicated but it was implied strongly in the reading so it wasn’t terribly difficult to get to (if they did the reading!). So that gave me an end point. It also gave me a point of view, which is authentic. Usually when we discuss issues with friends, we have an opinion and we try to convince people of it. If I have a right answer in my head, I have an opinion and we can have a more authentic discussion than if I was just asking question after question.
On the other hand, I hadn’t expected the Hippocratic Oath to come up. And later students mentioned issues of consent (the victim was unconscious) and religious issues and so on. By letting students guide the discussion and bring up new things, I’m also letting them have an authentic discussion. And express themselves. Critical thinking does mean breaking down walls. Asking open-ended questions means you don’t know what answer you are going to get.
So those are my thoughts on asking good and bad questions. As always, I love feedback, comments, suggestions, critiques.Liked this post? Check out some of my books on