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The Best Student Centered Classroom Starts with Authentic Questions

Posted by Judy Higgins on Sep 29, 2021

One of the most important things we can teach our students, no matter what grade level or topic you teach, is how to ask good questions. When I think about this important topic, I can't help but consider how my teaching style has changed over the past 20 years. Today, when I think about how to support student centered learning in my classroom, I want to make sure that I am modeling good questions. That's because modeling is an important way to teach students how to ask good questions themselves. I am going to share with you what a good question looks like and how to teach your students ways to identify and use them effectively.

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student-centered classroom starts with the teacher. We've learned that we can improve student engagement and achieve better outcomes by giving up some of the control we have as teachers. Students who are given an active role in the classroom have more opportunities to think critically about the concepts and how they relate to the world around them. Rather than asking students to read and memorize, we need to be asking them to collaborate with their peers, discover new ideas, and make strong connections. With student centered learning, giving students a voice in the classroom helps improve student engagement, but students need to develop the skills to take the lead. Learning how to ask authentic questions of their peers, their teachers, and their sources – is a great way to start.


Student centered instruction and asking good questions

Good questions are good questions regardless of who you're interacting with or what subject you're teaching. If you're not a KnowAtom teacher, if you're a teacher who teaches another subject, a parent, or a principal, all of these things will apply to your students as well! Let's look first at where we can expect students to ask good questions when implementing a student-centered approach during a lesson.

KnowAtom's science curriculum starts off with a nonfiction reading component every time. That's where a lot of the questioning will happen in a student centered teaching model. From there, we move on to Socratic dialogue, where students discuss the questions, wonders, or connections they made from the reading. Questioning plays a big part in this section of the lesson and if we can improve our students' questioning skills, we can improve our classroom dialogue.

Students then move into planning, and we ask them to think like scientists or engineers. That entails a lot of questions about what's going to happen in the hands-on investigation portion of the unit. Then, the students carry out their investigation, experiment, or engineering activity. Lots and lots of questions are happening as part of this section as well. Finally, students share their conclusions in a debrief. One of the things that I enjoy most with student centered learning is listening to students question each other about their data and their outcomes.


The purpose of questioning in student centered learning

What's the purpose of questions? The main purpose of encouraging students to ask good questions is to engage them in taking a position on a concept or big idea from the reading. When you think about it, that's a really risky proposition. Perhaps that's why when I first started teaching, I asked questions like "What is a hurricane?" rather than "How are hurricanes related to the water cycle?"

Sample student questions graphic

At first, I was satisfied when a student could simply spit back the definition. But when I had more experience in the classroom, I began to understand that answering "How are hurricanes related to the water cycle?" requires a student to understand both hurricanes and the water cycle, and most importantly, how they're related. That's a much deeper depth of knowledge in the subject matter. As a new teacher, I had to learn to trust my students' ability to think critically, make connections, and ask good questions. When I gave them the opportunity to do so, I was amazed at the results. With student centered learning, we engage students' innate curiosity about the world around them, helping them make links between new phenomena and what they've already learned.

Here's a great way to model good questions in your own classroom – ask your students, "What does the reading make you wonder?" Instead of me doing all the thinking in the classroom, telling my students exactly what to think about, student centered learning gives them the space to wonder, question, and engage more personally with the subject matter. It also opens them up to new ideas and experiences, as students take the lead in classroom discussions and share their own experiences and ideas. Rather than one right answer, we're teaching students that diversity of thought can strengthen their understanding of important topics.


Strengthening critical thinking skills with student-centered learning

Why does the text say, "The Everglades acts like a strainer?" This is an example of a great question that sparked a rich student-led conversation in my classroom. However, it only happened because one of my students was brave enough to ask, "What is a strainer?" I could have answered the student and moved on to the topic at hand. Instead, I put the question back on the class, and the students discovered together how familiar items they had experienced (like straining pasta) related to what's occurring in the Everglades.

As a teacher, I had the opportunity to sit back and listen to the complex connections that were being made to what we were reading in the text about the Everglades straining out pollutants. This was remarkable to me, because many years ago I would have been worried about where the conversation was going when my students began talking about pasta. When I learned to trust my students, more complex student-led conversations began to take place. This one happened because of our student-centered approach to learning and one brave participant who was not afraid to speak up and say, "what is a strainer?" If we hadn't worked hard as a class to create a safe space where students were not afraid to say "I'm confused," or if I had just replied with the definition, the students would not have had the opportunity to make those deep connections and really begin to understand what a strainer has to do with the Everglades.

This is a great example of how a student centered classroom helps improve critical thinking skills and increase engagement levels. When we give students the opportunity and the space to wonder, we give them the tools they need to access the subject matter on a much higher level. That's exactly what happened here. My students took a position on a concept and helped the entire class gain a better understanding of the new phenomenon based on their perspective. But they needed time and space to get there, and they needed a student centered teaching approach to support it.


Modeling asking good questions

Let's take a look at how effective questions are structured. This is another one of those areas where I can really see my own growth as a teacher – using fewer questions now that require a specific answer. Before, I felt more in control when I asked a specific question that I knew my students could answer from the reading. We were basically playing the guessing game of, "What does Ms. Higgins want from us? How can we answer that?" Instead, today I ask questions that seek to expose the context of students' thinking and their depth of understanding on the topic. With more skillful questioning teachers can better understand, where are my students?

Structuring good questions chart - less vs more

One thing educators have done through the years is focus on defining vocabulary terms. This is something that many years ago, all of our tests were dependent on. A student shared during a classroom discussion years ago, "I knew the definition of evaporation, but I didn't really understand what it was. And when we started talking about cooking and I made that connection, oh that's what it is." That young woman could have spit out the definition, but she didn't really understand deeply what the concept meant until that moment.

What we're looking for with student centered learning is questions that provide a context for students to actively use the vocabulary. When a student can speak in depth about evaporation, using her own cooking experience as an example, she's making deep connections about the water cycle, the vocabulary and extending the ideas to her own life experience. Fill-in-the-blank-style questions don't allow for this level of critical thinking to occur. These types of simple questions also tend to validate only one right answer, rather than questioning deeper by asking for an example, explanation, or connection. How can I ask a student to say more, explain more, or give me an example to better understand the underlying assumptions they are making? Instead of simply saying, "You're wrong," we're working together to figure out what's really going on within their answer.

To help teachers implement this, KnowAtom provides reading questions for every grade level and every lesson we teach. We often have ideas about what we want our students to get from the reading. Giving them something to focus on can help them identify those big ideas. Think about the students you have who highlight the entire text when they're reading it. When we move on to the discussion, these students aren't able to share the most important concepts from the reading. By modeling good questions, we can help them dig into the text and make those connections.

This is what some of the reading questions look like for upper grades. Many of my students are English learners, so it is helpful for them to work on this with a partner.
It can also be used independently, as homework or an in-class guide. It's a great way for students to prepare for a classroom discussion.

Copy of student questions from KnowAtom reader
The younger grade level questions are also helpful for parents and caregivers to work together with their students. Teachers, parents, and caregivers can all use the questions to engage with the student after reading together. The read-along tool is also available on Knowatom's teacher website, so students at all grade levels can go back in to access the reading and interact with the questions. Now that I know the questions, I'm going to go back in and listen or interact with that reading again to find the answers to those questions.

Deep thinking routines and student centered learning

Some of you are thinking, can my younger students handle these kinds of questions? I have been lucky enough to observe many kindergarten and first-grade classrooms using the KnowAtom curriculum. I have been dazzled by these students' ability to interact with the questions as teachers introduce young students to deep thinking. It's so exciting for me as a teacher in the upper grades to think about what students like these are going to be like by the time they get to fifth grade when they understand early on how to break down a complex question.

Deep thinking routines are the kind of thinking that leads to understanding. For example, "Why do sunflowers need the sun" is a very complex, interesting question. When students think about that, discuss it, and are curious about it, it leads to new connections. "I've never thought about those two things together," or "I always heard that these plants need sun, but I never thought about why."

Do you remember our question from above, "What does the reading section make you wonder?" This question gives students the freedom and space to be curious. That's something that we don't always give students enough time to do – think about their own thoughts and voice their own wonder. "Why do plants need leaves?" That's definitely not something I was thinking about as a child. I knew that trees had them, but it never occurred to me to ask those questions. With student centered instruction, we're accessing what a powerful thing it is to give students the space to wonder.


Student centered teaching and Socratic dialogue

Now that we've dug into the nonfiction reading and we've asked a ton of questions, ignited our students' curiosity, and empowered them to wonder, it's time for a student-led discussion. Before the Socratic dialogue, we can help prepare students by channeling all of those questions. That preparation can help reduce two things – either we hear "crickets" in the classroom, or we're overwhelmed with students talking over one another.

We want to make sure that we're getting all of the questions answered and that we're thinking about the big ideas and concepts in the lesson. To improve classroom discussions, we need to give students the tools to organize their thoughts. One way to do that is with a
discourse preparation sheet.

I want to reassure you that this student centered approach is not something that happens perfectly overnight. It takes a little time helping students, modeling good questions, and giving them the time and space to talk. Here's a great example from my own class. When I asked, "What role does evaporation play in hurricane formation" instead of "What's the definition of evaporation," a student replied, "I am wondering why we don't have hurricanes here?" I love, love, love this question, because it shows a lot of critical thinking from this student. It also generated a great discussion, with students giving evidence as to exactly why we didn't have hurricanes in this area. As a teacher sitting back and listening, the discussion gave me a lot of information about the students' understanding. It also helped me identify concepts that needed reinforcement.

If you're teaching virtually, KnowAtom also gives you the tools to start an online discussion. The tool creates one big classroom text chain. Some students who are uncomfortable speaking up are happy to text their classmates. Here's a great example, "The text says that plants can act as strainers. I'm confused about that. Can someone explain?" The student takes a risk here, saying, "I'm confused," and does a great job of asking a very clear question. Other students were very eager to jump in. One texted, "Take a look on page eight; there's a picture." It's great for me as a teacher to sit there and see everybody going into their student readers and turning to that page and looking at that picture, and that student was satisfied with the answer that she got.

Now it's your turn to really think about your ability to question. Consider implementing reading and discussion questions into your routine. I can almost guarantee you that you will see an increase in student engagement in the reading, a deeper understanding of the big ideas in each lesson, and increased participation and risk-taking in scientific discussions. It really, really works – but it doesn't happen overnight. Don't be concerned if the kids are looking at you with confusion at first when you start asking these kinds of questions. It takes a while, but it's very exciting to see them start to ask each other the same kinds of deep-thinking questions.

Topics: science and engineering practices, Next Generation Science Standards, higher order thinking, STEAM, Expert, STEAM Curriculum, Next Generation Science

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