By Brian Cleary

Underneath the flash and dazzle flowing into classrooms on the current that feeds 21st-century technology is a newly important skill. A singular skill made more important in the digital age but developed independently from the devices and digital tools that define it. Fake news, media hyperbole and the seeming end of simple answers have all contributed to the increased importance of asking better questions.

Questioning is perhaps the single most important skill we can teach our students. It crosses all curriculum, it plays directly into the real world, and is not reliant on any type of software or hardware to apply.

In a real sense, much of our history and success as humans has been built strictly on our ability to ask great questions and then search for their answers. From the first wandering cave dweller to look at a coffee plant and ask his partner, “If we pick those berries, dry them out, cook them, crush them, then soak them in water do you think it will taste good? Or shall we use that tree bark instead?” to “How do we land a man on the Moon?”, good questions have moved us forward and rippled into every aspect of our lives. Good questions are what has gotten us where we are today.

Perhaps just as importantly, it must be noted that not asking good questions has also gotten us into many of the problems we face today. That we never bothered to ask if the industrial revolution’s increased production of pollutants could have negative repercussions, or the fact that the brightest minds of the age never questioned if maybe splitting atoms could have complicated geopolitial effects going forward, are good examples.

Much of creativity is rooted in questioning old patterns and paths, and even more of science is grounded in our endless pursuit of curiosity.

As critical to 21st-century thinking as inquiry is, it does not require a one to one classroom, special software or even bandwidth. Below are five examples of lessons that do a great job of building an inquisitorial mindset with no or little technology.

1. Math without numbers. This is simply taking rich math question and pulling strategic data out of the problem before giving it to the kids in groups. The students then work together to figure out what questions will get them the information they need. The result is a demonstration of the student understanding of how the math they are learning applies to a problem they are working to solve. (Here’s one of my personal favorite web resources for rich math tasks).

2. Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Some of us remember these as “trip fillers” from our childhood. Those mystery scenarios asked to the back seat during long road trips, like “A man escapes from a room with no windows or doors, how does he do it? “ The back seat gets to ask only yes or no questions to work toward the solution, building off the collection of answers. The result is a training session on refining and distilling questions to offer the greatest depth. Some of my favorites can be found  here , and  here.

3. 90% stories. A bit more work from the teacher, these come in a variety of forms–but the foundation stays the same. A historical event, scientific discovery, or personal narrative that is “mostly true” (thus the 90%) is researched and questioned by the students in order to find the lie. These stories are told by teachers as often as read. Some examples of 90% stories can be found here.

4. Mystery Hangout / Mystery SkypeBoth Google Hangouts and Skype, through Microsoft classroom, offer teachers and their students a chance to play 20 questions with classrooms around the world. Just project one screen to the front of a room and get the students ready to try and figure out where their counterparts are from using yes or no questions.

5. 3 Act TasksA small but growing movement in math education started by Dan Meyer, the idea is simple enough: use the classing structure of story to explore or use a mathematical practice.

  • Act 1 -Hook a class of students with a short video that leaves the audience hanging.
  • Act 2- Mead out information to develop the story so that a path from cause to effect can be followed.
  • Act 3- back to the video for the conclusion of the story to compare its outcome with that of the students.

Here is Dan’s webpage with a rich list of 3 Act tasks, and Graham Fletcher’s collection is better suited to elementary and well worth knowing.

This last offering is designed for whole class use where everyone has a device, but I wanted to include it as a bonus, because with only the slightest of variations it can be used on a singular machine or even phones:

6. S.M.I.L.E. Stanford Mobile Inquiry Learning Environment. The idea for this site seems almost too simple have come out of a genius farm like Stanford until you recognize the brilliance within its simplicity. Students go online to create and answer each other’s questions, then rate the quality of that question. The depth of the questions is a reflection of students’ conceptual understanding of the subject, as well as its application.

In his book A More Beautiful Question Warren Berger says that kids come to us in kindergarten asking 100 questions a day, but by middle school that number is down to almost zero.  Humans are curious animals, and properly formed that inherent inquiry is the most important piece to our success both collectively and individually.

 For more, see:

Brian Cleary is an Elementary Instructional Coach for the Evergreen school district. Follow his work on Twitter (@oldbrainteacher) or on his website .


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