Teaching Students To Ask Questions For 21st Century Success

I was recently preparing for a presentation to educators in Brazil on 21st-century skills, global competency and problem-based learning. As I was preparing for the presentation, I did some research on the future careers of today’s students. The U.S. Department of Labor report from 2013 states that 65% of today’s students will work in careers that have yet to be developed. That means that we must teach students skills to solve problems we’ve never seen before and won’t see for years.

As educators, we are faced with the challenge to identify skills and dispositions that can be transported into unknown jobs and careers. I came to the final realization that to be prepared to be productive members of the 21st century, students need to be four things:

  1. Self-modifying
  2. Self-managed
  3. Self-evaluating
  4. Self-directed

These four skills are not easily taught by someone, but rather need to become a part of the core of the student’s personality and approach to new situations. Yet, as educators, we need to figure out how to teach these or how to provide students the opportunities to acquire these skills.

These skills closely align with higher order thinking skills, defined by Alexander and colleagues as “the mental engagement with ideas, objects and situations in an analogical, elaborative, inductive, deductive and otherwise transformational manner that is indicative of an orientation toward knowledge as a complex, effortful, generative, evidence-seeking and reflective enterprise.”

After really thinking about my presentation, the four proposed skills and Alexander’s definition of higher-order thinking skills, I had an epiphany on what we keep missing when trying to teach 21st-century skills. I realized that somewhere along the way we stopped teaching students how to ask questions. If we think back to the beginning of schooling, way before the brick and mortar concept of schooling, we are reminded that Socrates ran a classroom that was all about asking questions. What happened to that?

Teaching students to ask questions, the right questions, enables them to become thinkers, processors and to carry these skills into new situations including new careers. You see students who can think about what questions to ask to bring clarity to unknown concepts, processes, information and situations, can then find the answers they need to solve a problem. Students who can get clarity through questioning are able to make connections to what is and can then begin to think about what can be. Students who learn to ask questions can innovate.

As we examine classrooms today, we find they are so full of the “stuff of curriculum” that must be covered that teachers feel compelled to deliver the material in the quickest most efficient way. This translates to ensuring that the curriculum is “covered.” Yet, we know from the thousands of pieces of research out there, that teaching the curriculum doesn’t necessarily equal learning the skills and competencies needed to be successful in school and the world of work. So, let’s back up for a minute and talk more about teaching students to ask questions to enhance learning, increase student engagement and improve student achievement.

Changing Behaviors

Teaching students to ask questions involves changing student behaviors. Yet, the only way to change student behaviors is to first change our teaching behaviors. If we take a closer look at how we are teaching, we may find that teaching students to ask questions is not harder than covering the curriculum–it is just using a different pedagogical practice.

When we teach writing, we know that the most effective way to teach students to be writers is to model our own writing process for them. We stand in front of them and we actually write our narrative/story in front of them. We delete things, cross them out, move sentences, change words and so on. This modeling allows students to see how we process writing as we do it. The same can be done to teach students to ask questions.

The simplest place to begin is to read an article from the newspaper or a portion of a textbook or a part of a chapter from a novel. As we read, we begin to ask our questions out loud in front of students. We say things like – “I wonder what …..?” “I am curious to know more about ….” “What else don’t I know about….?” Once we do this, we have students practice this set of skills on a similar piece of writing.

We then have them share with a partner, then in a large group of four, then to six, then to eight, etc. We don’t have to do this with everything we read, but we need to do it frequently so that students learn that we value questions and we believe that asking questions helps us to learn. If we do this often enough, we will produce greater thinkers who ask the “right” questions that enhance learning and stay engaged in the content.

Mind-mapping is another great way to get students engaged in asking questions (check out this mind-map of a 10-year-old student on inquiries about water). As students enter new jobs, think of the power of putting the job title in the middle and then creating a mind-map of questions about that job. Students would then be able to self-assess their own interest and skills and determine if that job is something for them to pursue.

What about those pesky classroom management concerns?

A 2010 report by The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement (CCSRI) looks at strategies for improving student behavior. “Expecting students to succeed, asking questions and getting involved in the curriculum can naturally motivate each student.“

If we can keep the students’ minds busy with questions, we are less likely to have classroom management issues as well.  If students’ minds are busy thinking about the questions they have about what they are reading or the problem they are solving, or the experiment I am doing etc., they are less likely to be engaged in disruptive behaviors.

What about the shy student or the one who won’t ask a question?

There are some apps available for use on the iPhone/Android such as Piazza which allows students to ask and answer questions, Biblionasium which has conversation starters and allows students to dialogue with each other, and Padlet which allows students to post on an electronic board using electronic “sticky notes.” There are others too but this might get you started.

You see, if you think about, we are teaching them to be self-modifying, self-managed, self-evaluating and self-directed by teaching them to ask questions that can guide their own thinking and learning processes which in the end will guide them through all decisions they make for the rest of their lives.

Here are some resources to help you with teaching students to ask questions:

For more, see:

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Dr. Margy Jones-Carey

Dr. Margy Jones-Carey is an Assistant Professor and Program Director for the Educational Leadership Program at St. Bonaventure University.

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Anne Gaca

Love using mind maps. My students recievedthem well and are trying them untrue lessons. Also when using KWL chart recently I added an "I wonder "

Anne Gaca

Area to encourage questions

Laila Sharifi

How would you align 21st-century skill development with leadership skill development?


Mason Pashia

Great question, Laila. I think this would mostly relate to agency and a willingness to co-lead. Recognizing a variety of voices, stakeholders and perspectives. Much of the self-management/self-knowledge mentioned in the piece sets a great foundation helping a team to grow.

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