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Students’ questioning skills

‘By focusing on the student as questioner, we can help them become more active and reflective learners, and this can only help in developing active, critical classrooms where quality geography can blossom.’

Phil Wood, 2006

Topics on this page:

  • Why teach students how to ask good questions?
  • Simple questioning
  • Modelling the use of 5Ws
  • Classroom strategies for questions practice (snowballing, hot seating, development compass rose, intelligent guesswork)
  • Evaluating strategies for student-questioning
  • Teaching students to ask higher order geographical questions
  • Questioning frameworks
  • Layers of inference
  • Socratic questions
  • Reading

Why teach students how to ask good questions?

If you have just been asked an awkward question by a student in class, you might wonder about this! Natural curiosity about geography phenomena makes students ask teachers difficult and searching questions; some make a habit of it. Look at Rex Walford’s 1988 article and make sure you are prepared to answer questions such as ones he lists there.

In order to formulate their own questions, students must think deeply about a geography topic. They need this capability to become independent learners. Unless they are able to ask questions for themselves, they cannot engage successfully with geographical information or undertake enquiries. Therefore, teachers need to provide opportunities in their lessons for students to develop question-posing skills.

Good geography teaching should provoke young people’s natural curiosity and will cause them to ask their questions. For example:

  • Place in the world: Where do I live? How does it look? How do I feel about it? How is it changing? How do I want it to change?
  • The physical world: What is the world (and this place) made of? Why do things move? What becomes of things?
  • The human world: Who decides on who gets what? Why are things different? What is fair?

Left to their own devices, students generally ask low-order questions. Teachers need to focus students on asking deeper questions and teach them how to pose good, high-order questions. Without this, most students are unlikely to do so of their own accord.

  • As you teach or observe lessons, take note of the questions that students ask. Consider the kinds of stimulus, and the learning activities, that provoke students to ask good, high-order questions.

Key reading

  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 5.

Simple questioning

One way to encourage students to ask good geographical questions is to start with some simple questioning games. The purpose of these is to develop and sharpen their questioning skills. These activities help students to understand the types of questions they need to ask to find the information they need. Try some of these strategies:

  • Put words on sticky notes on foreheads. Students have to ask questions to find out the word. Give them a time limit (e.g. two minutes) to find out what the word is. They can ask any other student in the group a question, but it can only be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’. See Woods (2006).
  • ‘Twenty questions’ and ‘any questions’ – see examples in Roberts (1998).
  • Pre-topic questions – for students to generate questions at the start of a new topic, use sticky notes questions and create a display on the classroom wall. Remove each note from the display as they are answered. See Harris, M. (2017) chapter 5.
  • See King, S. (1999) Figure 5 ‘Strategies for developing questions’.

Modelling the use of 5Ws

An approach that you can use to teach students how to ask questions is by modelling the use of the 5Ws – What? Where? Who? When? and Why? (See Roberts (2023) p 49). These questions are used regularly across all geography topics. Demonstrate to students how a geographer poses questions using the 5Ws to find things out from information sources such as images, maps, graphs and diagrams.

A common strategy used by geography teachers is to use a large image projected on a screen so the whole class can be involved in the activity and share ideas about the questions to ask. At first, the teacher might ‘talk aloud’ as they pose the questions, and particularly the follow-on questions, so that the student can see how the interrogation builds up.

They could continue with further images inviting the class to pose the questions – perhaps using ‘pair and share’ to generate some ideas and then pooling them as a class. In some topics it can be more appropriate to include How? or Which?, but the 5Ws make a good starting point that is applicable to most geographical contexts.

  • Read Roberts (2023) p 49 to find out more on the 5Ws, 7Ws and an H.

Classroom strategies for questions practice

Snowballing

Identify a resource – an image or a map – and ask students to take time to think individually and in silence and come up with five 5W questions. They share these with a partner, discuss all 10 and select the best five questions. Then pairs of students form groups of four and again negotiate and agree which are the best five questions. Groups feedback as a whole class and the best questions are used to complete a task.

Hot seating

This involves one person as an expert. It could be the teacher, or a visitor or a student who has researched a topic thoroughly. The class ask questions of the expert. It is best to create a context for the interrogation, such as a reporter gathering information to write a newspaper report or for students seeking information for an activity such as a mock planning enquiry. See p. 79 of Biddulph et al (2021).

The Development Compass Rose

The Development Compass Rose uses the mnemonic NSEW to encourage students to frame questions. It helps students to look for answers to help them explore and understand a situation, in four ‘domains’:

  • Natural: about in the environment.
  • Social: about people and the way they live.
  • Economic: about money.
  • Who decides?: about the people who make decisions about the changes.
Roberts (2023) points out that the compass rose is initially more difficult than the 5Ws because it requires an understanding of the four aspects of geography. However, students need to know these if they are to progress in geography, so frequent use of the compass rose helps them to grasp these terms.

This Development Compass Rose illustrates the type of high-order questions that can be generated in the context of ‘Questioning the future’. Another way of using the Development Compass Rose for question generation is by putting the cardinal points around a photograph and posing questions in each domain and also where they intersect at SW, SE etc.

Intelligent guesswork

Margaret Roberts uses this term for a strategy that involves students making informed guesses about something, drawing upon their prior knowledge. The students must have sufficient earlier understanding to be able to make reasoned guesses (hence ‘intelligent’ guesswork). They have to ask themselves questions about the data to speculate and make a guess. Read about intelligent guesswork in Roberts (2023) chapter 15.

Evaluating strategies for student questioning

It can be difficult to ensure that every student is fully involved in creating questions. Working in pairs or small groups facilitates this. So does an approach where every student has an opportunity to ask their question, as in hot seating. When students have spent time discussing and identifying the best questions, make sure to provide a purpose for using them, such as using them to complete a written task.

After the completion of these activities, the teacher should debrief the class and ask them ‘What makes a good question?’. The class should discuss the benefits of the questions they chose and why they rejected others. 

Students need to recognise that there are good and poor questions, and why. Other things to consider in a debriefing are ‘is there a preferred order to ask the questions?’, ‘would the questions help them to find out what they needed?’ and ‘where else might they need to source further information on this topic?’.

When you have used several of the above strategies and/or observed other teachers helping students to generate questions, evaluate how successful different strategies are in getting students to develop good questions.

  • Was the choice of context and resource appropriate to enable question generation?
  • Did the strategy give all students the opportunity to explore their ideas with others and share their thinking?
  • How well did the dialogue and discussion help students to create better questions?
  • How much time is sufficient to enable the students to think deeply, reflect and reconsider their choice of questions?

Teaching students to ask higher-order geographical questions

The strategies that have been discussed are useful to get students to begin to ask questions, but they do not always take students far enough beyond asking low-order questions. The teacher needs to challenge students to focus on framing deeper, higher-order questions and become better thinkers.

It is worth remembering that students are more likely to ask probing and high-order questions if the teacher does so frequently themselves. It is also unreasonable to expect them to generate many questions if they have limited prior knowledge of a topic.

Rackley (2018) outlines a strategy they use with key stage 3 to generate and refine questions they can use in their own enquiries for a homework investigation. They see this as a way to prepare students for fieldwork investigations at GCSE, while also developing their confidence and independence.

Three other strategies that geography teachers use to help students generate higher-order questions are: Questioning frameworksLayers of inference and Socratic questions

  • Refer to Rawlings Smith (2017) for applications in post-16 teaching.

Questioning frameworks

There are several different versions of questioning frameworks that can be used. You should adapt a template to make it appropriate for your geography topic and context. The one shown here uses the 5W questions on the vertical axis, with the addition of How?, but it also has additional words at the top that take each ‘W question’ further.

Geography question grid

Above template source: Nick Langmead, Braunton Academy, and Gareth Godwin, South Molton Community College in GA booklet on Critical thinking in practice.

Students start by choosing a question stem from the vertical and adding to it from the horizontal, e.g. ‘What will?’, ‘How can?’. The direction of the arrow indicates how the questions increase in depth of thinking so they go from Who is?, which is purely factual, to How might?, which is speculative and evaluative.

  • Read how teachers in South Molton Community College used this grid with key stage 3 students to develop questioning in Critical thinking in practice, page 13.
  • See Harris (2018) p. 32 for an example of the use of a questioning grid using a picture of flooding.

Layers of inference

This is a technique that involves students ‘inferring’ from a resource stimulus and asking higher-order questions. Since much evidence in geography provides only partial information, it encourages students to ask questions about the evidence provided. 

Of course, it is important that students have sufficient prior knowledge to make reasoned inferences. Teachers might frame the questions at first, but the goal should be students’ independence so they apply the framework to form their own questions.

The technique uses a nested framework, usually called Layers of Inference or Layers of Meaning. It can be applied to almost any type of geographical source material, such as photographs, maps, graphs, text, statistics or video. It encourages students to examine the source closely and use their prior knowledge to infer meaning. 

Four levels are often used with decreasing levels of certainty hence the ‘layers of meaning’. It is often diagrammatically shown by nested rectangles around a ‘source’ image or map (see Roberts (2023) chapter 17).

The questions from inner to outer would be something like:

    • What does the picture/map/text definitely tell me?
    • What can I infer from it?
    • What does the picture/map/text not tell me?
    • What further questions do I need to ask?
  • Study this example of a completed layers of inference framework, which uses some text as a central source. It is taken from Jane Ferretti’s presentation at the GA conference and illustrates the depth and range of questions that can be generated.
  • Refer to Taylor (2004) for an example and analysis of how the technique can be applied to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.
  • Read about how an image of a child on the Payatas Garbage Dump in Quezon City in The Philippines was used in this technique in Ferretti (2017) pp. 173-5.
  • Look at this simple version What Can You Work Out? that could be used as an introduction.

Socratic questions

Socratic questioning involves a systematic exploration of the topic to really probe students’ thinking. It helps them to develop critical thinking and independence of thought.

Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, 75-79.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing, 114-8.
  • Ferretti, J. (2017) ‘Differentiation’ in Jones, M. (ed.) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 13 by Jane Ferretti.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher. Routledge, chapter 5.
  • King, S. (1999) ‘Using questions to promote learning’, Teaching Geography, October
  • Rackley, K.M. (2018) ‘How to … develop (independent investigation) questioning skills at home’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Rawlings Smith, E. (2017) ‘Post-16 geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 19.
  • Roberts, M. (1998) ‘Using slide images to promote active learning‘, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapters 5 and 17.
  • Taylor, E. (2004) Re-Presenting Geography. London: Chris Kington Publishing.
  • Walford, R. (1998) ‘The questions they ask’, Teaching Geography, July.
  • Wood, P. (2006) ‘Developing enquiry through questioning’, Teaching Geography, Summer.