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More Thinking on the Power of Open-ended Questions

In Denver, as I worked with Teacher Leaders and Teacher Effectiveness Coaches around facilitating lesson study, we ended up spending lots of time thinking about the power of open-ended questions. Our conversation reminded me of some thinking I did in my book, The Lesson Planning Handbook. For this week’s blog I decided to share a section from the book you might find helpful as you think about this.

Crafting Open Versus Closed Questions
As teachers, perhaps our greatest instructional tool is the open-ended question. Open-ended questions force students to dig below surface answers into deeper thinking. Open-ended questions do the following:

  • Require more than one- or two-word answers
  • Allow for multiple interpretations
  • Encourage interaction
  • Stimulate student talk
  • Push student thinking

Observe the Kinds of Questions You Ask
The best way to improve the quality of your questions is by becoming completely conscious of them. To do this, you might try one of the following ideas:

  • Jot down the questions you ask your students. This helps you stay focused on the questions as you ask them.
  • Tape-record a lesson. You can then play it back later and focus on the way you asked questions. It also allows you to analyze your students’ responses to the different types of questions.
  • Ask a coach or trusted colleague to observe your teaching. Doing this gives you the opportunity to get another impression of the way you facilitate and question students.

Examples of Open-ended Questions

  • Why might the author have done it that way?
  • What are some ways we might share our supplies?
  • How can we make our visitors feel welcome?
  • What did you notice about how the author described the farm?
  • What are some of the things we know about tornadoes?
  • What questions do you have?

Use the Power of Open-ended Questions

In classrooms where students are accustomed to answering closed questions, they initially look for what they think the teacher wants to hear. Students are very conscious that certain answers are right and others are wrong, and they want to be right. This is why many of the conversations I observe in classrooms are reduced to surface-level talk and are extremely short. Students quickly try to lock into what they think the teacher wants to hear. As soon as someone gets the answer, the lesson moves on.

In classrooms where students are regularly asked open-ended questions, the students are more apt and able to explore ideas with one another. They begin to understand that we value their risk-taking and their creativity. They know that it is OK if they try out an idea that turns out to be wrong. They are comfortable knowing that a classmate might help with another idea. In these classrooms, students know that a lesson revolves around investigation, not just answers.

This point was driven home for me last spring when I observed Lindee Witt’s fifth-grade class in Clark County, Nevada. They had just been discussing the causes and effects of earthquakes, using the nonfiction book Earthquakes by Seymour Simon. At the end of this reading lesson, students were debriefing how they worked together. During the debrief, a girl said, “I noticed that when we disagree with each other, we are not disagreeing with the person. No one took it personally when someone had another opinion. A lot of us were not sure we understood why earthquakes happen. There was a lot of agreeing and disagreeing. When we agreed and disagreed, we ended up getting to what might be the real cause of earthquakes.”

Lindee’s students were clearly accustomed to responding to open-ended questions. She spent the first seven months of school asking deep questions, probing their thinking, and having students reflect on their learning and behavior every day. Because they had lots of practice doing this, they were able to try out different theories and ways of thinking as they moved successfully through their lesson together.

Taken from pages 81–83 of The Lesson Planning Handbook

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Peter Brunn is the vice president of organizational learning and communications at Center for the Collaborative Classroom (CCC). Previously at CCC, he was the director of professional development, director of staff development, the assistant director of CCC’s Reading Project, and a staff developer. Before coming to CCC, Peter was a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and worked in New York City public schools helping teachers implement reading and writing workshops in their classrooms. Peter received his master’s degree in curriculum and teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University, and his undergraduate degree in history from Marquette University. Peter is also the author of The Lesson Planning Handbook: Essential Strategies That Inspire Student Thinking and Learning, published by Scholastic. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pdbrunn.

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