Sparking Curiosity & Growth With Great Questions

Effective questions matter.

Do you remember playing games like the Hasbro classic, Guess Who or the computerized game 20Q? Players with good strategy know that, to win these games, you need to ask good questions. And that good questions sometimes lead us to a correct answer.

Other times, questions lead us to ask more questions and to make discoveries. Using questions effectively and modeling their use for children in our programs is one of our most valuable tools. With good questions, we can learn about children and their interests, or even how they are feeling and why.  


How did we learn about the importance of asking questions in a classroom setting?

You are likely familiar with the term or concept of 21st Century Learning Skills. Over a decade ago, leaders in education, business and policy, including the U.S. Department of Education and the National Educators Association, developed the Framework for 21st Century Learning to help schools meet the learning demands needed for students to be successful in the workforce, in college and as citizens within our rapidly changing society. 

The framework identified broad areas of learning and support systems, and then drilled each of these areas down into specific sets of knowledge and skills that children needed to become proficient in for success. Within Learning and Innovation skills, they then identified the 4 Cs:

  • Critical ThinkingTrying new approaches to get things done = innovation and invention.
  • Communication — Looking at problems in a new way, linking learning across all subjects and disciplines.
  • Collaboration — Sharing ideasthoughts and solutions.
  • Creativity — Working together to reach a goal; putting talent, expertise and smarts to work.


Let’s now consider the 4 C’s further.

Paying particular attention to the area of critical thinking. Critical thinking requires: 

  • Looking at problems in new ways
  • Identifying and asking significant questions to gain clarity
  • Making connections between information across subject areas
  • Interpreting information to draw conclusions
  • Evaluating evidence

If we looked closely at the other C’s, we would see the importance of asking effective questions there as well.Effective collaboration and communication involve asking clear questions that spur thinking and guide understanding.Creativity comes from asking effective questions about how to approach a challenge, a problem or a task differently.Asking effective questions is essential for supporting students’ learning.


The questions you ask matter to little learners.

Today’s learners must be critical thinkers to be successful. That means they must be questioning thinkers. Your job title doesn’t matter. All staff working in your program are engaging children in learning opportunities. Using questions effectively can help support learning both in early childhood and school settings — outside of them.

When we ask good questions, we demonstrate to children that we are interested in what they are thinking and what they are learning. In turn, we develop positive relationships with them and encourage positive relationships with their peers. We don’t have to know all of the answers to the questions we ask. In fact, if we did, we probably would not be supporting the development of critical thinking skills.


The difference between types of questions and when to use them.

Different types of questions will give us different types of answers. Let’s look at this example:

Question 1 – Would you like it if you woke up one morning and all the animals in the world could suddenly communicate with you in your own language?

Question 2 – What would happen if you woke up one morning and all the animals in the world could suddenly communicate with you in our own language? 

Discovery moments are great inquiry moments! “What would happen if we only had tiny tools to play with the sand?” “Where does sand get it’s color?”

The first question is a type we call closed-ended, and it only requires a one word or short phrase answer. ​The second question is what we call an open-ended question, and it requires you to think for a moment and reflect on what you thought might happen.


Let’s examine the difference further:


Closed-ended questions

  • May have only one right answer
  • Can be answered in a single word or a short phrase
  • May be answered with yes, no or maybe
  • Keep the conversation controlled by the questioner

Open-ended questions

  • May not have a right or wrong answer
  • Require thinking and reflection
  • Elicit new or even startling ideas
  • Hand over the control of the conversation to the respondent

If we don’t ask additional questions and the child gives a one or two word response, then the conversation ends. We can accept the response and stay in control by letting it end there. But, we can always move learners toward thinking reflectively and critically by asking additional open-ended questions.

When we ask open-ended questions, we give up control of the conversation. We can’t always anticipate what the responses will be and we don’t have to! We don’t have to know the answers to encourage critical thinking. But there are times when we might need to use closed questions first and then follow-up with open-ended questions that will cause the student to think critically.


Closed Question: Do you think water and oil can mix together?​

  • Asking follow-up questions to “open” up this question: Why do you think oil and water mix together?
  • Turn this question into an open question: What could happen if we mix oil and water?

Using questions effectively means that you use both types of questions but you use them intentionally, depending upon what you want a student to learn or do.

Patience and asking effective questions.

Moments with big feelings offer us opportunities to ask questions about how children feel and why.

Wait time is a strategy that is important for us to use with all learners no matter what type of questions we ask.Little learners often need time to think, to process a question and formulate a response.They may sometimes need a little time to gather courage for a response, particularly if they feel unsure.

Some research shows that children need 3-5 seconds before offering a response for most questions, and when we allow that amount of time, more children will respond, children are more confident, and achievement increases. 



Great questions help us learn more about our children. And they also help us model communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking skills. Questions can be open-ended or close-ended. What matters most is that the questions you ask are effective.

Characteristics of effective questions: 

  • Can be closed or open-ended 
  • Are asked with intention
  • Require wait time 
  • Check for knowledge and understanding
  • Foster critical thinking 
  • Support creativity, communication, collaboration

By modeling effective questioning, we let children know we are interested in them as people, while supporting their learning and showing them how to be good questioners.

Share with us! What great questions are you asking in your classroom today?