Open-Ended Questions

Stretching Children's Academic and Social Learning

by Paula Denton

Responsive Classroom Newsletter: 
February 2007

Language is one of the most powerful tools available to teachers. We can use language to stretch children’s curiosity, reasoning ability, creativity, and independence. One effective way to do this is by asking open-ended questions—those with no single right or wrong answer. Instead of predictable answers, open-ended questions elicit fresh and sometimes even startling insights and ideas, opening minds and enabling teachers and students to build knowledge together.

In this article, I give examples of open-ended questions, explain what makes them so powerful, and offer some tips on how to use these questions to bolster children’s learning.

Open-Ended Questions in Action

Ms. Nunn’s class is about to read a new story, and the children have opened their books to the first page. To spark their curiosity about the story, she asks a series of open-ended questions (shown here in italics) that draw out their thoughts, knowledge, and feelings.

“Before we start,” Ms. Nunn says, “take a look at just this page. What interesting words do you see?” After a few quiet moments, hands go up.

“Castle!” shouts Raymond. “Castles are cool! I have a model castle.”

“I can tell that’s an important word for you, Raymond. What clues does this word give you as to what the story might be about?

“Knights? Usually castles have kings and knights.”

“Maybe it’s a fairy tale,” Keira adds.

“Hmm. Interesting,” Ms. Nunn muses. “What makes you think it might be a fairy tale?”

After the children have shared some thoughts on the nature of fairy tales, Ms. Nunn brings them back to her original question. “What are some other interesting words on this page?” she asks.

“Milkmaid,” offers Arnie. “What’s a milkmaid?”

Hmm, what might a milkmaid be? Any guesses?

“My grammy tells me a story about a milkmaid. It’s a girl and she works hard and she’s poor.”

“Oh, those might be some clues,” says the teacher. “What other clues could help us understand this word?

The conversation continues with the children deeply engaged. Fifteen minutes later, the group has discussed context clues, compound words, historical jobs, fairy tales versus historical fiction, gender roles, and more. The students have been prompted to think, share their knowledge, analyze information, and connect ideas. Their interest in the story has grown, and their teacher has learned a great deal about what they know. Much of this richness derived from Ms. Nunn’s use of open-ended questions.

What Makes Open-Ended Questions So Powerful?

Children’s learning naturally loops through a cycle of wonder, exploration, discovery, reflection, and more wonder, leading them on to increasingly complex knowledge and sophisticated thinking. The power of open-ended questions comes from the way these questions tap into that natural cycle, inviting children to pursue their own curiosity about how the world works.

Open-ended questions show children that their teachers trust them to have good ideas, think for themselves, and contribute in valuable ways. The resulting sense of autonomy, belonging, and competence leads to engagement and deep investment in classroom activities.

Tips for Crafting Open-Ended Questions

Learning any new language habit takes reflection, time, and much practice. The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn offers comprehensive guidelines on how to frame open-ended questions and make them a regular part of your classroom vocabulary. Here you’ll find just a taste of these guidelines.

Genuinely open up your curiosity about students' thinking.

For open-ended questions to be effective, it’s critical that we ask them with real curiosity about children’s thinking. Once I asked some fourth graders, “How might you use the colored pencils to show what you know about butterflies?”

“You could draw a butterfly and show the different parts,” one child said. Others suggested, “You could make a map of Monarch butterflies’ migration paths,” and “You could make a chart showing the butterfly’s life cycle.” Then another student offered, “You could write a story about a butterfly’s life and use different colors for different times in its life.”

Truly surprised by this last suggestion, I realized that if I hadn’t felt and conveyed genuine curiosity in all reasoned and relevant answers, that child probably wouldn’t have done the creative thinking that led to such a great idea. Because of it, students’ learning was stretched and our butterfly projects were richer.

Children can tell when their teachers are genuinely interested in their ideas. If we’re truly interested, over time children learn to trust that we really do want to know what and how they think. When they know this, they’re more willing to reason and reflect, they gain more practice in thinking for themselves, and they gradually become more skillful, creative thinkers.

Clarify the boundaries.

Suppose when I asked, “How might you use the colored pencils to show what you know about butterflies?” a child had answered, “You could pretend that the colored pencils are butterflies and make a play about them.” Making such a play would have met the goals of this lesson, and in terms of the question I asked, this response is just as valid as the others. But because of the potential chaos and safety issues, having students “fly” colored pencils around the room was more than I wanted to deal with.

Fortunately, no student really gave such an answer. But the way to prevent such a response would have been first to clarify to myself the boundaries of what I wanted the children to think about, and then articulate these boundaries to the children. The resulting wording might have been “How could you use these colored pencils to draw or write something that shows what you know about butterflies?” This is still an open-ended question; it just has boundaries based on what I might see as appropriate options for a particular group of students.

Use words that encourage cooperation, not competition.

Sometimes an open-ended question leads to competition to see who can give the best answer. Although well-managed competition has a place in certain school arenas, teachers usually use open-ended questions when the goal is for students to collaborate, to learn from and with each other, not to compete.

To keep discussions from turning into competitions, phrase your questions carefully. Competition often arises from questions beginning with “who” or “whose” (“Who knows a good way to use clay?”); using words such as “better,” “best,” or “most” (“How can we make this graph the most beautiful?”); or somehow elevating some students above others (“Kerry, what strategies for writing neatly can you show the class?”). These natural-seeming ways of talking assume some answers will be better than others, which encourages competition.

A simple rephrasing helps. Instead of “Who can tell me a good way to use the clay?” try “What are some good ways we could use the clay?” Replace “How can we make this graph the most beautiful?” with “What are some different ways to make this graph beautiful?”

Watch out for pseudo open-ended questions.

These sound open-ended but have behind them the teacher’s desire for a certain answer. I once had a student who loved magenta. Everything she colored, painted, or modeled in clay prominently featured magenta. Perhaps because I’m not crazy about magenta, or because I wanted her to buck the “girls are pink, boys are blue” stereotype, one day, seeing another magenta-infused drawing, I asked, “What do you think would happen if you used a different color?” Only when she replied, “I think I wouldn’t like it as much” did I realize I had wanted her to say, “I think it would look better.” It took me a moment to resist the urge to explain my thinking and to become genuinely curious about hers. “Hmm. Why do you say that?” I managed to ask.

“This color stands out,” she replied. “You can see it from far away, not like pink or yellow.”

“Not like pink,” I repeated to myself. I was so wrong, thinking this student was going for “girly” pink when she was going for standing out. Her explanation gave me real insight into her thinking.

Fortunately, in this instance, I caught myself after the student said “I think I wouldn’t like it as much.” But what if a teacher doesn’t catch herself? When we fish for specific answers, children soon realize we’re not really asking for their thoughts, knowledge, or perceptions, but for them to articulate our own. Many then stop thinking and become less engaged. Or they respond by guessing wildly at the answer the teacher wants. Except for the child who guesses correctly, the children—and their teacher—will likely feel discouraged after such an interaction. Not much will have been learned, or taught. All would have turned out differently if the question had been truly open-ended and the teacher’s intention truly to hear what the children thought.

Leading the Way to True Learning

Open-ended questions power academic and social learning. Such questions encourage children’s natural curiosity, challenging them to think for themselves, and inviting them to share their view of the world. The result: engaged learners who are motivated to learn and whose responses enlighten their classmates and their teacher.

File 1082An adapted excerpt from the book, The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn, by Paula Denton, EdD. Use words, tone, and pacing to build a classroom where students feel safe, respected, appreciated, and excited about learning.

Paula Denton started teaching in 1985 and became a Responsive Classroom workshop presenter and consultant in 1990. Paula is the author of Learning Through Academic Choice and co-author of The First Six Weeks of School.

File 2018Teacher Language for Engaged Learning

4 Video Study Sessions

Four ½-hour sessions, each built around a 10-minute video showing master teachers using Responsive Classroom strategies in their own classrooms. Kit includes easy-to-follow instructions, a DVD, and a CD-ROM with handouts, readings, and support materials. Learn how to:

  • Ask Open-Ended Questions
  • Give Clear Directions
  • Give High-Quality Feedback
  • Keep the Focus on Learning