Education involves more than the accumulation of knowledge; it requires the development of skills necessary to analyze, evaluate and apply knowledge. One critical thinking skill is the ability to formulate good questions: those that elicit a thoughtful response that cannot be summarily answered with a “yes” or “no” or brief factual statement. Good questions demand reflection and prompt further debate. In this article, I examine the use of a “fishbowl” discussion format for prompting skillful questioning.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Isidor Rabi was once asked what had propelled him to become a scientist. His answer, as told in a letter to The New York Times, is illuminating:
“My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference, asking good questions, made me become a scientist!” 1
As educators, we typically spend a great deal of time imparting information and then asking our students questions to assess how well they have assimilated it. Questions from the students, if they come at all, tend to be narrow points of clarification or logistical in nature (including the perennial “Will this be on the exam?”). Occasionally, we may get a really good question—one that makes us stop and think, one that demands a thoughtful response. How do we help our students develop the critical thinking skill of asking good questions?
Description of Teaching Activity
For several years I have taught an upper-division undergraduate class in Conservation Issues. This course is designed to promote discussion of historical and contemporary issues related to the conservation of natural resources and biodiversity, with an emphasis on resolving conflicts and identifying viable solutions to environmental problems. Students are assigned readings, and much of the class time is devoted to student-led discussion based on those readings.
When students were given the task of leading an in-class discussion (either individually or with a partner), they often struggled to initiate a really vigorous dialogue. As I reflected on the reasons for this, one factor seemed to be the nature of the questions the discussion leaders were using to prompt the rest of the class. Too many of the questions were simple requests to recall factual material from the reading, or polling of opinion on agreement or disagreement with certain statements, without really getting at the reasons behind those positions. Few of the questions were what I would regard as good, thought-provoking questions.
To address this observation as I reflected on my teaching, in Spring 2021, I made the following changes in the course:
- Early in the semester, I gave a lecture on critical thinking and the art of asking good questions. I presented a scheme for classifying types of questions and indicated which types are best for leading to further discussion and deeper understanding.
- For discussion of assigned readings, instead of having one or two designated discussion leaders for each reading, there was a group of four to five students that formed the “inner circle” for a “fishbowl” discussion. This inner circle started by discussing the reading amongst themselves while the rest of the class listened and took notes. The inner circle was encouraged to prepare in advance of class and to have carefully crafted questions for one another. After fifteen to twenty minutes of discussion within the inner circle, the discussion was opened to the rest of the class, so they could interject their own opinions or ask their own questions.
In what follows, I summarize the information about the categorization of questions that was given to students in my lecture and then describe the mechanics of conducting a fishbowl discussion.
Types of Questions
There is no simple, single formula for what constitutes a good question. No checklist of characteristics can reliably distinguish good questions from mundane ones. Much depends upon the context, but we recognize a good question when we hear one. A good question is revealed in the response it elicits—it makes you think, causes you to consider an issue in a new light, or reassess your presuppositions. A good question invites discussion or debate. A good question leads to a deeper understanding of an issue or at least a deeper appreciation of the complexity. A good question provokes further questioning and continued learning. The scheme I used for classifying questions is shown in table 1.
Table 1. Types of questions. Classification developed by the author, with inspiration from Immerwahr2 and Elder and Paul.3
|Matters of Fact
resolved by reference to an authoritative source or by routine procedure
resolvable (in principle), but logic and procedure requires justification
|Matters of Judgment
resolved by precise definition of terms
justification by examination of concepts, values, reasoning
|Matters of Preference
resolved by identifying universal preferences
articulation of personal preferences, no objective resolution
Questions can be distinguished based on how many answers are deemed acceptable.2 Many questions only have one acceptable answer. Mathematics is replete with single-answer questions (what is 3 + 5?). Historical facts have single answers (who was the first chief of the US Forest Service?), although the answers may be lost to us (who first used fire to cook meat?). Other empirical facts similarly have unique answers (what is the boiling point of water?). Answering a single-answer question involves applying a standard procedure, as in solving a math problem, or making an empirical observation, as in measuring the temperature of a boiling liquid. Alternatively, single-answer questions can frequently be resolved by consulting an authoritative reference work (e.g., a dictionary, textbook, encyclopedia, etc.).
Other questions have more than one acceptable answer, perhaps an infinite number of answers. We can refer to these as “open-ended” questions. Questions may have more than one acceptable answer because different respondents may reasonably express different opinions. Sometimes those differences are simply matters of personal taste, but often reasons or justifications can be given, and some answers are better than others.
In addition to the number of acceptable answers, we can categorize questions according to the kind of issue addressed.3 Some questions address matters of fact, and these ultimately are resolved by empirical approaches. Sometimes the empirical evidence to answer the question has already been gathered or is straightforward to obtain, and the answer can be regarded as an established fact. Sometimes relevant empirical evidence is difficult to obtain or interpret or requires observations beyond our current capabilities, in which case the facts are uncertain or disputed.
Alternatively, some questions involve matters of judgment and require a theoretical analysis. This includes questions that might be answered on the basis of competing scientific theories, competing systems of value, or competing philosophical/social/cultural frameworks. Although multiple answers may be defensible, the quality of the arguments can vary, allowing us to regard some answers as better justified than others. A special case arises in theoretical questions for which the answer hinges on the meaning of certain words. Once precise definitions are adopted, such semantic disputes can be resolved.
Finally, some questions address matters of preference. These are subjective in nature, and it is not to be expected that rational argument will convince someone to change their purely subjective preferences. For some things, all (or very nearly all) people hold similar preferences—pleasure is preferred to pain, success is preferred to failure. For other things, individual variability in preference will be great such as favorite foods or types of entertainment. Examples of these different types of questions are given in table 2.
Table 2. Examples of different types of questions.
|Matters of Fact
When did Congaree become a national park?
How many vertebrae are in a giraffe’s neck?
When did humans first arrive in North America?
How many species of insects are there?
|Matters of Judgment
What is the biggest lake in the world? (Depends on whether “biggest” is measured by volume or by surface area)
What is the best form of government?
How much should we spend to protect the wilderness?
|Matters of Preference
What do you feel when you gaze at the stars on a dark, clear night?
Would you rather vacation in the mountains or at the seashore?
It should be acknowledged that not all questions fit neatly into one category. A single question may concern a mix of matters of fact, judgment, and preference. When I ask, “What is the best college for me to attend?”, clearly facts about the costs and course offerings of different colleges matter, but so does my judgment about the relative importance of various factors that are important in education and my subjective preferences regarding the size of the student body and geographic location. Such multifaceted questions can fruitfully be broken down into a series of more specific questions: “Which college has the lowest tuition?”, “How highly regarded is the degree program by outside experts?”, “What percentage of graduates find employment related to their degree?”, “How close is the campus to someplace I can go hiking on weekends?” etc.
Context influences the categorization of questions, and questions that appear on the surface to be one type may, upon further reflection, be seen as something else. In a broad societal context, the question “Should the EPA regulate greenhouse gas emissions?” seems to be a classic example of an open-ended question involving judgment regarding multiple social, economic, and environmental values, theories of the role of government, etc. However, when the question is translated into a specific legal context, as it was in the case of Massachusetts v. EPA,4 which was decided by the US Supreme Court in 2007, it becomes primarily a semantic dispute about whether or not greenhouse gases meet the definition of a “pollutant” under the Clean Air Act.
The role of a classification of question types, such as table 1, is not so much to rigorously assign each and every question to a single box as it is to help elucidate what is really being asked.
In a fishbowl discussion, students are divided into an inner and outer circle. The inner circle students initiate a discussion while students in the outer circle listen to the discussion and take notes. After a period of time, the discussion is opened up to include the outer circle. Members of the outer circle may challenge points raised during the inner circle discussion and ask for clarification or offer their own perspectives. They may direct follow-up questions to the inner circle, or the inner circle may have questions for the rest of the class. Fishbowl discussions in a physical classroom are often organized by arranging chairs to form literal inner and outer circles. In my implementation in Spring 2021, the class was being taught entirely online due to COVID-19. In that case, during the Zoom video meeting, while the inner circle was having its discussion, they had their cameras on, while members of the outer circle turned their cameras off (to visually distinguish them). Once the discussion was opened to the whole class, all students were invited to turn their cameras on.
Discussion of Outcomes
I did not collect quantitative data, but the fishbowl discussions seemed to be quite popular among the students. In the end-of-course evaluations, most of the students that made narrative comments specifically indicated that they enjoyed the fishbowl discussions. The only negative comment regarding the fishbowl exercise was one student’s complaint that some in the outer circle neglected to turn their cameras on once the discussion was opened to the whole class. That is an issue specific to online classes; I could have been more insistent on all cameras coming on. However, there are privacy issues and legitimate reasons for some students to not always have cameras active that require consideration. As an instructor, I found the quality of the questions during the fishbowl discussions to be generally better than in previous semesters. I believe the explicit consideration given to the role of questioning in promoting critical thinking and the categorization of types of questions helped students to go beyond the simple, single-answer types of questions that had dominated previously.
Reflection on Outcomes
Asking good questions is a critical thinking skill, and it can be taught.3,4 Students often are reticent to ask open-ended questions, particularly on controversial topics, and most students have probably had very little instruction on the art of asking questions. A change of mindset in the instructor is often required to focus not only on the ability of students to answer questions but also to ask good questions. “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” This saying is often attributed to Voltaire, although it actually appears to trace back to a book of maxims by Pierre Marc Gaston de Lévis.5 Whatever the origin of the quote, the message is apt. As teachers, we should encourage the innate curiosity of our students. Teaching the art of asking good questions is one way to do so.
Potential for Adoption in Other Classes
The approach I took in my Conservation Issues course (ENR 4500) is just one of many possibilities. For instructors wishing to promote questioning as a critical thinking skill in their courses, I would recommend the following steps:
- Provide instruction on the art of asking good questions and its relationship to critical thinking. This instruction can be in a lecture, an assigned reading, or instructions for an assignment. Categorization of types of questions, as provided in table 1, may be useful, as well as other material relating questions to critical reflection.3,6
- Instructors should model the use of good, open-ended questions in the classroom, particularly in classroom discussions. This requires real effort and advance preparation but should be rewarded in terms of better, more productive discussions.
- Instructors can coach students in classroom discussions to improve their questions by suggesting a rephrased question or a follow-up question.
- Instructors can create assignments that require students to generate thoughtful questions. These questions can be turned in and graded according to a rubric or used in subsequent discussions.
- Online discussions can be useful if students are given the opportunity to pose their own questions rather than simply responding to prompts from the instructor. Many online tools can be used for this purpose, but one platform specifically designed to encourage students to ask open-ended questions is Packback. The Packback website (www.packback.co) provides a moderated forum in which students can post questions and responses, and students are given feedback to encourage open-ended questions and higher-order thinking.
- Rabi I. Izzy, did you ask a good question today? The New York Times. 1988 Jan 19; A:29.
- Immerwahr J. Asking questions: ways to promote (or destroy) class discussion. Metaphilosophy. 1991;22(4):364–377.
- Elder L, Paul R. The miniature guide to the art of asking essential questions. Tomales (CA): The Foundation for Critical Thinking; 2002.
- De Saillan C. United States Supreme Court rules EPA must take action on greenhouse gas emissions: Massachusetts v. EPA. Natural Resources Journal. 2007;47:793–814.
- Mayweg-Paus E, Thiebach M, Jucks R. Let me critically question this!—Insights from a training study on the role of questioning on argumentative discourse. International Journal of Educational Research. 2016;79:195–210. doi:10.1016/j.ijer.2016.05.017.
- Thompson M. Answers, questioned. Washington (DC): Emerson Collective, The Atlantic; 2016 Mar 8. https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/03/answers-questioned/472551/.
- Browne MN, Keeley SM. Asking the right questions: a guide to critical thinking. 12th ed. New York (NY): Pearson Education; 2018.