From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 7|No 3|November-December|1997


 A Questioning Toolkit

Each district should create a Questioning Toolkit which contains several dozen kinds of questions and questioning tools. This Questioning Toolkit should be printed in large type on posters which reside on classroom walls close by networked, information-rich computers.

Portions of the Questioning Toolkit should be introduced as early as Kindergarten so that students can bring powerful questioning technologies and techniques with them as they arrive in high school.

Essential Questions Subsidiary Questions Hypothetical Questions Telling Questions Planning Questions
Organizing Questions Probing Questions Sorting & Sifting Questions Clarification Questions Strategic Questions
Elaborating Questions Unanswerable Questions Inventive Questions Provocative Questions Irrelevant Questions
Divergent Questions Irreverent Questions


Essential Questions

These are questions which touch our hearts and souls. They are central to our lives. They help to define what it means to be human.

Most important thought during our lives will center on such essential questions.

  • What does it mean to be a good friend?
  • What kind of friend shall I be?
  • Who will I include in my circle of friends?
  • How shall I treat my friends?
  • How do I cope with the loss of a friend?
  • What can I learn about friends and friendships from the novels we read in school?
  • How can I be a better friend?

If we were to draw a cluster diagram of the Questioning Toolkit, Essential Questions would be at the center of all the other types of questions. All the other questions and questioning skills serve the purpose of "casting light upon" or illuminating Essential Questions.

Most Essential Questions are interdisciplinary in nature. They cut across the lines created by schools and scholars to mark the terrain of departments and disciplines.

Essential Questions probe the deepest issues confronting us . . . complex and baffling matters which elude simple answers: Life - Death - Marriage - Identity - Purpose - Betrayal - Honor - Integrity - Courage - Temptation - Faith - Leadership - Addiction - Invention - Inspiration.

The greatest novels, the greatest plays, the greatest songs and the greatest paintings all explore Essential Questions in some manner.

Essential Questions are at the heart of the search for Truth.

Many of us believe that schools should devote more time to Essential Questions and less time to Trivial Pursuit.

One major reform effort, the Coalition of Essential Schools, has made Essential Questions a keystone of its learning strategy. (Visit the Coalition Web site).

Essential Questions offer the organizing focus for a unit. If the U.S. History class will spend a month on a topic such as the Civil War, students explore the events and the experience with a mind toward casting light upon one of the following questions, or they develop Essential Questions of their own . . .

  • Why do we have to fight wars?
  • Do we have to fight wars?
  • How could political issues or ideas ever become more important than family loyalties?
  • Some say our country remains wounded by the slavery experience and the Civil War. In what ways might this claim be true and in what ways untrue? What evidence can you supply to substantiate your case?
  • Military officers often complain that the effective conduct of modern war is impeded by political interference and popular pressures on the home front. To what extent did this also prove true during the Civil War?
  • How can countries avoid the kind of bloodshed and devastation we experienced during our Civil War?
  • How much diversity can any nation tolerate?
  • Who showed greater bravery and courage, the front line soldiers and the nurses who tended to the wounded and dying or the leaders of the war effort?
  • Should there be a law against war profiteering?

For more on Essential Questions read this other selection.

Subsidiary Questions

These are questions which combine to help us build answers to our Essential Questions. Big questions spawn families of smaller questions which lead to insight. The more skillful we and our students become at formulating and then categorizing Subsidiary Questions, the more success we will have constructing new knowledge. All of the question categories listed and explained below are types of Subsidiary Questions.

We have several strategies from which to choose when developing a comprehensive list of Subsidiary Questions for our project:

  • We can brainstorm and list every question which comes to mind, utilizing a huge sheet of paper or a word processing program or a graphical organizing program such as Inspiration (, putting down the questions as they "come to mind." Later we can move these around until they end up along side of related questions. This movement is one advantage of software. This approach has the benefit of spontaneity.
  • We can take a list of question categories like the one outlined in this article and generate questions for each category. This approach helps provoke thought and questions in categories which we might not otherwise consider.

In the (condensed) illustration below, a team is pondering the following Essential Question:

What is the best way for our school to involve students in the use of e-mail?

They begin by listing every question they can think up. They have one member type the list into the outlining part of Inspiration. They could use a word processor instead, but Inspiration will automatically convert their outline into a variety of diagrams and will allow them to move questions around later.


Best way to involve students in the use of e-mail?

    Worst that can happen?
    Potential benefits?
    Obstacles which must be overcome?
    Available resources?
    Sufficient resources?
    Additional resources?
    Good models?
    How prepare students?
    How prepare parents?
    Relationship to discipline code?
    Who does what?
    Assessing progress?

This outline is transformed in seconds by a simple mouse-click into the following cluster diagram . . .



The lack of order and logic should be immediately visible.

This diagram needs to be re-drawn.

No problem.

Point. Click. Drag!

In just 4-5 minutes, we have a cluster diagram which groups (and colors) questions.


The Questioning Toolkit continued . . .


Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings, photographs and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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