Asking Curious Questions: The Skill We Never Teach

May 25, 2023

This article is part of a new series of subject-specific blog posts, written by our experienced Subject Leaders. Spanning a wide range of topics, each post aims to inform, inspire and embed IB approaches to teaching and learning in your classroom.

Do you ever start a lesson with “do you have any questions?” Just that – a bare-bones request for questions? It is a rare starter, I agree, and could be met with blank stares. And normally, we teachers ask the questions: we only expect our students to question us when there is something they don’t understand. So can you really start a lesson like this?

Alternatively, we sometimes get those curious questions that don’t fit so well with our normal teaching sequence. Questions that seem to come out of nowhere, or at least out of a very different way of looking at the subject. What happens to them? Would they survive for longer with a fresh approach to students’ questions?

The skill of asking curious questions

In these days of high-stakes testing and the consequent tight structure of our courses, it is interesting to reflect on that peculiar skill that some people, and perhaps some of our students, seem to have, and some of us don’t: the skill of asking curious questions.

It is a great skill to have. Ever struck up that scintillating conversation where your life was lit up by the curious and perceptive questions of your partner? How could they see just what question to ask next, to unlock the next part of your story? How did they know what your hidden passions and interests were? Where did they get this skill? Were they taught it, or is it just raw talent?

Classroom questioning technique is so often part of our teacher training. Some examples include; Pause and pounce, wait 3 seconds, think, pair, share, open and closed, converge or diverge, in or out of our box. So we teachers get good at our questioning skills. But this is not quite “it”. We may have the technique, the management mechanics, but what about the actual questions – the curious questions?

Can we get our students asking these questions?

On the one hand, some questions are not so much questions as requests for help or just requests for a simple repeat of what was said. “How do I do this?” “Will this get the mark?” “What do I do next?” “Can you show us again?” Totally natural, yes, but still not revealing any of that spark of the curious question.

On the other hand, very occasionally we are thrown by the question. Wow! That reticent student at the back, who has said nothing all year, quietly pitches to us the complete left-field ball, stunning us with a question that, although seemingly having an innocent relevance – related to the syllabus, even containing some keywords – still knocks us out!

It is as if our world-view is shaken by the arrival of an alien question. It doesn’t fit the book. It hasn’t appeared in our list of examples. There was no mention in the syllabus document. It seems to come from another perspective, a perspective we had not considered, a way of looking at it from another, very different angle…

“Well, I hadn’t ever thought of it that way. Hmm. I’ll have to consider that … Let me get back to you…”

So, is it a learnable skill, this asking of questions with pertinence and perception that makes us enquire further? Well, I am not sure. But we can try. We can encourage our students and give them the opportunity: let them ask the questions for a change!

The Right Question Institute

This is the work of a very interesting organization called The Right Question Institute. The Right Question Institute has devised a framework that we educators may use in our classrooms to get our students asking the right questions.

It is a simple framework. It involves a few steps, starting with brainstorming, through categorizing and sifting, and finally reducing and refining. It works across a wide field of subjects and ages. It can be full of revelations, revealing all those ways of thinking about something that our students do, whether correct or incorrect, confused or clear, from above or from below.

You could give it a whirl.

Start your lesson by finding out what they want to know about your subject and today’s topic. Discover what they already know, what they are already confused about and what they have no idea about at all. And discover their world views – maybe confined, maybe really wide, maybe from another world!

Maybe you have got to that sticky point with a DP class, or just one student, unable to get going on their internal assessment project or their extended essay. You could use the Question Formulation Technique as the tool to break through this impasse and shine a light for them – their own questions guiding them towards a very personal project or essay. Here’s where ManageBac can help, too – get your students to record their questions in their researcher’s reflection space or in their portfolios on ManageBac.

So, if you are interested, head over to, watch a video on the QFT in action in the classroom – QFT: “question formulation technique” – and perhaps download the deceptively short, single-page QFT recipe. And get ready for a really interesting ride in your classroom!


About the author:

Stan Covington

David Clapp
Physics Subject Leader

David Clapp is the Subject Leader responsible for our ManageBac Physics Subject Page.

ManageBac Subject Pages offer a collection of curated, subject-specific resources to support best practices in teaching and learning. You can access Subject Pages via your ManageBac account – check in regularly for new materials, advice and ideas.