Information Age Education
   Issue Number 90
May, 2012   

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This is the 16th of a series of IAE Newsletters exploring educational aspects of the current cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob Sylwester (Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provide two introductory articles. Newsletter # 77 and subsequent newsletters are written by guests. However, Sylwester and Moursund also intend to contribute to this emerging collection.

For the most part, these guest articles will focus on cognitive neuroscience. Dave Moursund will provide Information and Communication Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In addition, readers are invited to send their comments using the Reader Comments directions near the end of this newsletter.

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Effective Questioning Strategies That Build
Thinking and Learning:
A Critical Need for 21st Century Education

Esther Fusco
Hofstra University

"You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” (Naguib Mahfouz; Egyptian writer and winner of 1988 Nobel Prize; 1911–2006.)

Classroom Instruction and the Brain

In the late 1970's, I read the book Thinking Goes to School by Hans Furth and Harry Wachs, (1975)  followed by an article written by Herman Epstein (1978). The two readings had a powerful impact and changed the direction of my career. From that point on, I looked at classroom instruction through a neurological lens. I recognized  that only through active processing could information be retained and more importantly retrieved. I realized that learning emerged when an intriguing event, activity or story engaged the learner and stimulated active processing.

At the time I was a middle school reading teacher, and consequently I began to structure the learning with my new perspective in mind. I organized each lesson by asking myself questions. What am I going to do to engage the learner in the lesson’s objectives and concepts? How am I going to do this in a novel way? How will I structure the lesson for the most involvement? What strategies will I use to connect students’ background knowledge to the current concept or topic?

This mental set has matured over the years and has been influenced by the writings of others like Lev Vygotsky (1962) and Louise Rosenblatt (1995), who also stressed the need for the learner to have the background knowledge to actively bring to the text or the learning situation. This attitude is alive and well now in all my university classes. For me, my instructional practice is strictly about engaging and interacting with my students in order to facilitate cognitive development.

Lesson Design and Questioning

As I design a lesson, I assess the concept being taught and the students in order to determine if there is a match between the concept level and the students' background knowledge. This assessment process is key to engagement and to the creation of a safe learning environment. While I am striving for some cognitive disequilibrium (Piaget, 1974), I work to avoid frustrating the students and shutting down their learning.

An essential strategy that I use is questioning. The questioning process in my lessons is challenging and creative and always interesting. When used appropriately, effective questioning strategies promote diversified interactions among students in the classroom. Whenever I select this method, I simultaneously:
  • build knowledge,
  • explore complex concepts,
  • enhance students’ self-confidence, and
  • produce a dynamic learning environment.
Questioning, as a strategy, allows me to assess students’ responses and determine their levels of understanding. This reinforces the notion that students’ knowledge development is personal and often distinctive. Effective questions help me to begin to differentiate the instruction and support students in synthesizing prior and new knowledge while also expanding their understanding of the learning process. It is a scaffolding process that results from the thoughtful responses of students. In developing an understanding of the power of questions, I have learned that I can build students’ comprehension and cognition, and guide their understanding in all areas of their learning. Effective questions combine all the ingredients, and teachers can use the strategy in all subject areas and with students of all grade levels.

The Questioning Cycle

I carried these views into my administrative life. In schools where I was the principal, I encouraged faculty to recognize questioning as a means of supporting cognitive development. Over the years, I built on these experiences and developed them into a structure. I called this the Questioning Cycle and shared it with teachers I worked with.

The main principle in the Questioning Cycle is that questions are one of the most important tools a teacher can use to build a community of thinkers. Fruitful questions promote an environment that appreciates thinking, problem solving, and decision making. They encourage students to consider and accept diverse ideas, even those that may seem foreign. Another principle that underlies the Questioning Cycle is that it is a systematic method to collect information about students’ knowledge while they explore a topic, concept, or idea.

The teacher uses the steps in the cycle as follows:
  • planning the question,
  • asking the question,
  • allowing wait time,
  • listening to the student’s response,
  • assessing the student’s response,
  • following up the student’s response with another question, and
  • re-planning based on all the students’ responses.

Steps in the Questioning Cycle – Lesson’s Goals and Objectives

Steps in the Questioning Cycle

The teacher plans a question and then goes through a series of follow-up questions with the student. When teachers ask these questions they generally begin by defining the concept and building the student’s content vocabulary related to it. Peers are called upon to participate in the interaction at appropriate moments during the flow of the conversation (Fusco, 2012).

As teachers use questions to stimulate conversation, the discussion allows students to reveal their real understanding of the concepts being explored (Fusco, 1983). A guided discussion helps students explore the concepts and issues that they face in their subject areas and recognize how these ideas relate to their world. After students engage in interesting discussions, they may go to their text, classroom resources or the Internet to get further information that builds their knowledge and helps to explain the ideas they pursue.

Questions that are meant to inspire thoughtful reflection are especially important. As students become more reflective in their responses, they grow more successful when reading complex text. They become used to asking good questions of themselves when they are reading and discussing text.

The Nature of Answers

In using the Questioning Cycle, it is important for teachers to recognize that they must become invested in the answers that students give to their questions. In this context, the teacher is not necessarily looking for a “correct” answer, but instead is using questions to build cumulative learning or to encourage elaboration of an idea. No longer is a single answer a correct response to a question. Instead, all responses become valuable data and are appropriate because they reflect the students’ cognitive levels. Responses are perceived as more than a mere retelling of the details of a text and become a vehicle for informal assessment of students’ cognitive level and a guide for selecting appropriate future lessons.

Obviously, students’ responses will comprise diverse answers that range from restatements to generalizations to hypotheses, and this range itself depends upon the concept contained in the lesson and the level of questions asked. Teachers might realize that more in-depth study is needed, that another avenue needs to be pursued, or that the student lacks interest in the topic.

Learning for the 21st Century

In John Dewey’s early book How We Think, he continually advocated for making learning an active reflective process that engages students’ thinking about real issues and ideas. Since his writing, many scholars have continued to advocate for a paradigm of questioning that moves away from a low-level factual approach to one that emphasizes the rigorous thinking and processing of information that was also central to the Socratic Method.

The Questioning Cycle addresses these concerns in a way particularly relevant for the 21st Century. The interaction promoted by the Questioning Cycle produces a collaborative exchange that brings a quality and depth to students’ learning and maximizes the likelihood that students will be able to apply their knowledge to challenging real-world situations. As Mariale Hardiman writes in her book Brain Research with Effective Teaching: The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model, “Most effective educators ... know that the acquisition of content, skills, and processes is only the beginning of a quality instructional program. They realize that good teaching does not stop with the acquisition of knowledge. It also provides students with opportunities to use knowledge meaningfully by developing high-order thinking and problem-solving skills and connecting knowledge to real-world applications” (2003, p. 70).

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.


Dewey. J. (1991). How We Think. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

Epstein, Herman T. (1978). Growth spurts during brain development: Implications for educational policy and practice. In J. S. Chall and A. F. Mirsky (eds.) Education and the Brain, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Furth, Hans and Wachs, Harry. (1975). Thinking Goes to School. Oxford University Press.

Fusco, Esther. (2012). Effective questioning strategies in the classroom. New York City, New York: Teachers College Press.

Fusco, Esther. (1983). The relationship between children’s cognitive level of development and their responses to literature. Doctoral dissertation, Hofstra University, Hempstead NY.

Hardiman, Mariale M. (2003). Connecting brain research with effective teaching: The brain-targeted Teaching model. Lanham, Maryland R&L Education.

Piaget, Jean. (1974). The language and thought of the child. Trans. by Marjorie Gabain. New York: New American Library.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, Massachusetts: M.I.T. Press.

Ester Fusco

Esther Fusco is currently an Associate Professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. She is the Chair of the Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership. Initially, she served as an adjunct at Hofstra for fifteen years before becoming a full time faculty member. Prior to becoming a full time faculty member at Hofstra, Dr. Fusco was the principal of the Port Jefferson Elementary School for eight years and the principal of the Babylon Elementary School for eight years. In Babylon she also served as the Director of Curriculum K-12 and the Director of Special Education. Dr. Fusco was a Middle School Reading Coordinator and Elementary Gifted Coordinator in Shoreham Wading River School District. Currently, Dr. Fusco is the Facilitator for the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) National Network on Language, Literacy and Literature and the Chair of the Balanced Literacy SIG for International Reading Association. Dr. Fusco has authored several children’s literature programs and numerous articles on curriculum and instruction and a series of books on portfolio assessment.

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