How “Open” are your Classroom Questions? Providing a Fertile Environment for Classroom Discourse

What is the difference between an open question and a closed question?  To put it simply, an open question allows room for discussion, growth, connections, and development; whereas a closed question points to one “correct” answer that the person asking the question hopes to hear.

Here’s a short clip featuring the awesome Lucy West* where she provides a brief intro regarding the types of questions used in classrooms:

According to Lucy West, based on a study of 500 classrooms in 5 countries (England, US, France, Russia, and India):

  • open questions only made up 10% of questioning exchanges in the classroom
  • 15% of the sample did not ask any open questions
  • probing by the teacher to encourage sustained and extended dialogue occurred in 11% of the classes
  • uptake questions (questions not on the lesson plan) only account for 4%
  • 43% of teachers did not use any such moves
  • pupil exchanges were short being on average 5 seconds and with 3 words or less 70% of the time

How to increase student capacity and discourse?  GET STUDENTS TO ANSWER ALL QUESTIONS IN A COMPLETE SENTENCE! This seems like such a simple concept, but it can make such a big difference.  I am definitely going to keep this in mind when trying to incorporate class discussions and discourse into my daily teaching.

Here’s a great resource found on Lucy West’s website that provides more information on Building An Environment for Talk

I especially love that part when Lucy West talks about students who ask questions that are not on “the plan” (uptake questions)! Isn’t it more important to have students immersed in rich discussions, rather than sticking to our lesson plans?  I think so.  If in doubt:

pretend lesson plan

Image source:


* I heard Lucy West speak at a conference my school board held a year ago.  She has a great website with tons of resources for teachers and this video provides great insights into robust dialogue with your students (just scroll down to the last video on that page).  The video is 86 minutes long (yes, I know) but it is so worthwhile to watch.

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