October 16, 2012

Going Around in (Questioning) Circles

by Paul Ortiz, Pharm D., PGY1 Pharmacy Resident, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center

The art of questioning is a useful tool to engage students and encourage critical thinking.  Instruction that includes well-crafted questions is a way to encourage higher order thinking about a subject.1  Asking and answering questions often reveals knowledge that we never realized we possessed.  Whether in an academic or an informal social setting, questioning can force us to dig deep into our own psyche and reveal our thoughts and feelings.  Educators often use questioning as a tool to teach students, but how does one know which questions to ask? 

A model of questioning by Christenbury and Kelly called Questioning Circles (see figure) provides a structure for educators to develop questions about a topic.2  The Questioning Circle is comprised of 3 distinct areas of knowledge that overlap.  The 3 areas included in this model are Text (knowledge of the text/subject matter), Reader (personal response to the text), and World (knowledge of the world and other texts).2  Christenbury states that instruction using the Questioning Circles technique should include not only questions in the three separate circles (Text, Reader, and World), but more importantly, questions in the areas where the circles overlap.2,3  The areas where 2 circles overlap (Text/Reader, Text/World, and Reader/World) allow the individual components to collide and enrich each other.  Finally, there is an area of Dense Questions in which all 3 circles must be considered.  These Dense Questions represent the most important questions and whose answers provide the deepest consideration of the subject matter.4

Christenbury and Kelly use the following example from The Adventures of Huckleburry Finn by Mark Twain to illustrate the Questioning Circles technique in action:

Text: What does Huck say when he decides not to turn Jim in to the authorities.
Reader: When would you support at friend when everyone else thought he/she was wrong?
World: What was the responsibility of persons finding runaway slaves?
Text/Reader: In what situations might someone be less than willing to take the consequences for his or her actions?
Reader/World: Given the social and political circumstances, to what extent would you have done as Huck did?
Text/World: What were the issues during that time which caused both Huck’s and Jim’s actions to be viewed as wrong?
Dense Question: When is it right to go against the social/political structures of the time as Huck did when he refused to turn Jim in to authorities?”
(Christenbury, 1983)

Using questions as a means of instruction can be very effective for educators, and the Questioning Circles is a particularly useful tool.
  Throughout my years in pharmacy school and currently during my residency, questioning from professors and preceptors has helped me learn and think critically.  The Socratic Method of teaching and questioning has been widely studied and used, and I wanted to further investigate other established methods of questioning.  One aspect of the Questioning Circles method that I thought was especially useful was the Reader’s perspective in this model.  This elicits the learner’s own thoughts and feelings about the particular topic, and brings meaning and relevance.  In my own experience, learning about a topic that is relevant to me and having an educator that makes the topic relatable to my own worldview is among the most effective means of learning.  Further, this questioning strategy encourages the teacher to relate the material to the World, and puts the subject matter into a larger context than perhaps the learner initially imagined.  Questioning Circles is a useful teaching tool for both new and experienced educators and can be applied to many different learning settings.

1.  Ciardiello AV. Did you Ask a Good Question Today? Alternative Cognitive and Metacognitive Strategies. J Adolesc Adult Lit. 1998; 42(3): 210-219.
2.  Christenbury L and Kelly P. Questioning: A Path to Critical Thinking. Urbana: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and the National Council of Teachers of English; 1983. (ED 226 372)
3.  McComas, WF and Abraham L. Asking Better Questions.  USC University of Southern California. Los Angeles (CA): USC Center for Excellence in Teaching; 2005.
4.  Meyers, G. Whose Inquiry Is It Anyway? Using Student Questions in the Teaching of Literature. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English; 2002.

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