Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Questioning skills to support design thinking

This article originally appeared in the Discovery Education blog "Kathy Schrock's Katch of the Month" in January 2020 and is re-posted here with permission.

There are hundreds of visual models of the design thinking process on the Web. They all include similar components as illustrated below.
MrJanzen1984. 2 August 2016. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

The first step in the design thinking process, empathizing, requires students to identify a problem or process from the point of view of the intended audience. Developing this empathetic mindset requires asking lots of questions of others and themselves. (For more on the design thinking model, take a look at my Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything: Design Thinking page where I include overviews, lesson plans, and videos for incorporating the design thinking process across the curriculum.)
Learning to ask good questions takes a lot of practice. As educators, we spend time developing essential questions for units of study. I often refer to the work of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins dealing with essential questions. I use their book and summaries to help teachers learn the best way to develop these types of inquiry-based questions. Here is a cheat-sheet for teachers, developed by Intel, covering the McTighe and Wiggins model of teacher questioning. Another interesting publication, the EQ Guidebook, from the Global Digital Citizen Foundation, provides practice and tools to help you turn a non-essential question into an essential question.
As I looked over the McTighe and Wiggins list of the seven defining characteristics of an essential question, I was struck by how some of these same characteristics could be utilized by students as they develop their inquiry question for their design thinking project. The useful characteristics from McTighe and Wiggins include these which state that a question:
  • Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  • Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  • Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  • Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
Asking factual questions is easy. Coming up with well-created questions to guide a project also takes some additional study of the types of questions. Jorge Juan Perales provides a useful article for designers on how to develop good questions. Perales also included an interesting portion of a book by Michael J. Marquardt, Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask, which provides a great overview of the various types of open-ended questions that can be used by students to start the design thinking process.
  • Explorative questions force expansion on new points of view and uncovered areas. Have you thought of…?
  • Affective questions reveal people’s feelings about something. How do you feel about…?
  • Reflective questions encourage more elaboration. What do you think causes…?
  • Probing questions invite a deeper examination. Can you describe how…?
  • Analytical questions look for the roots of a problem. What are the causes of…?
  • Clarifying questions help align and avoid misunderstandings. So, you mean that..?
If students have trouble with brainstorming or coming up with an idea or question for an invention or innovation, here is an exercise from Invent Iowa’s former site that can help. Have students pick one item from each column and see what interesting inventions they come up with. After they get the hang of it, have students add additional words to each column to create even more choices. You can also extend this activity by having students write the inquiry question for the invention/innovation they develop. For instance, the innovation “Furniture that reduces the dangers for small children” might prompt an inquiry-based question of “How can furniture be developed to make sure young children are both comfortable and safe?”


Discovery Education’s Spotlight on Strategies series includes multiple activities that can support students as they are learning how to develop an inquiry-based question. Here are two of them.
Spotlight on Strategies: Connect-Extend-Challenge
“Connect-Extend-Challenge is a teaching strategy that requires students to identify background knowledge, new learning, and fresh challenges. When students think critically about where information falls on their spectrum of learning, they are supported as they make connections and build understanding.”
“Spotlight on Strategies: Connect-Extend-Challenge.” Discovery Education, Discovery Education, 2015,

Spotlight on Strategies: Circle of Viewpoints
“Circle of Viewpoints is a teaching strategy that provides a structure that allows students to consider a topic, text, or event from multiple viewpoints. Students practice identifying a character or object within a piece of multimedia and imagining what its thoughts or opinions might be.”
“Spotlight on Strategies: Circle of Viewpoints.” Discovery Education, Discovery Education, 2015,



How do you teach students to create inquiry-based questions? What Discovery Education SOS strategies do you use to support student questioning? Do you have a particular model you use (or have developed) to target the empathize component of the design thinking process? Please share on Twitter! #kathyskatch