“Fat” vs. “Skinny” Questions: Are you asking the right ones?

In a recent blog post on ways to encourage good questions, a teacher and his students reflected on the many different types of questions and what makes some better than others.  As part of this conversation, students discussed the difference between “skinny” questions, those that require a one word or yes/no answer, and “fat” questions, which contain more depth of thought and broaden students’ thinking skills.

In today’s academic world, the emphasis on preparing students for standards testing often means more and more classroom time spent drilling facts, and as a result our questions are getting skinnier and skinnier.

In everything we teach, our students need to be exposed to a healthy mix of both “skinny” and “fat” questions… skinny to reinforce what they’ve learned and solidify factual knowledge, and richer, fatter questions to help clarify their thinking and stretch their creativity.

This week, give yourself a weigh-in and notice the kinds of questions you ask your students.  Are you presenting a healthy balance of “skinny” and “fat” questions, or could your inquiries use some more depth?  Try fattening up “skinny” questions by adding words like “describe” or “explain why.”

As a reminder, print a list of prompts to keep by your desk. Better yet, post these on the wall and encourage students to use these in their own conversations!

Try These:

  • “Do you agree with…”
  • “What would happen if…”
  • “What do you mean by…”
  • “How did…”
  • “What caused…”
  • “Why did…”
  • “How would you feel if…”
  • “Explain what you’re thinking…”
  • “What do you notice about…”
  • “What if…”

Do you have helpful prompts to add to this list, or thoughts on asking good questions in the classroom? Please share by commenting here!

3 thoughts on ““Fat” vs. “Skinny” Questions: Are you asking the right ones?

  1. Heather Marvin

    I think it’s really important to look at the types of questions we’re asking kids in the classroom. However, as I am currently working with a middle school girl with an eating disorder, I do object to using the terms “fat” and “skinny.” There is enough emphasis on fat and skinny in society already without using those phrases in our teaching. What about calling them “broad” and “narrow” questions? Fat and skinny mean only one thing to preteen girls. Let’s encourage the kids to think rather than draw their attention to words with such physical connotations.

  2. Charlotte Post author

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, and for pointing out the importance, and potentially harmful impact, of the terminology we use. What I found particularly interesting reading discussions from other teachers, is that for once we are ENCOURAGING kids and ourselves to aim for the “fat,” and for just one instance the negative connotations society has for this term are reversed… just an observation, but I do understand how sensitive and loaded these terms are and would love to brainstorm other ideas.
    I like your suggestion to tweak this to broad/narrow, I’ve also heard open/closed, I’m curious whether anyone else has other terms for the types of questions they use on the classroom?

  3. Amanda

    Hey Heather/Charlotte,

    I’d agree with Heather that fat/skinny could potentially further irritate a sensitive subject matter. Open/closed seems to be the more commonly used terminology for this I’d say.

    But moving on, I looked at this post because I was interested in what I thought was potentially a nutrition and exercise based post, which I’d love to hear more about btw. As a health & fitness professional working with children, it’s obvious to me that there is an over-whelming lack of support for sports and nutritional education in schools, which is why we have weight issues to start with. Exercise increases blood and therefore Oxygen to the brain, causing you to retain more information when you’re studying, especially in the hours directly after exercising. Aside from the obvious physical benefits of exercise for youths, it can also help reduce ADD and ADHD symptoms in some cases. I’m no doctor, but surely exercise beats medicating.

    Just thought I’d share. Thanks Charlotte for your continued research and posts on these great teaching subjects. I’ve really been enjoying your posts recently and find them really helpful :)

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