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Open and Closed Questions


Over the last 4 years I have had the privelege of spending time in over 100 schools and have observed that many teachers are talking to their pupils about 'open' and 'closed' questions (sometimes labelled as 'fat' and 'skinny' questions). Now on the surface this seems fine, at least they are opening to students the concept of a range of question types. However there is an issue embedded in here that troubles me.

'Open is better than Closed' fallacy

I see and hear many teachers giving their students the message that 'open' questions are better than 'closed' questions.
This value judgement is, I believe, totally eroneous.

An effective question is the one that returns to the questioner the needed information.
Often a closed question is a very powerful tool.
Closed questions asist in a number of tasks like:
  • narrowing down an issue,
  • firming up a suspicion,
  • affirming an understanding,
  • identifying someone's position,
  • focusing on one aspect of a complex issue,
  • acquiring discrete items of information.

If our students are being given the message that 'closed' questions aren't as good as as 'open' ones we are doing them a dis-service and not empowering them as effective questioners for we are robbing them of a powerful tool.
We need to equip our students with a more complete understanding of questioning, with a range of questioning skills, and knowledge of a variety of question formats.