Teaching Students How To Ask Philosophical Questions

“Question asking… is a skill all-too-often undervalued in philosophy pedagogy and philosophy pedagogy research”

So writes Stephen Bloch-Schulman (Elon) in a recent post at the Blog of the American Philosophical Association, in which he reports on video-conference he held on the teaching of philosophical question-asking.

Observations from the video-conference include:

  • “How important teaching a single distinction is and how it can, if infused into subsequent dialogue, lead to sharper questions.”
  • “Categorizing types of questions is a useful way to help students get a handle on what can feel to them like an amorphous knack that some people have and others lack”
  • “One particularly useful strategy asked students to think from others’ perspectives to try to voice what others might ask in a particular circumstance.”

Professor Bloch-Schulman writes that, “In the end, there was little consensus about whether and to what extent we can teach, and ought to teach and grade, question-asking as a skill.”

Given the centrality of question-asking to philosophy, the relative neglect of this subject in the study of philosophical teaching is surprising. It would be useful to hear from those who have experience with or thoughts about teaching students to ask philosophical questions. What makes for a better or worse philosophical question and how do you convey this to your students? What assignments or exercises do you have students do in order to improve their question-asking skills? Are there particular readings you have found useful for prompting students to ask better questions?

Image: photos of “Question Mark” by Kumi Yamashita

Related: “The Intellectual Achievement of Creating Questions


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Martin Lenz
4 years ago

Here are some thoughts about questions, also linking to good advice from Sara Uckelman: https://handlingideas.blog/2018/09/27/brave-questions-a-response-to-sara-uckelman/

4 years ago

Is there a link to the video conference?

Doug Reed
Doug Reed
4 years ago

In an intro level course I teach on the philosophy of love, the first assignment (which is due after the first class meeting) is for students to articulate and explain at least five questions they have about love. In explaining the question, I tell them that the have to show why it is a genuine question, not easily answered or dismissed. Doing this requires that they consider good reasons for both sides of the answer (e..g, a strong reason why the answer to the question is ‘no’ and a strong reason why the answer is ‘yes’).

My results have been mixed, with some students asking and motivating good questions and others not so much. As an assignment I think it is good but flawed. Yet I keep it because I am inclined to agree with Socrates in ‘Theaetetus’: “For this is an experience which is characteristic of a philosopher, this wondering; here, and nowhere else, is where philosophy begins”. And I want to impress this on students early in their philosophy career.

Lani Watson
4 years ago

Hi Justin,

A colleague pointed me in the direction of your interesting post (thank you colleague).

My work is all about questions and teaching the skills involved in asking them. I don’t focus on teaching philosophical questions specifically but on the nature of questions, what it takes to ask good ones and avoid bad ones, and how and why we should teach this skill in schools and universities as well as in professional practice and business. If it’s of interest my websites are here:


Another great resource, which I have drawn on for my research and used in classrooms myself, is the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique. I have recently done some pilot research at my university (University of Edinburgh) with tutors using part of this technique in seminar discussions with philosophy undergraduates. It seems to have gone down well with them and the students so certainly worth a look although again this is not specifically a technique for teaching *philosophical* questioning.

FWIW, according to my account, asking good questions is partly about asking questions appropriate to context so if the context is philosophical then teaching the skills involved in asking good questions should naturally result in asking good philosophical questions.

I hope some of this is helpful. Happy to talk more as it’s always great to see other people thinking about this!

Lani Watson

Gary Bartlett
4 years ago

A few years ago I completely restructured my PHIL 101 classes in a way that put questions at the center of the class. For me this was a result of becoming familiar with the ‘Community of Inquiry’ approach that is typical in philosophy for children. I decided to apply that approach to PHIL 101. A common technique to kick off a CoI discussion is to have the participants put forward questions about whatever it is they’ve read, and then have them vote on which question to pursue. This is basically what I did. In order to make it work well for a college philosophy class I found that I needed to do quite a bit of work to help the students to recognize the difference between a _philosophical_ question, and other kinds (empirical, personal, semantic, trivial…).

I also followed the CoI discussions up with essay assignments that were similar to the kind of thing Doug Reed sketches above. These were my instructions for an initial Short Essay (which they had to master before moving on to a more advanced essay, which had a more traditional essay structure):

“You need to do three basic things in a Short Essay:
1. Clearly identify the question you’re writing on. Also, if the question is in any way ambiguous, make sure you explain what you are taking it to mean.
2. State at least two competing answers to the question, and give some reasons for both. You need to show that you understand that the question is one that reasonable people can disagree about, and that there are non-silly reasons in favor of more than one answer. Basically, avoid writing as if your preferred answer is the only possible answer or the only sensible answer.
3. Pick one answer and defend it – which means explaining its superiority to the other(s). Note that you must explain the superiority of your chosen answer, not just bluntly assert it. Your defense of your answer does not have to be watertight. Indeed, it’s very unlikely to be watertight! Your goal is just to make a reasonable case for your preferred answer.”

Joel Turnbull
Joel Turnbull
4 years ago

A common tool used in Community of Inquiry (COI) practice is the question quadrant (QQ). It is a helpful way to introduce students to the idea of philosophical questioning in a way that is very easy for them to grasp. A quick search will lead you to a variety of QQ diagrams to give you a sense of the distinctions. It isn’t a perfect taxonomy of questions, but it’s a good start for beginning students.