You often hear that it's a good idea to ask questions that make people think, especially children and young people [1]. But why should parents and teachers ask these questions? What are these thinking questions (sometimes called thought-provoking questions)? How can you ask them effectively? In this extensive article, we will provide answers to these questions.

Picture of a generated questionmark (in creative style)

The Benefits of Asking Thinking Questions

Having engaging conversations and asking questions that challenge and inspire can be beneficial for various reasons. Although not always scientifically proven, research suggests that asking thought-provoking questions can lead to:

  • Developing, refining, and sharpening ideas and perspectives.
  • Encouraging people to think about things they may not often consider, especially teenagers.
  • Reflecting on one's own assumptions.
  • Considering the validity of claims and the value of facts.
  • Reflecting on possible future consequences.
  • Encouraging creativity.
  • The ability to discover new things/
  • The ability to challenge oneself intellectually.
  • Realizing the potential for intellectual growth.

What are thought-provoking questions?

But what are thinking questions exactly? These are questions that encourage thinking and ideally take thinking to a deeper level [3]. Some authors also call these thought-provoking questions, but not everyone agrees on this point [4].

It's helpful to distinguish three kinds of thinking questions:

1. Main Questions / Research Questions / Theme Questions
2. Starting Questions
3. Follow-up Questions

Let me explain.


Normally, a conversation or discussion will be about a particular topic. Usually this will be a topic on which those involved differ, but this can also be a topic that it is interesting to explore together (or with a class).You can think of these topics as the main questions you want to answer (collectively or not).

You can think of topics related to society, like abortion, euthanasia, faith, terrorism, vaccinations, and more. Alternatively, you can explore lighter subjects, such as school-related topics or personal themes (social media, smartphones, TV, studying, etc.). It can also be very rewarding to have a good conversation about these topics (and trying to think better about these or to find common ground)

Within the realm of different types of knowledge, you often find three kinds of main thinking questions.


1.1. Descriptive Thinking Questions

These questions aim to understand the meaning of a particular concept. Classic Socratic questions fall into this category. For example:

  • What does justice mean to you?
  • How do you define courage?
  • What's a good student for you?
  • What does friendship mean to you?
  • What is freedom for you?
  • What is a virtuous life according to you?


More examples? Here you can find more than 150 socratic questions


1.2. Opinion-based Thinking Questions

These questions ask for someone's opinion. They often pertain to moral issues, where the focus is on what's morally right. For example:

  • How do you think about social media?
  • What's normal smartphone usage in your opinion?
  • What's a fair contribution from each family member?
  • To what extent is positive discrimination justified?
  • Can a constitutional state have the death-penalty?
  • When do you consider yourself a good student?
  • Why would you study a subject you're not interested in?

1.3. Advisory Knowledge Questions

These questions seek advice and require the person to think through a possible advice. They usually revolve around what action to take. These are typically requests for help that also involve a social aspect:

  • How would you handle a difficult teacher?
  • What should you do about lazy classmates you depend on?
  • How do you prefer to handle planning issues?
  • How would you approach [x]?
  • What kind of parent would you like me to be?


If you ask one of the above main questions right away, people (your students or kids) might look puzzled. The key is to start with a good starting question that's thought-provoking, clear, and relevant to the topic [5].

You can generate suitable starting questions in different ways:

  • Based on "thought keys" – starting with a question rooted in thought keys.
  • Using example questions – following the Socratic approach by asking for examples related to the topic.
  • Employing thought experiments – simple hypothetical questions, like "What if..."


For example, instead of directly asking, "What is justice?" you might begin with questions like:

- "Can you think of a situation where treating someone a certain way is always okay?
- "How do you feel about school? Do you think students are sometimes treated unfairly by teachers? Can you share examples?"
- "Imagine you're in charge of the school. What rules would you create?"


After a starting question has been answered, it's time to ask more questions that can be used for any topic or starting question. Various methods and techniques provide suggestions for follow-up questions. These may include:


  • Concept Questions / Clarity Questions
  • General Proof Questions about reasons and arguments
  • Questions for Examples
  • Purpose Questions
  • Questions about Alternatives
  • Questions about Consequences and Predictions
  • Questions about Assumptions
  • Questions about Possible Questions
  • Questions about Association and Similarity
  • Questions about the Conversation Itself


There is a special category of questions that encourage thinking about ourselves as thinkers [6]. In the most general sense: what does it mean to be a being that can think? These are like meta-thinking questions. They aren't meant to make us think about a particular topic but to ponder our own thinking. To get an idea of these questions, consider some of the following questions [7]:

  • What do I know?
  • How do I know if this is true?
  • Does uncertainty affect my thinking?
  • What am I curious about and why?
  • Is everything worth understanding?
  • What's the difference between perception and truth?
  • Are there any limits of my knowledge?
  • What do I do with the knowledge I acquire?
  • When is my belief justified?
  • In what way does / can my thinking differ from other people?

Remember that this list is not exhaustive. You can come up with many more questions to challenge your thinking.


Asking thoughtful questions and follow-up questions might take some practice. Here are some tips to help you:

  • Start with open questions. Open questions generally lead to more detailed answers and are usually better. However, don't hesitate to ask closed questions occasionally to encourage nuanced answers [8].
  • Avoid a quick judgment. Avoid rushing to judge others too soon. Begin by asking questions to understand them better. This can help you formulate the right thought-provoking questions.
  • Don't assume you know everything. Stay curious and open to the possibility that you don't know everything. Don't assume you have all the answers.
  • Encourage higher-order thinking. While thought-provoking questions inspire thinking, strive to make someone think more effectively. Use appropriate follow-up questions for this purpose.
  • Don't underestimate the value of a good starting question. A good starting question is essential. The quality of your question determines whether others want to engage in the conversation and ponder the topic.


Feel free to share your thoughts and additional questions (for example on X / Twitter). Engaging in meaningful conversations, particularly with teenagers, can be enlightening and encourage deeper thinking.




[1] See for example the work of professor Jolles in which he emphasizes the importance of open conversations with teenagers for their intellectual development. See for a start his TedX-talk.

[2] These questions can also be a valuable learning strategy, as discussed here.

[3] In educational and professional settings, questioning authority and professional judgment is often a priority.

[4] Sometimes, people use the term "higher-order thinking" when referring to thought-provoking questions. Bloom's taxonomy is one framework that makes this distinction. In this article, we primarily focus on asking positively critical questions.

[5] In practice, it's common to question the judgment of professionals. 

[6] These questions can challenge someone to think about themselves as a thinking individual, which is a kind of meta-thinking. The questions aren't meant to focus on a specific subject but rather to contemplate thinking itself. They can also be labeled as examples of epistemological questions.

[7] Terrell Heick has compiled an interesting list of thinking questions that can be used as a starting point for this category. This list is a valuable resource for understanding and using questions in this category.

[8] So too, for example, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana (Right Question Institute) in their Question Formulation Technique.