Why do we spend so much time evaluating how well students can answer questions, yet spend virtually no time at all teaching them how to ask them?
Questions are the keys to knowledge. The ability to frame questions to access knowledge, to think critically and exercise judgement are key intellectual tools which can adapt to any workplace. The best we can predict about the future of the youngsters we are educating today is that their future jobs are unpredictable. Learning subject content will no longer be enough when no one can be certain which content of all will be relevant in their adult lives. Surely, we need to teach students to frame powerful questions now, more than ever!
When teachers ask the questions they control the direction, the pace and the scope of what is to be covered. In setting up a new course of study teachers actually learn a lot themselves by going through the process of inquiry, research, sifting and structuring information, and pulling out the fundamental questions around which to base assessments. By this stage all the interesting creative decisions have been made and all the student is left with is to copy the notes, answer the worksheets and study this regurgitated pap for the test; basically to color in the spaces in a endeavor which is as akin to genuine intellectual activity as painting by numbers resembles creative artwork.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have done as much of this kind of teaching as the rest, but the longer I do this job the more I realize that the real learning is in the struggle, in the preparation, and that if I am to help my students and equip them with the useful skills they will need for life, I need to make them apprentices in this process, and teaching the skill of asking questions is the first step.
In my classroom we have always traditionally begun units of study in science and social studies with group brainstorming sessions, charting what we know and what we would like to learn about the new topic; what is known in the trade as a K.W.L. Chart. However, students’ questions can often be quite limited as they use a “who, what, where, why, how” approach. This year an inspirational colleague, David Nelson, introduced me to the work of The Right Question Institute, and I began to realize that I could teach my students to ask much better questions.
One important factor to writing better questions is to provide a well thought out “question focus”, which can be a keyword, a phrase or a statement. This is written on chart paper and groups of students are asked to silently generate all the questions they can around this idea for about 5 mins. The only rules are to keep on writing until the time is up and not to comment, criticize or attempt to answer others’ questions. The next step is to identify open and closed questions, and to practice changing the open questions to closed questions and vice versa.
Following this plan, we wrote questions around the question focus of a “mystery explorer” before students began their research into a specific explorer of their choice. We repeated the exercise with a “mystery element” question focus before researching specific elements. These pre-research questioning sessions allowed the students to flesh out the breadth of inquiry they would need to pursue in order to give a well rounded account of their chosen subject. Certainly I could see the depth and quality of the students’ questions improving as they became more experienced in asking thoughtful questions, and they found this activity really interesting and engaging.
What I did not do, and plan to do next year, is to go through the process of prioritizing and organizing these questions with the students and have them create the research guide sheet from their own questions. At this stage in my own learning, it is still a challenge for me to truly honor the students’ questions and allow them to authentically steer the research process. If anyone reading this has experience in this area, I would be very grateful if you would contribute a comment below.