A More Beautiful Question

(A follow up post to The Wonder Wall 2.0)

Inquiry is a way of approaching classroom learning not a box to check off in a long list of classroom “to do’s”. I think the quote is mine but I have done so much reading lately that I may well have appropriated it without realizing it. This post is a reflection on my year as we draw to a close, in which we imperfectly inquired and I learned as much as my students, although we learned decidedly different things.

(A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger, P214)

There is a false impression that when teachers engage students in inquiry all we are doing is a free for all, unplanned, lesson. This is not the truth; what I may have written in the day book is short hand for the deep planning we’ve already done. Planning for worthwhile tasks leads to a day book entry that just says “ask questions” but that doesn’t mean that there was not deep, careful planning before undertaking inquiry with students or careful scaffolding of the skills both the teacher and the students need. In inquiry-driven instruction the teacher must “be willing to give up control to allow for more questioning” (Berger, p6)

What if we brainstormed in questions instead of answers?

Berger quotes John Seeley Brown in that “‘what if…’ questions tend to free up the imagination because they allow you to see things other than as they currently are.” The following questioning process by Rothstein and Santana for K-12 classrooms (p65) proposes an interesting process for guiding questions towards those most worthy of spending real time investigating:

I have attempted to use the process with my students together with a guide for asking more interesting questions, which I originally learned of from @frank_ferrante:

Google “question chart” and you’ll find lots of tips on this, where the green questions are level 1, the red level 2, the blue level 3 and the purple level 4 (careful not to equate these with the 1, 2, 3, 4 on CBE’s current report card), but I’m still attempting to track down the original source. (For the record, can we state Pinterest makes it really hard to track down original sources?!)

We have been using the chart to help create questions but I have been finding that questions become a little forced that way as every student aims to ask a million dollar question. A better way to use it might be to ask authentic questions as they occur to students and then to sort them out into where they fall. Berger suggests having students work with their questions to boil them down to what it really being asked. Open the closed questions. Close the open questions. Sort them and group them until students determine what it is that is really worth the effort to pursue.

It has been interesting to watch my students become questioners and to watch them interact with one another’s questions. It has become common for students to state that they “think they know the answer to that question” and to back up how it is that they know it. The metacognitive piece has been an interesting bit to grow with students – and yes, they sure do know the word “metacognitive” and “distributed cognition” – will they remember it in a year’s time? I doubt it. But I hope the habit of questioning and of thinking about thinking sticks with them.

Berger suggests that questioning “why” without “what if” and “how” is just complaining and that to move toward actionable questions and research that questions move to “why, what if, how”. This has been a habit we have tried to develop especially in our science work lately to make for rich “maker challenges” in which students are really thinking about the why of their work.

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