Question posing

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A problem:

Schools don't teach how to ask good questions. Which is a shame, because good questions are magic.

They're hard to ask, though! To ask a good question, you have to understand what you know and what you don't know, and stand on the very edge. A good question transforms a cloud of unknowing into a tool. A good question directs your emotions toward finding an answer.

Posing a good question isn't easy. It's hard to ask big questions, hard to ask specific small questions, hard to ask solvable questions.

In fact, questions of any sort only come into schooling in a limited way. Students ask questions in school, of course, but often just at the periphery — when they really don't understand what the teacher just said, and feel bold enough to admit it. But great learning is powered by questions.

Our basic plan:

Every day, students collect their observations, questions, and stray hunches into a special idea-journal they have (for now, dubbed a "commonplace book").

Once a week, the class meets to share the questions they'd most like to pursue. In that meeting, students evaluate their questions — are they open-ended, or close-ended (for example, could they be answered with a single word?)? Are they factual, interpretative, or evaluative?

In the meeting, the class chooses a handful of questions that they'd most like to pursue.

(For how, specifically, the class might pursue the questions, look forward to the next post! It'll be epic.)

Our goals:

Our hope is for students to get good at recognizing what they don't know.

We hope that recognizing that they swim in mystery might make them much more curious about everything.

We hope that wielding the ability to control questions will give students control over their learning.

We hope that giving students a regular chance to share their questions (and explain their findings) might cultivate a community of passionate learners — something like that which is depicted in Raphael's famous School of Athens.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Walking into our classroom, you might notice students furiously scribbling notes in their commonplace books whenever a question pops into their head — as they study a ficus tree's roots, say, or watch the opening to Casablanca.

Some specific questions:

  • I'm imagining this question-meeting as being once a week — but I wonder if there's a value in doing something once a month, as well. Maybe we could set a theme for the month, or set some broader questions.
  • Initally, I imagine that the teacher will lead the question-meeting, but eventually it'd be great to have students try taking it over.
  • When would be the best day to have our question-meeting — the first day of the week (Monday), or the last day of the week (Thursday)? The easy answer is Monday, but I wonder if letting the questions mull for a weekend might be cool. (Also, students could research the question on Friday, our "school day off".)

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA