Good inquiry requires good questions. For several years I have explicitly taught my students how to ask good questions. Over time, my understanding of the art of questioning has changed, as I continue to learn how to help students create powerful and interesting research questions. As I see it, my understanding has had three stages (so far).
Initially, I simply discussed the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions. My students all knew the “Five Ws” (who, what, where, when, why and how sneaking onto the list). But in talking about how to ask questions, and the kinds of answers we’d likely get back, my students usually come to the recognition that not all open-ended questions are equally “open”. Although the questions “How many species of ant are there?” and “What would happen if there were no ants on Earth?” are both open-ended, the latter is much more difficult to answer, and therefore worthy of inquiry. Or, as one student put it, it is “opener”.
I have found it fascinating to note that every time I discuss open vs. closed questions, the class spontaneously plots the Ws according to their amount of “openness”, with who, where, and when deemed less open than how and what, and with why reigning supreme as the most open of all. This discussion is powerful: asking questions is the grammar of our curiosity.
Open and closed questions were exciting to talk about, but I felt I was really on to something amazing when I discovered Project Zero’s Visible Thinking Routines. One of the routines is this gem called Question Sort. Using this routine, questions are placed on two intersecting continuums according to how generative (roughly, how open or closed) and how genuine (or interesting) they are. I introduced the idea that some questions are fascinating, no matter if they are open or closed, while others we know to be very deep and complex, but we simply don’t care to find the answer (at this time). Using the Question Sort routine, my students would come up with a list of questions, and then have to plot them on the matrix. Invariably, disagreements would occur, and it can be really insightful to let them argue their case.
Currently, I have been exploring integrating the Question Sort with the PYP’s Key Concepts. I have (arbitrarily) assigned each concept a different colour of paper, and I have cut slips of paper roughly 1″ x 3.5″ (2.5cm x 9cm). Whenever students come up with a question, we discuss an categorize what key concept we feel it falls under, write them on the corresponding colour, and then plot it on the Question Sort. So, now when you look at the Question Sort, you are able to see not only how genuine or generative the question is, but also what kind of key concept. At first, my students are nervous about categorizing questions in this way, but they quickly gain confidence and skill. It does take an investment of time, but I have found the results powerful.