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When it comes to learning, especially inquiry-based learning, the trek always begins with a question. But the question is, what kind of question?
If we look at how education has evolved over the last few decades, we realize a few things. First, question quality in teaching is vital, because more straightforward answers are easier to find than ever. Second, our learners' instantaneous connection to the globe and its happenings through the Internet and social media has made them a) more aware, and b) more curious.
In the case of proper inquiry-based learning questions, we always begin with an essential question. Starting this way is how to ensure you provide your students with questions that will guide them in achieving the most valuable learning experiences possible.
What's in a Question?
In the modern age we live in, because of the above qualities our learners exhibit in the classroom, the role of the teacher has shifted to being a true learning facilitator, watching as students take the lead. Georgia Mathis echoes this perfectly in the Edutopia article The Power of Asking the Right Questions:
"Ultimately, a teacher's job is to light the way for her students, to guide them to their own path of discovery … the true art of teaching is to ask the right questions, become a thought partner (interaction during instruction), and then assist in students' discoveries."
In as much as we want our students to develop strong independent learning skills and a passion for lifelong discovery, we still must be there to nurture them as they take many of those steps. Gradually, we discern when it's time to give them room, and that will increase over time.
Eventually, it comes to the point where, when they leave school, they'll have the tools they need to think critically and view wisely, solve problems autonomously, and self-govern with complete confidence their abilities. By then, they won't need us anymore. Part of how we provide all this is encouraging healthy and proactive questioning behaviour.
In the modern age, the role of the teacher has shifted to being a true learning facilitator, watching as students take the lead.
How We Formulate Inquiry-Based Learning Questions
Once again, in inquiry-based learning, we focus on the quality of our questions. Essential and herding questions are the best to use because one of our goals as educators is ensuring our learners adopt a mindset of independent thought and action, and to show them how to take responsibility for their learning. Adopting healthy questioning behaviours is crucial to attaining this, and the more essential the question, the more impactful the teaching.
In our book Future-Focused Learning, we asserted that an essential question is a guiding question used to introduce learning, or as the basis of an inquiry. It may be that it is at the beginning of a lengthy unit of work, or it's a provocation for a single concept used in only one lesson. The point is that it is essential to learning.
The truth is that any question can go from non-essential to essential, and then give rise to more specific herding questions. In the article 2 Simple Things That Will Make Essential Questions Better Every Time, we indicate that one can achieve this by doing two simple things:
- Moving the question higher on Bloom's Taxonomy: This is about taking the question from simple recall to something that involves more in-depth analysis, evaluation, or even creating something to find an answer (these are the HOTS or higher-order thinking skills on Bloom's Taxonomy).
- Removing specificity: This is about removing focus. Although many students might love to discuss who is more of a hero, a policeman or fireman, an essential question would be "What is heroism?" The increasingly more specific issues that arise from this become your herding questions.
We then demonstrate this by using the following question: How can small actions eventually change the world?
Examples of an increasingly more essential question might be:
- Why should we change the world?
- How do we change?
- Why is change necessary?
- What is change?
More specific or herding questions from this might look like:
- What specific small actions could we take to change the world?
- How could this one specific action begin to create change?
- What could we do to begin making this one change?
- How would we know our efforts to change were becoming effective?
- What would make this one change even more powerful?
The truth is that any question can go from non-essential to essential, and then give rise to more specific herding questions.
How Questions Fit Into the Inquiry Process
Essential inquiry-based learning questions are the basis upon which the success of the entire journey of inquiry-based learning is dependent. If the leading question isn't strong enough, then the potential for impactful learning will suffer significantly.
We begin with a Global Concept, or the "big idea" behind the lesson. This is the broad overarching concept or higher purpose behind the inquiry, and it's from this that we develop our inquiry-based learning questions.
Consider what kinds of essential inquiry-based learning questions you could derive from these Global Concepts. What are some questions that would spark a learner's curiosity and make them want to discover more about:
- Digital Citizenship
- Global Conflict
- Natural Disasters
- Emotional Health
- Cultural Awareness
As the learning progresses around these and other expansive topics, more and more questions will surface that will lead learners back through the inquiry cycle. If you do it right, students will have questioned, explored, and discovered while you have addressed the curriculum by providing relevant personal connections to them. This is the secret behind ensuring students are motivated to learn and continue learning, through the cycle.
Explore these with colleagues in your professional network and share opinions and notions on devising great inquiry-based learning questions in your teaching.
- Why do we ask questions?
- What are essential and herding questions?
- Why are meaningful essential questions vital to learning?
- How do we encourage deep thinking in our learners?
- What is the difference between a non-essential question and an essential one?
- What are two basic strategies you can use for turning a non-essential question into an essential question?
- In what ways can both be used in successful learning?
- How would you develop herding questions from your essential question?
- How can we use questioning tactics to identify other learning opportunities?
- How can essential and herding questions help in the development of personalized learning?
The Question is the Thing
Ultimately, with a focus placed on asking the right inquiry-based learning questions, you can successfully:
- Facilitate students' independence and self-motivated learning
- Assist in discovery
- Support learning on an ongoing basis
- Assess learning effectively and mindfully
- Teach learners the value of questioning constructively
- Foster a passion for learning beyond the formative years
It's in your hands to give your learners the questions that will make their inquiry-based learning valuable, impactful, and memorable. Our book, The Essential Guide to Essential Questions, offers all the valuable resources and insights you need to make sure your inquiry-based learning questions hit the mark with engaging learners every time.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Nov 11, 2019, updated October 7, 2021