“There are never complete answers. Or rather, if there is an answer, it is to remind myself that there is uncertainty in everything.”” — Amy Tan
Over the last few years, a small but significant shift has occurred in many teachers’ practice in relation to “naming” a journey of inquiry for or with their students. For a long time, we delighted in coming up with fun, snappy titles for units of inquiry: “May the force be with you” (for an inquiry into force and motion); “Getting around” (an inquiry into transport); “Skin, scales, feathers and fur” (an inquiry into animals) and so on. While these titles were engaging in their own way, they were problematic. The classroom discourse was more about “doing” a topic rather than investigating. On asking students what they were actually inquiring into, it became clear that there was a divide between the perceived focus of the unit and the learning intentions the teacher had in mind. These units were most often thematic rather than deeply integrative; topic rather than concept based; narrow rather than broad and driven by activities rather than inquiry and understanding.
There are a number of strategies we can use to reframe a journey of inquiry so that the focus is conceptual and investigative. Identifying a powerful, overarching “big idea” is now more commonly used to identify the broader territory in which the inquiry exists. A big idea runs ‘through’ the learning journey and helps students (and teachers) see the connection between the specific tasks they are undertaking and a more substantial, enduring concept. Like the shades on a paint sample strip, student understanding gradually deepens over the journey. Clarifying the ‘big idea’ (or ideas) that drive an inquiry is a critical element in the planning process. In its development, teachers themselves become inquirers – thoughtfully identifying what lies beyond the “topic” – what significant, unifying and transferable ideas makes this learning journey worthwhile.
Another strategy I have found very useful over the last decade, is to devise (and display) a compelling or rich QUESTION to drive the inquiry. This doesn’t take the place of the big idea or understanding goal but can serve a similar function. The thing I most like about driving inquiry through a compelling question is the way it immediately positions that learning as an investigation. We are not “doing” – we are investigating. The journey of inquiry is about exploring this question and thinking about/responding to it in new ways. We know that the question will live on beyond our temporary findings. A compelling, overarching question invites many more questions to support it. This is where the thrill of inquiry teaching lies - we start out driven by an interesting and compelling question – but we don’t really know where that journey will take us.
Sharing or constructing a compelling question with students is a great way to activate prior thinking and experience before further investigation. The question travels the arc of the inquiry – being returned to again and again with new thinking, new perspectives. As students embark on the journey, I encourage them to walk the world with that question in their head – not trying to answer it as such but to use it as a kind of filter through which the information they gather and the experiences they have can be sifted, sorted and reflected upon. My ultimate aim, of course, is that this disposition - walking the world with questions in our heads - is something my students will embrace as a way of being. By framing teaching and learning through questions, I elevate the status of curiosity, I value the unknown and I emphasise learning AS inquiry.
This way of thinking about a driving question was really crystallized for me a few years ago when I listened to Amy Tan’s amazing 2008 TED talk on creativity:
“When I have the question, it is a focus and all these things that seem to be flotsam and jetsam in life actually go through that question….and what happens is that these things become relevant…you are noticing it more often”
Many educators have identified some of the key elements or characteristics of essential/powerful questions for inquiry. These include:
- The question can be investigated in multiple ways using a wide variety of sources
- The question invites multiple responses and perspectives
- The question connects to the world beyond me right now – it matters and is relevant
- There is ‘intellectual bite’ in the question – or it is unsettling and thought provoking.
- There concept/s within the question can be transferred to other contexts/situations even time periods.
I am so fortunate to work in a wide range of inquiry classrooms. This experience gives me an insight into compelling questions that ‘work’ for shared inquiry. I love seeing students tackle these questions across time and the increasing depth in which they respond to them as they explore. Over the next few weeks – I intend to ‘tweet’ a compelling question each day – something that may trigger an idea for inquiry or help some of you re-frame current units that might be constrained by ‘topics’ rather than opened up by big picture throughlines and compelling questions. Here are just a few examples:
What does it mean to be healthy?
Can war be justified?
Who’s got the power?
Why do we eat what we eat?
Are we more the same or more different?
How do we know if it is true?
What does it mean to belong?
What does it take to make?
How does where we live affect HOW we live?
Can art change us?
Do compelling questions drive inquiry in your classroom? What questions have worked for you?