Questions and Questioning Frameworks

Thanks to the lovely Karen Bonnano and her company Eduwebinar, I was invited to present a webinar focusing on questions and questioning frameworks for inquiry learning. Having had the opportunity to teach Inquiry Learning as part of the Master of Education course at QUT last year, I was more than happy to spend time discussing this central feature of learning.

You don’t learn unless you question—but we often don’t teach our kids to question; we teach them to answer our questions, forcing them to learn facts and skills.
But since we may not know what facts or skills that kid’s going to need in the future, what you really want is to empower them to be able to find their own answers when they need them.
Joi Ito

The importance of having students ask questions throughout their learning is often overlooked. In fact, often it is the teacher asking the questions, while the students are expected to provide the answers! This model was useful when it was important that we held a significant amount of content knowledge in our heads, because everyday life meant that when we needed it, we probably wouldn’t be close by to an information source. How rapidly things have changed!

Before the internet, information was scarce. It was something that parents, teachers and adults carried with them, and which they shared with children. It was also accessible in libraries. I remember how lucky I was, having encyclopedias and dictionaries at home, so when I needed to find something out – the geography of a country, or how to spell a word – I could go to these sources and find the answer. Each evening, my parents rushed to turn on the news bulletin on television, and woe betide if we interrupted their viewing during this time! If Mum and Dad missed the news headlines on television, they may tune in to a radio broadcast, or perhaps read about it in the newspaper the next day – but otherwise, world and local current events remained unknown.

Today, information is abundant. We can almost say we have too much. A 24/7 news cycle, coming through multiple media, presented from multiple perspectives. Content created by every individual who has Facebook or a YouTube channel. We don’t have to travel to the library to research – we can just pull out our phone and access a world of information from more sources that any library ever possessed. And this information changes fast. What was known and considered correct yesterday may no longer be so. According to Sam Arbesman, who published The Half-life of Facts in 2013  in physics, about half of all research findings will be disconfirmed within 13 years – in psychology, this reduces to seven years. So basically, seven years after you complete your psychology degree, about half of what you learnt is now considered inaccurate.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have to learn any content knowledge – there is a lot of information that is fairly stable, and you do need to have an understanding of the foundation of a topic before you can interrogate and inquire effectively. However, now that we can access so much information so quickly,  some of the time that was previously spent focusing on content, can now be applied  to developing the skills of inquiry, so that students can keep on learning and staying on top of changing knowledge and information once they leave school. And because of the increasing number of ways that we can explore and investigate and continue our learning, the skills of inquiry are becoming increasingly complex.

One of these skills of inquiry is questioning. We all know how to ask questions – in fact, the younger you are, the better you may be (or the more persistent!). In fact, in a study conducted by Dr Sam Wass, developmental cognitive psychologist, children ask approximately 73 questions on average a day, peaking at age 4. Why does that peak seem to coincide with the beginning of school?   Students today need to understand how to effectively question information from a variety of sources. Fortunately,  there are a number of questioning frameworks that teachers can explicitly embed into their teaching to help students develop these skills.

Types of Questions & Question Frameworks

This post will address a variety of different types of questions and questioning frameworks, and explore when these are most appropriately used within inquiry learning.

Often, we begin new units of work with questions and questioning, but then the focus is directed away from investigating and asking questions and towards providing content and ‘covering’ the curriculum. As time pressures and the expectations of stakeholders take an increasingly stronger hold, it can be difficult to maintain a questioning approach, as it seems to take so much longer. However being aware of the different ways questioning may be used throughout the inquiry can help keep that curiosity alive, and can allow opportunities for students to interrogate their learning without going way off track.

In this post, we willl look at:

Generative questioning frameworks – to stimulate students capacity to question

Essential questions/big questions –  to frame the inquiry

Generic questioning frameworks – to inform the learning process 

Process questions – to keep the process moving

Disciplinary questions – to direct contextual learning and….

Critical questions – to evaluate what is discovered.

By looking at different questioning frameworks, and by identifying how they fit within the entire process of inquiry, it is easier to stop and think,

How am I offering my students the opportunity to question at different stages of the inquiry process?

Generative questioning frameworks

Sometimes kids don’t ask questions because they don’t know how to… or perhaps they are not used to doing the asking. How often have you asked students to think of some questions prior to commencing some research or before a guest speaker appears only to be greeted by blank faces and an empty silence?

Generative questioning frameworks help students learn how to pose questions, the role of different types of questions and how to question effectively. Here are several strategies for helping students generate their own questions.

Question Formulation Technique

Have you ever felt overwhelmed at the beginning of an assignment, because you feel as though you don’t even know the right questions to ask? There is so much information, and you can’t even decide what you need to find out first.

The question formulation technique was designed by The Right Question Institute in Massachusetts. It doesn’t just help students formulate questions, it also helps them to improve the quality of their questions, and shows them how to prioritise their questions, which helps with their research.

The Question Formulation Technique includes the following steps:

      • Design a question focus
      • Produce questions.
      • Work with closed-ended and open-ended questions.
      • Prioritize questions.
      • Plan next steps.
      • Reflect.

You can read about these stages in more detail in this comprehensive guide on the QFT – it opens as a PDF document for easy printing.

Wonder Walls

Wonder Walls are commonly used at the beginning of inquiries to gather what students already know or want to know about a particular topic. The unfortunate thing about Wonder Walls is that it is all too easy to create a fantastic collection of questions at the beginning of the investigation, and then never return to them again! If you are going to use a Wonder Wall, make sure it is a living document or artefact – that more questions are added as the inquiry reveals them, that questions that are resolved are annotated, and that students have an opportunity to regularly explore the questions, to see whether the inquiry is still following the original plan, or whether it has moved onto another tangent (which may or may not be ok!). A Wonder Wall is also a fantastic reflection tool when the inquiry comes to a close – were all the questions answered? What remained unanswered, and why is this so? What new questions are there now?

A Wonder Wall can be a physical pinboard in the classroom, but it can also be a digital pinboard. The digital version is terrific for ongoing annotation, asynchronous dialogue and very useful if the classroom is shared by many others, as often happens in secondary school spaces. Here’s an example below, created using Padlet.

The Question Quadrant

A question quadrant is another way of learning about questions. Phil Cam was the original developer of the quadrant.

It can be used to distinguish closed and open questions related to a text, or it can be used to organise questions that underpin an inquiry.

Click to access a terrific blog post by Sonya Ter Borg from which this image was reproduced (with permission) .

The example above, reproduced with permission from Sonya Ter Borg  relates to Harry Potter – and the questions used in this example also remind me of the Four Resources Model by Freebody and Luke – code breaker, text participant, text user and text critic. This could be an interesting angle to adopt for more sophisticated question formulation for older students doing literature research. Read more about this model here.

Once you have generated a list of questions, use the quadrants to help sort out what type of questions they are, and where you need to go to find the answers.

Further information on the Question Quadrant is detailed in this article, but in summary:

  • Quadrant 1 are closed textual questions. Here, there is an answer to the question, and through applying comprehension skills to the text, it can be discovered.
  • Quadrant 2 are open textual questions. Here students must speculate, or draw inferences from the text provided to answer the questions in a way they feel is justified.
  • Quadrant 3 are closed intellectual questions. These questions are based on factual knowledge that can be sought from an expert or other information source.
  • Quadrant 4 are what Camm calls inquiry questions – these are mostly what we might describe as big or fertile questions for inquiry.

Essential Questions

Often used at the beginning of an inquiry to stimulate or frame the research, essential questions address the big ideas, and have no obvious/simple solution. Essential questions are sometimes considered ‘non-google-able’ – you cannot simply plug the question into a search engine to find the answer! Essential questions engage or ‘hook’ the students  by challenging what they think or by provoking them to take a different perspective.

Wiggins and McTighe say that:

Instead of thinking of content as stuff to be covered, consider knowledge and skill as the means of addressing questions central to understanding key issues in your subject.
Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Essential Questions: Doorways to Understanding.

There are 7 characteristics of essential questions. They:

  1. Are open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  2. Are thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  3. Call for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  4. Point toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  5. Raise additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  6. Require support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. Recur over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.

To create essential questions, a first step is to consider the following:  If the content you are expected to teach represents “answers,” then what questions were being asked by the people who came up with those answers?

Examples of essential questions are

  • Must heroes be flawless?
  • What should we fear?
  • Who is entitled to own what?
  • What makes writing worth reading?

Generic questioning frameworks

These frameworks are probably familiar to all teachers. They are generic in that they apply to many different parts of the inquiry. They help students initiate their inquiry (the KWL and the first half of the KWH LAQ), to move the inquiry along (7W&H) and to reflect upon completed inquiries and find new inquiry cycles to investigate (the final three in the KWH LAQ). What is useful is to have these questions visible around the classroom and to use them regularly to create a question rich environment – not just something you might do at the beginning and end of an inquiry, but at various points throughout the process also.

Process Questions

Process questions take the generic questioning frameworks and flesh them out in line with particular inquiry models.

There are a number of different inquiry models, but most of them follow the same general pattern:

  • Identifying what is to be investigated
  • Finding the sources for research
  • Selecting, sorting and interpreting the information needed to form a response
  • Presenting the response
  • Reflecting on the process, taking action based on the results of the inquiry, and generating new areas of study based upon the findings of the inquiry.

In each of these stages, questions help to guide students, and to focus them within that particular phase. The complexity of the questions depends upon the openness of the inquiry and how sophisticated the student’s inquiry skills are.

Although these inquiry models are presented in a linear fashion, they are not lockstep – often students may find themselves returning to previous stages, and spending different amounts of time in each stage. The process questions are useful to keep students on track and to prompt students if they are starting to feel overwhelmed or ‘lost’ in the research process.

Disciplinary questions

Disciplinary questions direct contextual or situated learning. Each discipline or subject will constitute a distinctive way of thinking about the world. This is reflected in the type of questions that are asked, and it is important that if designing an inquiry which is situated within a specific discipline that the questions align and use that disciplinary language.

The Australian Curriculum gives us insight into this language when it describes the concepts that students are introduced to to develop thinking in the different disciplines.

For example, geographical thinking focuses on concepts such as place and space – leading to spatial questions such as where is it located, or what are the consequences of its location?, the significance of the environment – inspiring questions about environmental management, interconnection – exploring how the actions of one feature influence characteristics or processes within different environnments,  cartographic – mapping and measuring of place and space and sustainability – how a range of factors including demographics, economics, politics etc influence decisions about sustainable practices.

To develop historical thinking, questions are framed around the evidence that may be drawn from a primary or secondary source, as well as concepts such as continuity and change, cause and effect, the significance of historical events, perspective-taking, empathy and contestability.  So questions focus on questions such as who created the historic site or source, what was their point of view or position in society? How would this source/site be different if it was created by a different group or person within that society? Who was the intended user or audience for this site or source? How does this influence what we can discover?

The focus of the discipline directs the type of questions and how they are posed. The inquiry learning guru Kath Murdoch has created this fantastic document on questions, which includes a huge list of disciplinary-based questions. It’s a PDF, so it’s easy to print!

Critical questions

Critical evaluation of information is essential, and is growing in importance as we encounter more and more information from an increasing range of sources. I have written previously about the need for critical literacy here, and here and here! In this post, we focus on how we can use questioning as part of helping students develop their critical thinking skills.

The GeSTE Windows is a framework developed by Dr Mandy Lupton, and it has several uses within inquiry and information literacy teaching. One use of these windows is to help us gain a deeper understanding of how critical questions may be formulated.

The GeSTE Windows model gives us four different ways to view critical questions. The first is what most of us are familiar with, and this is generic critical evaluation.

Questions formulated through the Generic window focus on the accuracy and credibility of the information and the authority of the author. We have lots of tests that we can use to assess this, some of which you may have heard of:

  • The CRAP test (Currency, Reliability, Authority and Purpose)
  • CARS (Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness Support)
  • SMELL (Source, Motivation, Evidence, Logic, Left Out)

Unfortunately, when it comes to evaluation of information, often we skim over these generic strategies and go no further. The Windows model helps to extend our critical evaluation to deeper levels. The windows present a hierarchy of increasing complexity. Mandy has written extensively on her blog about using the GeSTE model for critical evaluation of information.

The Situated window incorporates the generic window, so someone using the situated window will also be aware of and use the Generic strategies where needed. The Situated window overlays the generic strategies of critical evaluation with a disciplinary lens. For example, when looking at a map, using the situated window may mean examining the context in which the map is presented, or perhaps the background of the cartographer – what were the political and historical drivers for the map to be drawn?

The Transformative window embeds both the Generic and Situated windows, and goes on to ask who benefits from the information being evaluated? Who is speaking? What are alternative arguments? It explores the socio-cultural perspectives inherent in the information. So rather than just asking generic questions such as is this information credible, it digs deeper, to ask what is the purpose of this website, or what assumptions about the audience does this website make?

The Expressive window sits alongside the Transformative, and is focused on aesthetic judgements and reflections on feelings. So evaluative questions through the expressive window focus on the self – how does this information make me feel? Does this information enrich, excite or inspire me, is it worth my attention?

Having the GeSTE Windows frame critical questions offers depth to analysis that challenges students and provides opportunities to see information from different perspectives.

So ask yourself…

How do I use questions in my teaching?

Do my students ask questions?

Do questions flow throughout my teaching  or only at the beginning of the journey?

And finally….

Do you have any questions for me?

If you do, drop me a line in the comments below; I’d be glad to continue the conversation!

3 thoughts on “Questions and Questioning Frameworks”

  1. I can’t wait to share aspects of this to my school. We are taking part in a massive research program at the moment to really improve outcomes. My part in it is to try and see where IL or PBL can be introduced to deepen student understanding and engagement. This is a great place to start.

    1. It sounds like you and your school staff are doing wonderful things- I look forward to following your progress!

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