Generating the Right Question

Teachers spend hundreds of hours developing questions for students to answer. We come up with essential questions, comprehension questions, reflection questions, quiz questions, guiding questions, essay questions, and more. But what if, instead of teachers developing the questions, students did that work?

All eighth graders at my school write a research paper on a Civil Rights Hero. To prepare, students have examined primary texts using Facing History and Ourselves’ essential questions: “How do the choices people make, individually and collectively, shape a society?” and “How can individuals and groups in a democracy organize to correct injustice?” Usually, we use those questions as a jumping off point to begin our research and writing.

One of my classes, however, I knew would need a more step-by-step approach to the research process. As I conducted research to support their work, I found The Right Question Institute (suggested by my ever-thoughtful librarian), which suggests that “the ability to produce questions, improve questions and prioritize questions may be one of the most important-yet too often overlooked-skills that a student can acquire in their formal education.”

To jumpstart student thinking about what makes a good question, I taught “little questions” and “BIG questions.” I defined a little question as one that has only one right answer, and the answer is usually a “right there” kind of answer. BIG questions are those with longer answers that are debatable, in which the answer might be different for different people.

Big Questions v Little Questions Was MLK married? MLK Qualities

Then, we worked through a series of questions projected onto the whiteboard. Students stood up and yelled “BIG” if the question was a big question or stayed seated and whispered “little” if it was little. We went through six questions this way, and, after each question, students provided the reasoning for why they classified a particular question as BIG or little. Finally, students were given the opportunity to develop their own questions about our class and share them with the class. The class got to call out whether the questions were BIG or little.

Some gems include:

– Who has the longest tongue in our classroom? (little)

– Should our class win the most improved award for the work we are doing right now? (BIG)

– Why do we even come to school? (BIG)

– What’s for lunch? (little)

After the BIG/little mini-lesson, we practiced generating questions. Students, who already sit in groups of two or three, were given the statement: “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership created a safer America for people of color.” Then, they were to come up with as many questions as possible in four minutes. When the timer went off, student teams were still generating. I thought about giving them more time, but I wanted them to have that extra time on the real statement, so they “put their pencils down” and picked up a marker. With the marker, they sorted their questions into BIG and little. Then, they chose the best BIG question to share with their peers. We wrote the big questions up and, at the end, evaluated to make sure that they were all truly BIG. Their papers looked like this:

KJ Question Generation

Then, we began the question generation that would lead to the research we would do for our papers. I presented them with this statement: One person’s choices can change the way the whole world works.

And they generated.

I gave them the same four minutes on the timer, with the promise that they could have four extra if they needed them. They used all eight and came up with deep, thoughtful questions. The authenticity of this process brought them much more organically to the research phase and then, eventually, the writing phase.

Students generated these questions as groups and chose diverse activists to research in order to answer their own questions. For example, one group asked, “How can artists change the world?” Those girls did projects on Marian Anderson and Alvin Ailey, trying to put their collective finger on how change was made. Another group asked, “Which is more powerful, the spoken word or the written work?” and embarked on research comparing James Baldwin and Jesse Jackson. A third group asked, “Does it matter what age, race, or gender you are when you are making change?” They did research on Melba Patillo Beals, John Lewis, and Roberto Clemente.

Throughout the research process, students were talking to one another. Although they each turned in separate papers for individual grades, much of the conversation that they had to generate questions, ideas, research strategies, and conclusions took place in their small groups. And, when they were stuck, they always went back to their original question. They sat in their groups in the library, and the common, authentic questions propelled their conversations and their research forward.

CAH Library          SS Library

Through question generation, I saw a different, more organic engagement with the research process. Students understood what information they were looking for and why they were looking for it. Even the organization of the papers was more authentic because students were explaining the answer to a question that they generated.

Finally, I found that my ELLs and my students on Ed Plans were better able to develop thoughtful conclusions a) because they had spoken to one another to generate the question and b) because they were able to continue speaking with each other and comparing the results of their research to reach their conclusions. The result of these conversations was a deep connection to the topic, which was reflected in their final papers and their continued connection to the research topics.

One thought on “Generating the Right Question

  1. I love this idea! I can imagine your students standing up and yelling out “BIG!” My students are launching a research project on the conditions of workers in brands and industries of their choice! I am adding a lesson on questioning inspired by this post! Fabulous!


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