Part 1

Questions and Learning

By Melvin Freestone, September 2012.

Generative questions are gateways to inquiry, focus questions shape learning and explorative questions direct learning.  Each type of question has a particular value, role and function in learning.  When they are used in combination, they become powerful and empowering beyond words.

By way of analogy – generative questions paint the big picture, focus questions provide the colour and texture, and explorative questions give the detail.  An artist looking at or creating a work of art sees the overall picture at the same time as the detail and nuance.

What are generative questions like?

Generative questions are open-ended and challenging with multiple answers and lines of inquiry.  Theybuild on previous experience and interests, identify relevant prior knowledge and understanding, open up areas for exploration and investigation, focus thinking without cutting off possibilities, promote diverse ways of learning, and integrate learning across different fields.

Generative questions can be applied in all fields of learning as the examples illustrate.

  • Who cares about air and why?
  • What’s the strongest bridge we can make from the pages of a newspaper?
  • In how many different ways can we make up the number 144, 14.4 and 1.44?
  • In what ways could we use the idea of ‘pattern’ to create Art works?
  • How might computer graphics best be incorporated into our multimedia production?
  • What metaphors could we use to help us design a city?
  • In what ways could we reconstruct the fable, the fairy story, the fanciful happening…  ?
  • How might we produce literature that would encourage people to act on ‘climate change’?
  • In what ways are cultures and ethical issues affecting research activity in agriculture?

Questions like these open up learning and as such act as gateways for inquiry.

What are focus questions like?

Focus questions shape learning.  They represent loci around which connections can be made and understandings of the world can be constructed.  Each focus question in the set that follows has been labeled with a key word.  Which one is, or ones are, appropriate for a particular inquiry depends on the subject matter, the purposes behind the inquiry and the learning needs of learners.

  • How is it changing?

Change is the process of movement from one state to another.  It is universal and inevitable.  The key word is Change.

  • What is our responsibility?

People are not passive observers.  They must make choices and in so doing can make a difference.  The key word is Responsibility.

  • What is it like?

Everything has a form with recognisable features which can be observed, identified, described and categorised.  The key word is Form.

  • How does it work?

Everything has a purpose, a role or a way of behaving which can be investigated.  The key word is Function.

  • Why is it like it is?

Things do not just happen.  There are causal relationships at work and actions have consequences.  The key word is Causation.

  • How is it connected to other things?

We live in a world of interacting systems in which the actions of any individual element affect others.  The key word is Connection.

  • How is it ethical?

Ethical reasoning focus attention on the worth of values, ideas and actions and their implications in particular situations.  The key word is Ethical.

 Focus questions are ‘through-lines’ for learning and going on learning throughout life.  Change, responsibility, form, function, causation, connection and ethical – are so fundamental as to be ‘building blocks’ around which learners can cluster the connections they make and thereby construct their understandings.  In this way they can build dynamic networks of connections in their minds: networks that are continually changing with emerging experience and as different patterns and relationships become apparent.

How do explorative questions work?

Explorative questions direct action.  They make it easy for learners to see the kind of thinking required and what they need to do.  A sample of explorative questions addressed by learners at different stages in pursuing the generative question – Who cares about air and why? – follow.

  • Defining Issues

> What are the critical elements involved in maintaining and improving of air quality?

> Why is air quality important?

  • Gathering Information

> What are the most relevant Internet sites we can research to find out about air quality?

> How could we design experiments to test air quality?

  • Devising Alternatives

> In what ways could air quality be improved in outdoor and indoor environments?

> What options for looking after our air quality would be most effective and why?

  • Drawing Conclusions

> Are there any patterns or trends in the information we have collected?

> What is the best explanation of and solution for different problems affecting air quality?

  • Making Judgements

> Can we prioritise actions and their consequences to improve air quality?

> How might we include the steps in our thinking in the PowerPoint or brochure on preventing air pollution?

  • Being fair-minded

> What steps should we take to determine bias and detect false information?

> Were the procedures we used balanced and reasonable?

In ’learner led’ education the questions that really count are those that asked by students.  Avalanches of teacher questions, which have been so prevalent in past practices, followed almost in the same breath by teachers providing the answers needs to be confined to the annals of history.

Wouldn’t it be terrific if learning programs were transformed around questions that resonate with learners and at the same time are derived from the values, understandings, concepts, and skills needed for life and work in modern societies?  Given the current state of the art of education, such an outcome would seem to many people to be just another pipe-dream.  May be one day it might be a different story.

To go to part 2 of the series, click here.
Part 2 Questions and Direction