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Questions….Questions….Questions – Part 3

Part 3

Questions and Teaching

By Melvin Freestone, September 2012.

The role of teachers in ‘learner led’ education shifts to one of facilitator, coach, critical friend, manager, and where appropriate expert. In so doing they help learners to-

  • Connect with the subject matters deemed important for living and working in the twenty first century, including those set out by various curriculum authorities
  • Deepen their thinking and understanding within existing areas of experience as well as engage with new fields inquiry and endeavour
  • Make diverse connections within and between different ideas and practices, and thereby become more innovative and resourceful
  • Become independent and control their own learning without overlooking important issues, ideas, values and skills they need to explore and develop, and
  • Ground their learning in ‘real-life’ contexts and challenges related to their everyday lives.

The challenge for teachers is one of flexibility and agility in facilitating and managing learners to work individually and in groups of varying sizes, and to use available learning spaces well.  Directing learners to different sources, providing input and where appropriate direct teaching are just as important in ‘learner led’ education as they have been at any time in the past.

Focus questions can be used in increasingly sophisticated ways as learning proceeds.  A pattern of progressive development is outlined in the table.


Focus question

Progressive Development


Making simple connections around factual material and observations from investigations
Searching for explanations and discovering different combinations Exploring interrelationships, consequences, impacts and interventions as well as potential actions Extrapolating explanations, actions, interrelationships and consequences to different contexts
How is it changing? Change can be observed, examined and recorded Change in particular situations has causes and effects Change has consequences that can be predicted and impacts modified

Consequences and impacts of change can vary and be varied in different contexts

What is our responsibility? Actions by individuals and groups affect other people Choices can have positive and negative effects people and systems Informed choices require reliable information, balanced judgements and actions Principles for making balanced judgements and taking action vary in different contexts
What is it like? The features of ‘things’ can be observed and recorded Different aspects of ‘things’ and how they fit together can be explained Relationships between different aspects of ‘things’ can be explained and effects predicted Generalisations about form, structure and design can be applied in different contexts
How does it work? How different aspects of ‘things’ work together can be investigated How different ‘things’ interact with each other can be explained Interactions, sequences and mechanisms within ‘things’ can be explained and predicted Generalisations about the functioning of systems can be applied in different contexts
Why is it like it is? The consequences of ideas and actions can be observed and recorded Causes and effects can be explained and consequences predicted Analysis of causes and effects identifies the value of ideas, actions and means to intervene Generalisations about ‘cause and effect’ can be applied in different contexts and systems
How is it connected to other things? The connections between ‘things’ can be observed, mapped and recorded The way ‘things’ are connected explains their significance, impact and value Interactions within and between ‘things’ can be understood and appropriate action taken Generalisations about interrelationships between systems apply in many contexts
How is it ethical? The worth of things and the values and beliefs behind them can be described Values, cultures, and backgrounds affect how people think and act Values, beliefs and views on the worth of things can change with time and circumstance Generalisations around values-beliefs-worth help in understanding different communities

The range of explorative questions that can be applied in pursuit of focus questions is diverse.  Careful consideration needs to be given to where they might fit into different stages in inquiry processes with the precise language determined by what learners are doing, want to do, can do and need to do.  Consequently, the actual questions posed may be quite distant from the samples of ‘starters’ that follow.

Spotlight on querying samples only

  • What are you assuming?
  • What is ____ assuming?
  • Is there something we could assume instead?
  • You seem to be assuming ____ why?
  • Do I/we understand you correctly?
  • Why are you confident ____ it is right and works?
  • In what ways does your thinking depend on ____?
  • Why have you based you reasoning on ____?
  • Could you explain and justify your reasoning for ____?
  • Is ____ always the case or likely to be the case?
  • Why do you think this ____ holds here?
  • Why should people make this ____ assumption?
  • What are the contradictions in ____?

Spotlight on clarifying samples only

  • What do you mean by ____?
  • Could you use an example to explain ____?
  • What are the main points in ____?
  • Is your basic point ____?
  • Would ____be an example that works for you?
  • In what ways does this ____ relate to ____?
  • Could you explain ____further?
  • Could ____ be put another way?
  • Do you mean ____ or ____ or something different?
  • How does ____relate to what we are trying to do?
  • Would you summarise ____ for us?
  • Could you explain what we should take that to mean?
  • What is the range of issues or things involved in ____?

Spotlight on reasoning samples only

  • What would be an example of ____?
  • How did you come to know and understand ____?
  • Can you explain the evidence for ____?
  • What difference does ____ make to the idea ____?
  • What are your reasons for saying ____?
  • Could you explain your reasons to us?
  • Is there any reason to doubt ____ evidence?
  • Is there any other evidence that could be gathered?
  • Can you explain the thinking in coming to the idea __?
  • How could you find out if __ is right, wrong or just OK?
  • What might to improve our reasoning around ____?
  • Do you think these ____ reasons are adequate?
  • Why do you hold the viewpoint that ____?
  • What led you to believe ____?
  • How does ____ apply in this case?
  • Would more information about ____ help and why?
  • Who is or might be in position to know ____?

Spotlight on viewpoints samples only

  • Which perspective are you coming from on this issue?
  • Why have you chosen ____ perspective?
  • How might others respond to the idea that ____?
  • Why do people hold ____ idea, view or opinion?
  • What is influencing ____ ?
  • How could you respond to the objection that ____?
  • What would someone who believed ____ think?
  • Does everyone see ____ the same way?
  • What would be alternatives ways of looking at ____?
  • Where do the ideas or beliefs that ____ come from?
  • In whose interests is ____?
  • Could any conflicts arise from different viewpoints?
  • In what ways might conflict between ___ be resolved?
  • What strategies are useful resolving these __ conflicts?
  • Who holds ____ views and why?
  • Are there other views and opinions involved in __?
  • What might happen if we combined these ____ views?

Spotlight on consequence samples only

  • What are you implying by ____ ?
  • If ____ happened what else might happen as a result?
  • Why do you think ____ might happen?
  • What effect might ____ have?
  • What is the probability that ____ will happen?
  • What are some alternative possibilities?
  • If ____ were the case then what else must be right?
  • When people say ____ what might they be implying?
  • Can you describe the viewpoints affecting ____ ?
  • How are these ____values and beliefs affecting ____?
  • What is the likely impact of ____?
  • Do you think what might happen from __ is desirable?
  • In what ways is ____ affecting the environment?
  • Could ____ feelings and emotions be involved in ____?
  • How might personal feelings and emotions affect ____
  • If we ___ what do you think is likely outcome or result?

Spotlight on speculation samples only

  • What might happen if ____?
  • Could it be that ____?
  • Could ____ hypothesis explain what is happening?
  • What do you think is likely to happen next?
  • In what ways could ____ be improved?
  • What if we were to redesign it this way ____?
  • Do you think we can modify ____ in some way?
  • Are their better ideas to guide what we should do?
  • Could you come up with a better theory for ____?
  • Do you think ____ might achieve our goals?
  • Are there some ‘stepping stones’ to help our thinking?
  • How might we remake ____ to improve how it works?
  • Can you put forward an argument to dispute ____?
  • Do we need to consider other issues and viewpoints?
  • Could you redesign your ideas and concepts for ____?
  • How might people’s feelings be involved in ____?

Spotlight on ethical issues samples only

  • What do you think the values are behind ____?
  • Is ____ an appropriate way to act or behave?
  • In what ways are values and beliefs involved in ____?
  • How are ____ cultural issues influencing ____?
  • If we say ____ is ethical, is this ____ ethical too?
  • Is it right for people to ____?
  • What is the ethical reasoning behind ____?
  • In what circumstances are ____ ethical reasons OK?
  • Why do you think ____ is not such a good idea
  • Who are the main ‘players’ or groups in ____?
  • In who’s interests is ____ being proposed or promoted?
  • What ethical issues are connected with ____?
  • Why do you think ____ is important?
  • What is the value of ____ idea or ____ action?
  • Do you think it is fair and reasonable to ____?
  • Why do you think ____ is causing so much argument?
  • What would you like to happen in ____ situation?
  • How might personal preferences be involved in ____?

Spotlight on alternatives samples only

  • What are all the questions you can ask about ____?
  • In what ways might we think of ____ of doing it differently?
  • In what ways could ____ be improved?
  • Do other people think the same way about ____?
  • Could you give different explanations for ____?
  • Can you think of new ways for combining ____ ?
  • What if we looked ____ from a different point of view?
  • If ____ is not available what else could we use or do?
  • Could more than one theory explain ____ and why?
  • Why do you think ____ idea is better than ____ idea ?
  • Why is ____ preferable over other ways of doing ____?
  • Do you think this ____ might work better if ____ ?
  • Could you think of a different idea or way to do ____ ?
  • Could ____ or ____ be done in another way?
  • In what ways might personal preferences affect ____?
  • What is the range of emotions involved in ____?
  • How might emotions and feelings be affecting ____?
  • Are there a different ways of handling ____ emotions?

The artistry involved in combining generative questions, focus questions and explorative questions is demanding.  The extract from a teacher’s planning for an inquiry entitled Our Country illustrates how different types of question can be incorporated into an inquiry in a carefully sequenced combination.

Our Country

Introductory performances

  • Pose the generative questionwhat has happened, what is happening, what will happen in the future?.
  • Display issues that emerge as a simple web or mind map on the thinking wall.
  • Negotiate focus questions to shape studies – namely, How is it changing? and Why is it like it is?
  • Have learners gather information and memorabilia or artifacts from home about a historical event.
  • Identify explorative questions from discussion of the generative question and focus questions.
  • Have learners select a topic from our history and define issues – past, present and future – in relation to it.
  • Ask learners to identify sources of information related to the explorative questions they have identified.

Guided performances

  • Have whole class discuss significant events in our history around the focus questions.
  • Require learners choose a significant historical event for detailed investigation.
  • Refine direction for study based on explorative questions, learners’ interests and prior knowledge.
  • Have learners source resources like the Internet, books, newspapers, photos, artefacts, memorabilia…   .
  • Require learners to select and use graphic organisers for displaying information and ‘writing up’ projects.
  • Direct learners to examine causes and effects and predict possibilities in relation to the focus questions.
  • Have learners draw conclusions on how historical events shape the way we act and the way we think.
  • Tease out issues like identity, systems, sustainability and diversity to explain how our country is evolving.

Culminating performances

Require learners to-

  • Create their own fictitious ‘event’ in our country which will become a historical event over time
  • Produce a ‘viewmaster’ display of snippets of history they have researched
  • Present an analytical report in relation to past, present and future possibilities.

Give learners the following ‘instruction’ to guide the presentations of their work.

Using the knowledge you have gained indicate ‘what is happening now’ and make some reasonable assumptions about ‘what might happen’ in the next 50 years.  Your presentation must be about the specific area you researched and you should acknowledge all resources used or referred to in your presentation.  Presentations may be in the form of reports, multimedia productions, slide shows, dramatic role plays, posters, models…, or whatever, and combinations of these.

The pursuit of answers to questions opens up opportunities for working collaboratively with others.  The shared action that results exposes different perceptions of experience, different interpretations, different understandings and different ways of making sense of experience.  Rich learning accrues from appreciation and exploration of these differences.

Collaborative communities of learners generate all kinds of leadership opportunities.  Provided the environment is appreciative and supportive what learners can achieve should be no surprise just a rewarding manifestation of their capabilities.  ‘Natural leaders’, previously hidden, often emerge through shared action, personal recognition and community celebration.

When the burgeoning of computer based resources, often referred to as ICT, is added into the equation some learners may be more up-to-date in a given area than teachers.  Hence the power of knowledge is more evenly shared than when rote learning and didactic teaching dominate.  Yet the need for guidance and expertise from teachers to enable learners to move from ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ remains unchanged.

Building learners’ capacity to ask effective questions is essential for life-long learning.  The personal empowerment gained is huge.

To go to part 1 or 2 of the series, click here.
Part 1 Question and Learning
Part 2 Question and Direction
About the author – Melvin Freestone


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