The Role of Essential Questions in the Inquiry Process

23 Apr

The best questions point to and highlight the big ideas.  They serve as doorways through which learners explore the key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems that reside within the content, perhaps as yet unseen: it is through the process of actively ‘interrogating’ the content through provocative questions that students deepen their understanding.
— Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design

Any question you ask will just lead to more questions.
— Mother, LOST

Good questions call for discovery, which is at the heart of inquiry.  In using the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP), we guide students through the process of developing their own essential and guiding questions for each unit. Essential questions are ones at the center of a topic; they are broad and seemingly timeless.  They also have no right answer, but instead invite all learners to engage in dialogue around the themes within the content.  As we discussed with the concept of “third space” in a previous post, strong essential questions allow for students to connect their life experiences, in addition to content from other curricula, to whatever they are inquiring at the time.  This is the very nature of transfer, and good questions prompt students to consider more than one way of viewing a topic.

The purpose of creating an essential question is for students to develop a focus.  At this point, they have already spent time understanding the broader scope of what they are studying (i.e. a time period in literature, an era in history, etc.). Now, they must narrow their inquiry.  As demonstrated in Kuhlthau, Maniotes, and Caspari’s Guided Inquiry Design, students may need to consider four criteria when developing an essential question:  “What is interesting to me?  What are my learning goals? How much information is available?  How much time do I have?”  (pgs. 96-97).  Such understanding connects students to their own information need.  Information need is an important concept in information literacy that suggests learners are thoughtful to what type of information is most significant to addressing their questions, rather than students simply collecting information based on a set of requirements imposed upon them.

Before we have students develop their questions, we discuss with them the difference between convergent and divergent questions.  Convergent questions are those that ask for specific information or have one or a few right answers.  These types of questions are considered low-level questions.  On the other hand, divergent questions do not have a right answer; instead, they are open-ended, provide an opportunity for investigation and argument, and may require synthesis and analysis.  With this understanding, students can aim for creating divergent questions as the basis of their inquiry.

Oftentimes, it takes several tries for students to develop quality essential questions.  For example, students in Cathy’s sophomore English class developed the following “essential questions” on first try:

  • What attributes make Beowulf a hero?
  • Can rumors cause more fear than true events?
  • Who are the monsters and why do we see them as such?

When asked to reflect on this first attempt using the definitions of convergent and divergent questions, students understand that they haven’t quite mastered the task.

As teachers, we can design activities to guide students through this process.  For example, Cathy and I developed an activity called “Musical Questions: Broadening and Narrowing Our EQs.”  Students placed their first “essential question” at the top of the sheet, and Cathy began playing instrumental music.  She instructed the students to move about the room; when the music stopped, students sat in the closest seat and read the essential question on their classmate’s worksheet.  Each student then wrote one question that was broader and one question that was narrower than the original essential question.  After a few rounds of “Musical Questions,” students returned to their seats and read through the questions that their classmates had left for them.  Many students began to see their original question in relation to the others classmates wrote.  When asked to reflect on which ones were most “essential”, meaning most divergent, students were able to identify at least one.  Now, questions read like:

  • What is heroism?
  • What is scary about the unknown?
  • How are social roles determined?

This activity was successful on a few levels.  First, students really understood the process of developing questions.  At the end of the activity, they had not only essential and other divergent questions, but they also had an important list of guiding questions to help their inquiry.  Secondly, students also practiced the information literacy skill of narrowing and broadening an inquiry, which connects with both the Common Core ELA Writing Standard 7 (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.7) and the AASL Standard 1.1.3 (Develop and refine a range of questions to frame the search for new understanding).  With a provocative essential question, students will have a strong foundation upon which they can begin quality research and investigation.

What are some other ways we can engage students in developing essential questions?

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