The Learning 2.0 School

Shifting Perceptions of Teaching and Learning in and out of the School Library

The Gift of Questioning

Posted by Michelle Torrise on August 18, 2011

Einstein, Darwin, and Newton were at one time considered (by their teachers) to be underachievers, yet they are three of the greatest thinkers in history.  How were they able survive their disengagement in the traditional educational system?    What traits did these three great thinkers have in common?   How did their ability to question, wonder,  think critically, and problem solve create a foundation of life-long learning?    And, how can we instill these same skills in our students, especially those that struggle in a traditional school setting?  See > Foundation for Critical Thinking.

I see students struggling with concepts of critical thinking and problem solving on a daily basis.  Give them a chapter to outline a set of questions to answer, and they will work hard to turn out an exemplary end project.  Give them a problem to solve, however, and they struggle to complete even the most basic tasks of the problem solving process.     I believe that the most effective way to address this disconnect is to turn curricula and lessons into critical thinking assignments, where students are asked to identify essential questions, research solutions, and pose a solution to the problem.

Questioning also drives peer collaboration.  In discussion I had with one of our English teachers, for example, I shared  ways to connect texts to larger, essential questions that naturally allow for scaffolding research skills.  For example, identifying a central theme for each quarter and analyzing each reading through that lens.  Example themes in the format of an essential question might be,  “Excuse me, but exactly why do we study literature?”   Or, “Do authors shift/shape | reinvent/reinterpret culture?”  “If so, how?”   Or, “Will writing, as we know it, become extinct?”  And, “How would such an event change the way society functions on a global, local level?”  The latter would naturally lead into a very interesting creative writing assignment, actually.    Students would answer the same question for each reading (possibly posting their answers on a blog–which would allow for lessons on writing digitally),  referencing and citing sources would, of course, be a must.

We talked about asking students to connect texts to current, relevant topics, e.g., “What does today’s reading tell us about the nature of certain current events {insert specific people, places, or things}?”  Ryan has shared many excellent resources with us that can be incorporated into these lessons.   I hope to work with him this year to catalog these resources for faster search and retrieval.

We talked about scaffolding research skills by assigning “mini research projects.”  Mini Research projects (like the Annotated Bibliography assignment that most of you did last year) are packed full of valuable lessons on writing essential questions, summarizing, evaluating sources, and citing sources.  See the attached handout titled “Alternative Assignments” for more ideas on scaffolding research skills.

Finally, we talked about using bell ringers as a way to get students to develop habits of evaluating sources.   The basic lesson would be to find good and bad resources related to the day’s text/reading and share one source with students at the bell.  Next, ask students to reflect, e.g., “In what way is this resource related to our reading?”   “How would you describe the connection, e.g., provides fact, opinion, data, etc.?”  Throughout the discussion,  ask students to analyze resources for relevancy, appropriateness, detail, currency, authority, and bias.   Use a variety of sources, e.g.,journal articles, media, primary sources (bring some artifacts in for variety), books (project them using a document camera), video/other media, interviews, etc.

In the process of my own research, I found an amazing online college level writing textbook titled Writing Spaces.  It’s an open source project, so it’s FREE!  You can use individual chapters as supplemental texts throughout the year, or use the entire text.  The chapters are essays written by various authors, so the format is more like a “Reader” than a textbook.     Each essay is clearly written and in PDF format for easy downloading.  I’m certain you will find some very valuable articles that relate to what you are teaching, especially at the Junior/Senior level.   Browse the database of chapters.

Essential Questions can be used in instruction design in many ways, they are effective at outlining units, defining lessons, and driving instruction.  For more information on Questioning, see > Jamie McKenzie’s Learning to Question, Questioning to Learn (2005).


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