Collecting questions

In his comic ‘A Day at the Park,’ Kostas Kiriakakis tells the tale of two characters – the first a philosophical one-eyed winged alien creature, the second a toad-like pompous creature dressed as an English gentleman. They share a park bench. One-Eye is a collector of questions, while Toad is a collector of answers.

What does it mean to be a collector of questions?

One-Eye says:

 I would never trade a question for an answer.

 Answers, as I see it, are useful to have around, but kind of boring too.

I mean, they don’t seem to participate in the ever transforming dance of the whole universe, as we are.

Sticking with them means you lose out on most of the fun.

 Reality can change as easily as the way you care to see it.

An answer, static in nature as it is, refers to one frozen snapshot of that reality.

Its value can only go down. Today’s treasure could be tomorrow’s garbage.

 Questions on the other hand seem to keep up with the dance and if anything their value can grow.

It makes little sense to collect anything that could lose value over time.

Kostas Kiriakasis  Image used with permission

One-Eye points out that many answers have too much power:

Too many actions have been based on those answers. Too much work and energy invested on them.

They feel so important, so full of themselves.

They will answer to no one. Not even their initial question!

One of the problems with collecting answers is that the answer can become the driver. Inquiry learning changes the balance of power towards the question and the question asker:

Once you see that an answer is not serving its question properly anymore, it should be tossed away.

The only way a question can prove itself unworthy is by attracting a better question. You’re never empty handed!

Kostas Kiriakasis. Image used with permission. 

The value of collecting questions rather than answers is crucial; not only for this tale, but for how we undertake inquiry learning. Traditional pedagogies have concentrated on the answer, often assuming there is only one answer.

One-Eye says:

 Answers to the most worth asking questions, which ironically are not meant to be answered regardless of our great efforts to do so.

 Definitive answers to such questions would rob us of our freedom.

Freedom of choosing what’s worthy and what’s not, acting on faith, changing your mind, and being responsible for all these choices.

Kostas Kiriakakis. Image used with permission.

Kostas Kiriakakis’ gentle wisdom as voiced by One-Eye is also seen in Jamie McKenzie’s philosophy on ‘Questions as technology‘. McKenzie argues that questioning is fundamental to democracy. He says ‘In a fascist society, questions and questioning are viewed with suspicion. Questions are discouraged unless they remain within “safe” zones such as science and technology’ (2005 p. 16). He warns against simplistic questions that encourage factual recall and advocates ‘powerful’ sense-making questions asked by students which enable them to ‘make up their own minds’ (p. 22). In making up our own minds, we accept responsibility for our choices and gain the freedom that One-Eye explains above. Likewise, as Harste points out, in engaging with inquiry ‘learners must take responsibility for ideas as well as for the personal and social actions that result from ideas’ (Harste 2001 p. 15).

At the heart of McKenzie’s ‘questioning toolkit’ are ‘essential questions’. Grant Wiggins outlines the characteristics of essential questions (or as One-Eye puts it – the ‘most worth asking questions’). Wiggins says a question is essential when it:

  • ’causes genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas and core content;
  • provokes deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions;
  • requires students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers;
  • stimulates vital, on-going rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons;
  • sparks meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences;
  • naturally recurs, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations and subjects’ (also see Kath Murdoch’s characteristics of essential questions).

There seem to be two main types of questioning frameworks advocated for inquiry learning pedagogy (Bond n.d.; Treadwell 2010). The first type are generative. These frameworks provide the means for students to ask essential questions. They include question formulation techniques (Rothstein & Santana 2011) and questioning strategies (Quigley 2012).

The second type are productive and evaluative. They drive data and information seeking. They provide the questions with which students interrogate their process and the sources used in the course of their inquiry. They include disciplinary questions for data gathering such as those used to interrogate an historical site (e.g. Loewen c2010), generic questions relating to the critical evaluation of information (e.g. Henderson 2011) and process questions such as those related to the stages of the inquiry cycle (e.g. Brunner 2012).

We need all these frameworks to conduct rich, generative inquiry. We need these frameworks to allow us the freedom to choose and to be responsible for our choices.

What sort of frameworks do you use?

References

Bond, T. (n.d.) A questioning framework. http://ictnz.com/Questioning/questioningframework.htm

Brunner, C. (2012) How to: inquiry. The inquiry process. Youth Learn. http://www.youthlearn.org/learning/planning/lesson-planning/how-inquiry/how-inquiry

Kiriakakis, K. (2010) A day in the park http://www.kiriakakis.net/aday.html  (Images/extracts used with permission)

Harste, J. (2001) What inquiry is and isn’t. In S. Boran & B. Comber (Eds.), Critiquing whole language and classroom inquiry (pp. 1-17). Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.

Henderson, J. (2011) A guide to critical thinking about what you see on the web. Ithaca College Library http://www.ithacalibrary.com/sp/subjects/guide.php?subject=thinking

Loewen, J. (c2010) Ten questions to ask at a historic site http://sundown.afro.illinois.edu/content.php?file=liesacrossamerica-tenquestions.html

McKenzie, J. (2005). Questions as technology. in Learning to question to wonder to learn. Washington: FNO Press.

Murdoch, K (2012) Walking the world with questions in our heads http://justwonderingblog.com/2012/10/28/walking-the-world-with-questions-in-our-heads/

Quigley, A. J. Questioning. Top ten strategies. http://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/questioning-top-ten-strategies/

Rothstein, D. & Santana, L. (2011) Teaching students to ask their own questions. Harvard Education Letter. 27:5 http://www.hepg.org/hel/article/507#home

Treadwell, M. (2010) It’s the question that matters. Whatever! School 2.0  http://www.marktreadwell.com/product_details/d/1/c/35/p/60

Wiggins, G. (2007) What is an essential question? Big ideas. Authentic Education. http://www.authenticeducation.org/ae_bigideas/article.lasso?artid=53

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