What is a “Big Question”?

For my purposes, Big Questions here are for inquiry based and self organized learning.

First I’ll put down some notes on what I think a BQ should be. Then I’ll look at some other definitions I cherry-picked off the web.

In my experience, a good BQ:-

  • is for practical purposes open ended. Students should not be able to say after half the session is over “I know the answer! I’m finished!”
  • is challenging. It’s okay to aim several grades above the students’ level. Several minds working together aided by the Internet can accomplish a LOT.
  • should be relevant in some way to the students.

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John Brockman (2018), contributor of Big Questions for the discussion publication The Edge, writes

The art of a good question is to find a balance between abstraction and the personal, to ask a question that has many answers, or at least one for which you don’t know the answer. … A good question encourages answers that are grounded in experience but bigger than that experience alone.

***

Askbigquestions.org is an American organization whose mission is to create strong connections on campus through conversation. Here is their introductory YouTube video.

The organization’s website has some great ideas. BQ’s:

  • matter to everyone, and everyone can answer.
  •  lead to conversations where participants share personal stories to build trust and understanding.
  • connect to participants’ lives and communities.

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In an article about inquiry based approaches to teaching sciences, Goodman (2000) notes questions should be accessible, short and leading.

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Finally, the schoolinthecloud website has the following pieces of advice. BQs should

  • inspire students to explore all possibilities – there should be no easy answer!
  • encourage deep and long conversations
  • connect more than one subject area
  • encourage research, debate and critical thinking
  • promote various learning methods to solve
  • encourage children to explore a wider topic, connect a number of subjects, and develop a deeper understanding of their answer

***

Conclusion.

Let’s take all the phrases I put in bold, and erase any repetition. BQs should be:

  • open ended
  • challenging
  • relevant in both a personal and communal sense
  • balanced between abstraction and the personal
  • accessible to everyone
  • short
  • leading
  • inspiring
  • encourage deep conversation and deep learning
  • connect more than one subject area
  • promote various learning methods to solve

 

These amount to a fair few requirements. But I think it’s fine to use them as guidelines rather than rules. Questions that are big and questions that are small lie along a subjective scale; there isn’t any cutoff where small ends and big begins. And what works for some learners will fail for others.

 

 

 

References

Edge.org. (2018). A Big Question | Edge.org. [online] Available at: https://www.edge.org/conversation/john_brockman-a-big-question [Accessed 2 Oct. 2018].

Goodman, L. & Berntson, G. (2000). The art of asking questions: using directed inquiry in the classroom. The American Biology Teacher, 62, 473-476

 

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