Self Organized Learning Environments

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.


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.

*** 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.


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


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



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 (2018). A Big Question | [online] Available at: [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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