Saturday, 6 September 2014

Big Questions: Avoiding Annihilation

“Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world [...] To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. The answer may annihilate the question and the questioner.”  ― Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat

Next year, we will mostly be doing...
Last year, I (along with the rest of my department) was told that we would be trialling the use of 'big questions' to lead each unit of work before it was rolled out to other departments.  At first, I was elated: I had been really keen to start developing a questioning culture in the classroom, following my drive for student independence through flipped learning and the use of SOLO taxonomy.  I was also glad for unit titles that might interest our students: Y7 Text Types is now 'Why do we write?' and the uninspiring 'War Poetry' unit has become 'Can we trust everything the war poets say?'

Then I got worried. A big question invites more answers; I was becoming aware of the need to retain a structure to the learning whilst also letting students lead the exploration of the big question itself.  One of my first thoughts was to break down the big question into smaller questions that could then form the basis of my lessons. I was confident that I could do this easily, having used key questions for each lesson through my NQT year.  However, I still wanted my students to retain that control, and then I remembered some of the various posts I'd seen on twitter telling of students coming up with their own key questions each lesson. From this, my mind was made up: the students would break down the big question into the key questions that would then form the basis of each lesson. My job would be to tailor their opportunities, allowing them to make their enquiries as well as learning the key skills needed to read and write texts.

September 2014: how do we ask questions?
It makes sense to start at the very beginning, so lesson one for each KS3 students was focused on
attacking the big question and looking at what questions we would need to ask to develop a well-informed and detailed answer.  I was keen to start off by discussing 'what makes a good question' by referring to a grid that Mike Jory (Teaching and Learning advisor for City of York Council) had introduced me to as an NQT; it had proved invaluable in improving my questioning skills and now I wanted the same for my students.

We discussed how, sometimes, question starters lower on the scale might not elicit great answers, but they can be important to inform other questions.  We then looked at how we could develop these questions further by attaching other questions to them. For example: 'What was the Wall Street crash?' became developed with 'How might this event have influenced Steinbeck?'

Students worked in groups to come up with ideas, with one student given the role of 'challenger' in order to assure quality of questions overall.  I, meanwhile, circulated and used this as a chance to probe students further by asking how questions might help answer the big question.  Overall, it was a fantastic way to see how a new class interacted with one another as well as assessing their prior knowledge of a subject.

What next?
At the end of each lesson, I used the camscanner app to create a PDF of each class' responses. This will save me carrying around all of that sugar paper as well as providing a resource that I might upload to the VLE to support any research homeworks.  I'm also keen to continue developing my students' questioning skills, using the grid (both when asking verbally and when they ask me/their peers questions through the dialogue in their books).

Many thanks to @ACCooke5 for proof-reading and generally listening to me harp on.