How to Help Students Form Rich, High-Quality Inquiry Questions
Sometimes the trickiest part about beginning an inquiry unit is developing deep, high-quality inquiry questions with your students. Especially if students haven’t been exposed to inquiry learning before, it can be a challenge to get them to understand the value of asking open-ended questions that have the potential for numerous answers.
When I first introduced inquiry learning to my students, it was a huge hurdle for them. They needed to grasp the idea of larger questions that may not produce a single, “correct” answer. They needed to understand that learning for the sake of regurgitating isn’t true learning, but rather that in order to be excited about their learning, they need to truly connect with it and lean into the process.
Below are some ways to make those distinctions with your students and help them to form rich, complex, and high-quality inquiry questions.
The Difference Between Research and Inquiry
In many classrooms, student thinking is framed in a “topic → research → present → assess” pattern. Most students are used to being given a topic, being told how to take notes and conduct semi-independent research, compiling their information, and presenting their findings.
However, this isn’t really how inquiry learning is supposed to work. Research and inquiry do not mean the same thing. While they both aim to seek and uncover information, they are inherently different in a few key ways.
First, research involves a systematic approach where the goal is to find answers, explain concepts, and increase knowledge. Inquiry, on the other hand, is much broader. It doesn’t require students to find one ultimate answer to a question. Rather, inquiry is any process that aims to solve a problem, uncover new knowledge and understandings, or take action. It is far more multifaceted and fluid than research, which is typically more formal in nature.
Research exists to confirm facts, reaffirm results, develop further knowledge on a topic, and/or document discoveries. While some of these characteristics translate to inquiry learning, they are predominantly separate. The aim of an inquiry can take different forms, involve more than one route to achieve its aim, and change frequently. Inquiry is fluid, progressive, and reflective.
What Makes a “Good” Inquiry Question?
There are a few key components of any “good” inquiry question. While the questions themselves may be drastically different depending on students’ interests and goals, the building blocks are essentially the same. A “good” inquiry question should:
- Come from a place of genuine curiosity or confusion
- Be complex and not simplistic in its answer(s)
- Require a detailed analysis or investigation
- Have a clear, concise focus that naturally branches into further sub-questions
- Be accessible to all learners and learning styles
- Invite students to think deeply and in a way they may not have before
- Require support, justification, investigation, and critical thinking
- Have long-term value and be re-visited often
- Provide opportunities for students to develop soft skills
- Generate discussion and multiple perspectives
There are several other characteristics of “good” inquiry questions, but these are, in my opinion, the most important ones. Download the criteria checklist as a PDF.
“Hacking Questions” is an amazing and detailed guide into the framing and delivering of great inquiry questions in the classroom. I read it in 2019 prior to beginning my Indigenous groups inquiry study with my students, and it helped tremendously when crafting our stop-motion animation inquiry unit.
Forming Inquiry Questions
The process of forming good inquiry questions takes time. It’s a good idea for teachers to have 4-5 pre-developed questions, especially in younger grades, to guide students along or give them a few examples before they start coming up with their own. As a teacher, you are equipped with the knowledge to develop engaging and stimulating questions that will help students get the most out of their own questions.
Want a Step-by-Step Guide? Read How to Teach Effective Questioning Skills for Inquiry-Based Learning
You want to make sure the inquiry questions students come up with are aligned with the curriculum your school is using. Utilizing things like textbooks, web-based resources, and curriculum documents help with question development. They usually provide things like concept maps, main ideas, and even some sample questions.
Every inquiry pack includes an assortment of sample inquiry questions for educators to use when planning their own inquiry units. Click here to sign up for the October inquiry pack and get instant access to a variety of Halloween and autumn-themed inquiry questions.
Using the Curriculum to Create Inquiry Questions
Below are the strands in the Grade 6 Ontario Social Studies curriculum, and how to use the existing framework to structure inquiry units around the core strands:
Usually, the trickiest part about beginning an inquiry unit is developing deep, high-quality questions with your students. They can find it challenging to understand the value of asking open-ended questions that have the potential for numerous answers. For them, the default process is: find a topic, do some research, then present their findings. But developing strong and fluid questions can help them to understand the connections between groups, countries, and the global community.