Friday, July 12, 2013

Question Generating with Littles {a FREEBIE Too}

As an I.B. PYP teacher, question generating is something that I do with my students regularly. From the first day of the unit on, students are asking questions that guide the inquiry. Question generating with young students can be quite difficult. Many times, the questions will be vague, repetitive, off topic, or lack the depth necessary for valuable inquiry. Over time I discovered few ways to get students to develop meaningful, thought provoking questions.
     The first is quite simple, unpack the central idea really well. If the students have no clue what the central idea means, you will surely get lots of crazy questions. (Like a student that I had a few years ago whose question for our forces and motion unit was "where did the cops take my uncle Peter?")  Help them define essential vocabulary and, when possible, give them opportunities to freely explore realia or participate activities that will give them insight into what they will be inquiring into during the unit. Often, the opening provocation and learning engagements (found in your unit planner) are enough, but if they are a complete flop, find new ways to get them excited.

     Secondly, before you begin generating questions, be certain to let the students know that their questions have the power to guide and direct the learning in the classroom. When offered a chance to powerfully impact the UOI (unit of inquiry), even the youngest student will step up and ask some fabulous questions. Often we as teachers simply assume that the kids know that their questions guide the inquiry, but the littles are still learning how I.B. works and don't always know the important role they play in an inquiry-based classroom.  The key to this is that the teacher must not only remind them that their questions matter, but must also use the questions to guide the learning and, in doing so, should draw the attention of the class to specific student generated questions as they are being investigated.   A student who is investigating something that they really want to learn about is much more invested and will be chomping at the bit to ask more questions!  They will quickly discover that there truly is power in their voice.

     Third, have students generate questions in different ways. Formal question generating is often the path we take, but think about other ways that you could get students to ask some questions. Create a burning questions board that students can add to at anytime during the day. Flip the classroom by having them watch an engaging, thought provoking video at home and then have them bring in three or more killer questions, generated from the viewing, to share with the class. Take them into a new environment to generate questions. If you are studying life cycles, take them to the garden for some question inspiration. Have them generate questions as a follow-up to a field trip or, better yet, give them a questioning journal to record questions during the field trip. Imagine all of the amazing inquiry that will result from a little variety!

     Next, use those questions like crazy! It is easy to post the questions and refer to them now and then, but in order to ensure a steady stream of increasingly valuable questions, you have to infuse them into your daily routine, even if it is only for a few minutes here and there. When I was an I.B. newbie, I would work really hard the first two weeks to squeeze questions out of the kids, I would post them, and refer to them now and again, with a final review the week of the summative assessment. As a result, I rarely got new questions mid-unit and the excitement of the inquiry would fizzle. When I discovered how powerful the questioning cycle could be, it changed everything. I found that by taking time to regularly look at questions, discuss them, answer them (when the students have discovered the answers), and add new ones, I had a continual flow of questions, increasing in quality and focus. 
    Lastly, the littles need guidance as to how to write great questions. I call them "killer questions." At the beginning of the year the students are introduced to the process and we practice, a lot. Before every formal question generating session, we review the five traits of a killer question (look below for the FREEBIE).

Killer Questions are
1. on topic
2. focused
3. ask something that you don't already know
4. make you think
5. are answered with at least one sentence (for older students I would increase this number).

When I first introduce this to students, I use a kid friendly, generic topic like candy. I prepare several questions (some killer, some not) and have the students work in groups to determined whether they fit the rules or break them. They then take the "not-so-killer questions" and rewrite them together to make killer questions. When working with unit question generating, we go through the same process. Prior to sorting the questions for inquiry, they critically reflect on their questions within groups to ensure that they are "killer questions." They use the traits as a guide and if the question needs some help, they work together to make it better. It truly is an amazing thing to watch!

While I still get the questions like, "Who invented the penis flytrap?" the overall quality of the questions is significantly better. I hope that this helps you in your question generating journey! I would love to hear any ideas you have for getting killer questions.

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