The Importance of Student-Driven Inquiry

Submitted by sbosna on

Education is based, in large part, on questions. We ask questions to learn things; we ask questions to determine what someone else knows, and we ask questions to infer what someone else understands. And yet, in most classrooms, most questions are generated by the teacher, and student-generated questions are unstructured, based on an individual student’s skill and knowledge, and often asked in pursuit of clarity of instructions or ideas. In short, students are most often cast in the role of answering questions about content rather than generating them.

If you want your students to be more active in your classes, you need to get them to ask more questions – good questions, on-topic questions, questions that probe into a topic deeply, questions that are clear to any reader. Yet, in my experience, most students do not know how to do these things and have very little understanding of what makes a useful, on-topic, clear question. And so, if you want good questions and student engagement rooted in them investigating a topic, you will need to teach them how to ask questions.

Consider, too, that if students can ask good questions, they will connect with the course content and activities from where they are and not where you assume them to be. This results in them feeling more able to make those connections, and it also provides you with an easy formative assessment as you listen to their points of interest and confusion.

Fortunately, there are several models out there for this. Years ago, at a College Board AP Summer Institute, I was taught Levels of Questions, which I later learned is based on Costa’s Levels of Questioning. What I sketch out in this article is my adaptation of LoQ (as I’ve long called it).

LoQ divides types of questions into three levels. Each level of question has clear limitations for how it must be phrased to fit the model. The levels are explained below.

  1. Level 1: these seek facts only and should be answerable in one sentence. They form the foundation of any block of text or discrete piece of content. They must begin with who, what, where, when, or how many.
    • When did the Japanese military attack Pearl Harbor?
    • Who was the 16th President of the United States?
    • Where did Lee surrender his forces to Grant?
    • What is the equation used to determine the area of a circle?
    • How many senators are allotted to each state?
      • Note that there is only one correct answer in each of these examples, and there is no debate as to what the question seeks.
  2. Level 2: these seek reasons – both processes (“means by which”) or rationales (reasons why), and they must begin with either how or why. They should be answerable in a paragraph in which Level 1 (“L1”) facts are employed.
    • How does a bill become a law? (process)
    • Why is Mecca important to Muslims? (rationale)
      • It should be clear that one cannot answer either of those questions without employing L1 facts as evidence. L2 builds on and plays off the factual foundation of a topic.
  3. Level 3: these questions come as we respond to the issues and ideas in a passage or block of information. They do not have correct answers; however, they must be answered with valid answers supported by L1 evidence and L2 reasoning. L3 questions are often evaluative in nature and can bring ethical and value judgments into play. They can also employ counterfactuals.
    • Would the United States have joined World War 2 if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor?
    • What do traditional fairy tales teach children – boys and girls – about love?
      • Note that these questions should be open-ended, require the use of facts and reasoning to press their case, and can be assessed on their use of both, but in the end, cannot be definitively answered.

LoQ, as a model, must be taught; it must be assessed as a model and then used repeatedly and in different contexts so that students to understand and internalize it and become proficient with it. Like Socratic Circles, it is not a ‘one and done model that a teacher can use periodically; it must be used regularly to reap its benefits.

Teaching the model is a one-class activity. Queue up the idea of the value of questions and the utility of students asking most of them, and use this slideshow, modified to fit your needs, as a focal point for the lesson.

After explaining the model, use a popular fictional property as an example – Star Wars, Disney fairy tales, whatever you think your students will be able to use as source material, and in a manner that disarms them. You needn’t start off with something serious; in fact, a lighter topic will get their focus off the information and enable you to keep it on the model. Ask them to each write 2-3 L1s, and when they are done, ask for volunteers to read theirs out loud. Write their samples on the board and, as a class, go through them in the following sequence.

  1. Is this a properly-worded L1 question? Does it begin with who, what, where, when, or how many? If it doesn’t, it’s not a proper L1 question.
  2. Is it clear what it seeks? This is where you can help them focus on writing clear questions. Suggest that they avoid pronouns, as they are inherently vague. Require that they offer questions that are complete sentences. Use their examples to drive home what a proper L1 question looks like.
  3. Does it seem worth asking? Does it really matter that Luke Skywalker’s outfit early in Episode IV was mostly white? Or is it more important that he lived on Tatooine? After all, if he’d not lived there, he would have never encountered the droids, and then we’d not have Star Wars.

Repeat this for Level 2 questions, making sure to drive home the importance of the implied use of L1 facts. For example, a student might ask, “Why did Luke Skywalker leave his home planet?” This requires the person answering it to know that he’s from Tatooine, or they can’t put their answer in context within the greater Star Wars story. Make sure to reinforce the importance of the difference between process questions (how) and rationale questions (why) and the importance of using both,

L3 questions are tough – good ones are hard to write, but with practice, everyone can get better at them. Initially, as the slideshow indicates, I don’t worry much about L3 questions, instead asking students to try but not making them part of their grade or emphasizing them much in class when we’re still using the model. Still, go over your students’ samples in the same manner as you did the others.

Upon teaching the model, your goal is to make sure that its requirements are understood and that students understand the terms you are using. After doing this for a class period, assign homework reading with LoQ as the assignment. Give them a short, clear passage – maybe 2-3 pages at most – and ask them to write 5/2/1 – that is, five L1s, two L2s, and one L3. They are to write the questions and their answers.

For Bellwork, at your next class meeting, ask students to write one or two of their L1s and L2s (depending on your class size) on the board. Mark one board for L1s and the other for L2s. Let them write their questions only, and then go over them as a class, using those same questions listed above. When teaching a model with clear requirements and definitions, it is essential to be taught with fidelity – that your students are shown, explained, practiced, and then get feedback on their first individual attempt.

After this, use LoQ as an assignment to accompany readings regularly. If your students read original documents, use LoQ. If they read op-eds or essays, use the model. Instead of asking students to simply read something, give them a measurable purpose for reading it: “you are to do LoQ 7/4/2” or whatever you think is appropriate and useful. Limiting the number of fact-focused questions beneath what you think is the “worth fact” count of a given passage will force your students to make choices…they will have to leave out some facts while choosing others. This is the first step in critical thinking: making cuts, establishing a hierarchy of value and importance, and being aware that they are doing so.

Beyond using LoQ as a reading assignment, you can use the model’s vocabulary in your feedback, written and spoken. For the student who provides a heap of decontextualized facts in an answer, you can tell them they have lots of L1, but there’s no L2 to tie those things together. Likewise, the student who writes or speaks in broad generalizations gets the opposite feedback: all L2 and no L1 makes for something like a cloud: it looks substantial from a distance, but up close lacks substance.

Once they have learned and become proficient at the model, they will have no excuses about writing and asking questions in class. You can assign question-writing for a given topic and know that their work will be far more coherent and digestible as it will be more consistent in form. You can mix things up by having them only write questions and no answers – it’s amazing how much you can infer about someone’s thinking by what they ask instead of what they state. And, the kids think they’re getting a pass when they feel like they have to do less by “only” writing questions.

Finally, students proficient with LoQ will, over time, if you use the model and put the burden of asking questions on them, get better at it, and will help drive inquiry in your class. You will no longer have to do the heavy lifting alone, and they will not realize how much they are helping to ‘roll the ball’ throughout the year. We are all born overflowing with questions. Someone, the system beats it out of us. LoQ can help awaken what is natural to us all: inquisitiveness about the world around us.

"Teach them, require the work from them, and over time your students will impress you with how much they can learn through their own questions."

-Jeremy Gypton, Task Force Chair

Actionable Models of Inquiry and Writing Good Questions Podcast Episode

Author bio

Jeremy Gypton is a veteran teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum specialist, and educational project manager. He taught in the Tucson area for 11 years and spent several years in administrative positions there. Since 2014 he has worked for, the leading provider of documents-based resources and programs for American history, government, and civics teachers, working to bring documents-based programs to teachers. He also produces podcast and webinar series for TAH.