The Right Questions

This morning I read this post by David Hoffeld, on FastCompany: Want To Know What Your Brain Does When It Hears A Question?

“Questions hijack the brain. The moment you hear one, you literally can’t think of anything else. And that can be a powerful tool.”

I began to think about questions, specifically Inquiry Questions as they appear on IB unit of inquiry planners…and I wondered if the research described in the FastCompany post (focused on sales and management) would be useful to us in education, too.

MRI of brain

MRI scans; image in the public domain

Hoffeld writes that “Questions trigger a mental reflex known as “instinctive elaboration.” When a question is posed, it takes over the brain’s thought process. And when your brain is thinking about the answer to a question, it can’t contemplate anything else. Research in neuroscience has found that the human brain can only think about one idea at a time. So when you ask somebody a question, you force their minds to consider only your question.”  His article then lists and links to several brain research studies looking at questioning.

So, do good inquiry questions  “aid in the teaching and learning of essential understandings” ? (DP Approaches to Teaching) We hope that these questions will take over our students’ thought process, provoking further questions, driving research – inquiry, action and reflection.

This interest in good questions is not new – we find reflections about inquiry itself since humans first were able to record their thoughts:

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.” (Claude Lévi-Strauss)

“I think that probably the most important thing about our education was that it taught us to question even those things we thought we knew.” (Thabo Mbeki)

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” (Eugene Ionesco)

“[…] The art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.” (Georg Cantor)

“The marvelous thing about a good question is that it shapes our identity as much by the asking as it does by the answering.” (David Whyte)

The next question is, how are good inquiry questions for a specific unit of inquiry crafted?

The IB has published a handful of videos about Approaches to Learning In Practice, which do not offer the possibility of being embedded in a blog post.  I urge you to go to this link and watch the video “Inquiry based and conceptually focused mathematics teaching” filmed in a DP maths class, at the International School of  Toulouse. Around the 4 minute mark you’ll hear a lot of discussion about questions.

The video below describes 3 key points to remember in order to develop inquiry questions that are aligned with a unit’s statement of inquiry and that scaffold students’ learning over the course of the unit:

To end, there’s an image on the TeachThought web site which presents you with 20 questions from the inquiry process. “…Hopefully you’ll find the following graphic–and the embedded stages and questions–helpful in your planning, or to distribute to students as they make sense of what could be a new (for them) approach to learning.”

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