Adding Friction. How Do I Teach Students to Write a Researchable Inquiry Question?
Small children are always asking questions: "How do I eat a pomegranate? When will I be able to pierce my ears? Why is Aza's skin so much darker than mine?" Their lives are full of wonder, some of it researchable. They assume that the answers are bounded, concrete truths. They think, "An expert can tell me the answer—it's just a matter of time before I will know all the answers too" (King and Kitchener 14–16).
According to Google's cofounder and CEO, Larry Page, and their head of search, Amit Singhal, Google's search team also operates on the belief that wondering can be effectively served by supplying the facts (Leslie). Singhal aspires to eliminate "every possible friction point between [users], their thoughts, and the information they want to find." Eventually a search-chip implant will deliver the answer without our even asking. "When you think about something you don't really know much about, you will automatically get information," Page asserts (Leslie). No questions asked.
It turns out that serving up answers in this way has a soporific effect, as Singhal confesses. Google's user-behavior studies show that "the more accurate the machine gets, the lazier the questions become." No questions asked. No thinking done.
QUESTIONS DETERMINE THINKING
Yet it is precisely the kind of questions we ask that direct the thinking we will do. A well-crafted inquiry question shifts our mental process from aggregating to analyzing, from enumerating to evaluating, and from reporting to reflecting. When presented with facts, data, and a variety of viewpoints, an inquiry question shifts us to synthesizing—a process in which we are "putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole [and] reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure" (Anderson and Krathwohl 68). Inquiry questions. Expert thinking.
Educators initiate the desire to know in various ways. A speaker, field trip, or nonfiction reading, combined with a question log, can fuel students' genuine curiosity, according to Sara Oremland, teacher-librarian at Albany High School, California. Connie Williams, a teacher-librarian at Petaluma High School, California, works one on one with students to see how a personal interest, such as clothing styles, might be reflected in attitudes about race or gender during a period of history. Some Palo Alto elementary school teachers ask students to sketch, wonder, and record interesting ideas and conversations each evening in a "Night Notebook."
Wonderings need refinement. Modifying the language in a question can prompt for nuanced analysis and judgment by implying that a range of options must be considered. Oremland characterized this as turning an information retrieval question (e.g., "Is Margaret Atwood a feminist author?") into an essential question (e.g., "To what extent is Margaret Atwood a feminist author?"). The student shifts from looking for a single answer to weighing trade-offs against multiple criteria: "What is the solution . . ." becomes "What are the most promising solutions . . ." and "Why is . . .?" becomes "To what extent should . . .?" By giving students time to revise their questions so as to consider various perspectives, educators foster learning in which open-minded inquiry is valued.
REFOCUSING ON AN AUDIENCE
Besides making a personal connection to the subject and revising a question multiple times, the students' research should be grounded in a genuine need that an audience has for the information. As you watch a child negotiate with a parent about how much Halloween candy to eat, you have to acknowledge that even very young children know that their audience will give credibility to selected information presented in a specific manner. Deborah Meier (deborahmeier.com), an American educator with progressive ideals, has long advocated that student learning must evolve from questions representing five habits of mind, two of which consider audience and purpose:
Viewpoint: How else might this look like if we stepped into other shoes? If we were looking at it from a different direction? If we had a different history or expectation? This requires the exercise of informed "empathy" and imagination. It requires flexibility of mind.
Relevance: Does it matter? Who cares? ("Habits of Mind")
For an infographic assignment, Connie Williams and I have been experimenting with a matrix (2014) that contains three prompts related to audience and need:
- Who is an audience that might care about this problem?
- What is the problem or issue that they would care about?
- What choices, options, or trade-offs will they need to think about in order to make a decision?
I tested this question matrix using the topic of tooth decay at a professional development workshop. Liberated by brainstorming, the teachers were intensely animated: "What if the audience were pregnant mothers? How would that affect the choices?" "Procter & Gamble would want to know how to make a better toothpaste formula, or maybe just a cheaper compound!"
A DISCIPLINARY LENS
Recently some social studies teachers in Florida were developing inquiry lessons using the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, the national social studies standards. Rather than employing a generic information literacy process, the C3 Framework is based on the specific lenses that civics, economics, history, and geography provide: "Each of these disciplines . . . offers a unique way of thinking and organizing knowledge as well as systems for verifying knowledge . . . that students need to understand and apply" (National Council for the Social Studies 29).
As I watched these teachers wrestle with discipline-specific concepts, skills, and tools, it occurred to me that the inquiry question matrix could apply more broadly to other products besides infographics—if students brought the disciplinary expertise of a political scientist, historian, or geographer to the problems of tooth decay. Each of these real-world researchers reads and writes in different genres, uses and evaluates various types of evidence, and defines and solves a variety of problems associated with sugar and tooth decay using their own disciplinary "ways of knowing." A geographer might analyze state-by-state oral health data, mapping regions and demographic groups to determine if there are regional or demographic variations. An economist might weigh the costs and benefits of various treatments, such as water fluoridation and dental sealants, before offering advice about prevention. A legal historian might look at the historical precedents for regulating certain industries to advise the FDA about options for regulating the sugar industry. Each student-researcher is evaluating evidence, using language, and creating a product that considers the trade-offs in light of their particular area of expertise.
Just as student inquiry evolves, so does your own inquiry on teaching with friction. Your instruction will deepen as you test interventions, develop expertise, and open-mindedly question your practices.
COMMON CORE COLLEGE AND CAREER READINESS ANCHOR STANDARDS FOR WRITING: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7