Closed Questions in Inquiry

In the inquiry world closed questions have gotten a bad reputation.  This is for many reasons.  Whether it’s because they don’t lead to deep learning, they’re “googleable”, they tend to be content focused (and easily standardized when it comes to assessment), or they don’t drive powerful inquiry, closed questions have become synonymous with bad questions.

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Closed questions: are they bad?

And this shouldn’t be the case.

Closed questions are necessary in learning.  They provide a common understanding of subject matter or content that allows learners to collaborate and create new, and often personalized, meaning.  They provide the jargon of a discipline or focus area, language that allows users to speak intelligently, engagingly, persuasively, and confidently when it comes to communicating in and about the realm of said discipline.  And they are the first step in the research phase of inquiry.  These closed questions must be answered if deep learning and open questions are to be explored.

Let me provide some context.  English students cannot discuss the open question of how are stories important and powerful vehicles change? without understanding the tools within the English classroom, such tools as point of view, metaphor, symbolism, satire, and so on.  Likewise in the History classroom, learners cannot discuss the open question how can injustices in our history be justified depending on one’s perspective?  This question cannot be deeply explored without understanding, on the surface, the causes and key players in several historical turmoils.

What is the most powerful worksheet you can assign a student?

It is the one the student creates.

Try this on for yourself.  When an inquiry topic has been selected (whether it’s the teacher’s or the student’s) have students brainstorm in pairs as many closed questions as they can for 5 minutes.  Only provide 5 minutes – this is key as this will be extreme on-task time.  Challenge them to get as many questions written down together in the 5 minutes as they can.  Once they’re done have them prioritize this list in terms of the most critical must-know questions towards the less critical.  This list will be their first phase of research.  These closed questions will be the foundation of their inquiry, the jargon and common understanding that will enable them to dig deeper in to their inquiry.

Don’t overlook the importance of closed questions in learning.  Just don’t have these closed questions drive learning.  This is where open questions come in to play (and a future post at that).

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Don’t overlook closed questions

Please try this exercise on for yourself and leave a comment below sharing how it went in your classroom!

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2 thoughts on “Closed Questions in Inquiry

  1. It has worked out that closed questions not only allow us to as teachers to aide learners to construct understanding to a conceptual level (facts-topics-concepts-generalised principle generalisation) but they are also a visible indicator of when learners are ready to dive deeper into an inquiry, led by a rich student question… launching an ‘independent’ inquiry of interest. They are then better armed to break down their rich question into smaller closed questions to help plan their inquiry in a methodical way, in order to satisfy their curiosity and deepen their understanding.

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