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10 Questions for Inquiry: The Bigger the Better!

Inquiry is based on questions, but not all questions are created equally. Big questions open up big spaces for information, while little questions open up little spaces. The size of the answer is predicted by the size of the question.

Suppose that a bug specialist (an entomologist) comes to speak in your Life Science class. After giving a presentation, the entomologist opens the floor for questions. Note what happens when students ask little questions instead of big ones.

Little Questions and Answers

Big Question and Answer

Q: What is your age?
A: I’m 45.
Q: Do you study spiders?
A: No.
Q: Are spiders insects?
A: No. Insects have six legs.
Q: Do any insects have eight legs?
A: No.

Q: How did you first become interested in studying insects?
A: Well, ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by the miniature world under our feet, in our back-yards, and in the air all around us. When I was just your age, I got a magnifying glass, and it was like gazing through a portal into Wonderland. . . .

In the left column, four different students ask little questions, and they get barely a trickle of information from the entomologist. In the right column, one student asks one big question, and the guest pours out interesting information. The questions on the left are thimble sized, but the question on the right is bucket sized. If students can learn to ask bigger questions, they can gather much more information with much less effort.

How can students ask bigger questions?

Students need to recognize simple to more complex questions:

Question Types

Answers on Bloom’s Taxonomy

Big Question Arrow Do?
  • Do- and be-verb questions often evoke yes-or-no answers. (Q: Is a spider an insect? A: No.)
  • Who, what, where, and when questions often require discrete answers. (Q: What is your favorite insect? A: I like the praying mantis.)
  • How and why questions often make space for deeper answers. (Q: How do wasps survive the winter? A: Most wasps in a colony die before winter, but fertilized wasps called queens survive to create all-new colonies in the spring.)
  • Should and would questions reach even deeper. (Q: Should we reduce our use of pesticides? A: We should definitely track how the use of pesticides affects nonpest insects as well as many other parts of the ecosystem. Even so-called pests like mosquitoes are food sources for birds, bats, and frogs. . . .)

Note how different types of questions lead to different levels of answers on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Inquire: A Guide to 21st Century Learning includes a whole chapter on asking questions. It can help your students ask a variety of big questions:

  • Creative questions: Why do we call it Germany instead of Deutschland?
  • Critical questions: Why did the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. enter the Cold War?
  • Sensory questions: What's the best word to describe the texture of a pear?
  • Thought questions: If Saturday were a place, how would it look?
  • Historical questions: Why do people want to build empires?
  • Futuristic questions: Should my town grow, stay the same, or shrink?
  • Global questions: Why do so many people in the U.S. population live by coasts?
  • Metaphorical questions: How is a cell like the solar system?
  • SCAMPER questions: How can I get two or more results from this system?
  • Socratic questions: What could result from your idea?

Teacher Support:

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21st Century Skills:

Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.