Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Back to the future with inquiry questions

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Quality Inquiry Questions:  a difficult genre

In two previous Spatialworlds postings I explored the nature of geographical inquiry and the importance of asking questions. In this posting I will explore the need for and nature of inquiry questions in the curriculum documents of the Australian Curriculum: Geography.

 “The purpose of an inquiry question is more important than its form. They are about meaning-making and not knowledge acquisition.”  Wiggins and McTighe

A contentious aspect of the development of the Australian Curriculum: Geography has been the need and desirability of developing inquiry questions throughout the F-10 curriculum. Over the past two years, they have been in, then out, then in and then … etc.  The reason for this vacillation lies firstly in the conflicting views over the inquiry questions. One argument against them is that they will unnecessarily guide the approach (encourage a teacher directed approach) to the curriculum and take away the opportunity for students to develop their own inquiry questions. On the other hand, some have thought that the inquiry type questions are necessary because they will provide a source of inspiration for teachers to develop high quality geographical inquiry which may be beyond students in the first instance and be required to guide the ‘non-geographer’ geography teacher. The other reason for the in and out scenario for the inquiry questions is that it is extremely hard to develop high quality questions which focus on conceptual understandings rather than just finding answers to content.

This impasse set me on a quest to find out what is being said about developing high quality inquiry questions. This in turn led me directly to the learning design and backward planning gurus of Wiggins and McTighue. 

The following thoughts have been inspired by their work, my own experience in schools and as a curriculum writer in developing ‘questions beyond the worksheet’. It is certainly worth having a good read of their work on learning design and consider the need to start with the end in mind. In the case of the Australian Curriculum: Geography, that end in my view should be the Achievement Standards 

If I was to develop the Inquiry questions for the year levels of the curriculum the question should be crafted to:
·   inquire into the big ideas and understandings of the year level

·    provoke discussion as an open question (never to be a closed question inviting a yes/no response)

·    limit reference to specific content. To do so one needs to blur their eyes to the content. And focus on the learning/assessment requirements (achievement standards in the Australian Curriculum).

·   involve a degree of contestability – making balanced judgements based on content studied

·    make connections to prior learning and possible future connections in the curriculum narrative.

·    stimulate and focus thinking,

·    not require prescriptive answers.

·    provide opportunities to open up inquiry with multiple pathways of thought

·    not be a checklist of the facts to learn.

·    enable the students to extend the question and in turn own the inquiry.

·    focus on meaning-making and understanding and not the recall of facts

·    the question should raise further questions – not just an answer.

·    be rhetorical to promote thinking.

·    3-4 fundamental understanding questions per unit.

·    accessible in terms of language to students and the ‘non-geographer’ teacher.

·   recognisable in the Content Descriptions and Achievement Standards of the curriculum.

·   identify the relevant concepts for the unit in the questions.

·   be conceptual and abstract requiring the teacher to model and develop contexts to demonstrate – not teach them through content questions.

In essence the questions developed must be crafted so that the teacher can understand them – hence these questions are primarily focussed on the teacher to design their program.

To help with developing ‘more than worksheets’ questions I have gathered this list of lead-in phrases – they may serve to steer us away from the ‘teacherly’questions as Wiggins and McTighe call them.

To what extent…?
What makes …?
How can ...?
When is it …?
Why should …?
Why would …?
How does …?
How do you know …?
How is …?
What do …?
When should …?
When is …?
How would …?
What should …?
How much does …?
Is there a …?
How well …?
In what ways might …?
What would happen if …?
Under what conditions …?
On balance …?
Why …?
Why would one say that …?
Why do you think that …?
How would you respond …?
Who is …?
Evaluate …?
How accurate is the …?
How well can …?
When do you …?

Having said all that, it is a huge challenge to develop high quality inquiry questions based on these premises. When writing the questions one often falls back into old habits of focussing on the content of the curriculum, rather than the understandings based on the concepts. I defy anyone to create excellent question without trialing them with teachers and students as they become familiar with the curriculum content. If inquiry questions finish up being in the Australian Curriculum: Geography I suggest that they will have the status of draft for quite some time. Hopefully with trial and error, teachers and students will develop questions that actually challenge, stimulate and draw out the concepts and understandings of the geography curriculum.  With an electronic curriculum which can be altered and updated constantly I would like to think that ACARA will do just that – to ensure that the questions are of the highest relevance to the conceptual aims of the curriculum.  If we cannot develop the highest of quality questions, maybe they should not appear in the curriculum but left to teachers and students to develop as they see fit.  However from the feedback we have received in AGTA there seems to be a feeling that teachers would like to have some guidance about where they should be going as they plan their programs. It will be interesting whether you will see inquiry questions in the curriculum when it is published (hopefully in May this year!?

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