Did you ask a good question today?

Isidore Isaac Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize for physics, when asked why he became a scientist, replied, “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference. Asking good questions made me into a scientist.”

I’ve been discussing inquiry with Jessica at Stars and clouds. We both work in PYP schools, where inquiry underpins all teaching and learning. We’re continuously looking for ways  to strengthen inquiry and to make it more student driven. Our conversation is about how to get learners asking questions, so that the inquiry is theirs, rather than teacher directed. This week’s #edchat tackled a similar issue and educators around the world shared their ideas about (and obstacles in) student directed learning.

Inquiry encourages students to be actively involved in and to take responsibility for their own learning. Inquiry learning allows each student’s understanding of the world to develop in a manner and at a rate  unique to that student. The starting point is students’ current understanding, and the goal is the active construction of meaning through:

  • exploring, wondering and questioning
  • experimenting and playing with possibilities
  • making connections between previous learning and current learning
  • making predictions and acting purposefully to see what happens
  • collecting data and reporting findings
  • clarifying existing ideas and reappraising perceptions of events
  • deepening understanding through the application of a concept
  • making and testing theories
  • researching and seeking information
  • taking and defending a position
  • solving problems in a variety of ways.    (Making the PYP Happen)

Here’s my take on it…

INQUIRY LEARNINGBy whatedsaid | View this Toon at ToonDoo | Create your own Toon

The more we plan, the more teacher directed it becomes. If we have a very detailed idea in advance of where the lesson (or the unit or the semester) will go then it’s not  inquiry. What we do need to plan is really strong provocations to get students engaged in the big ideas, so that they’ll be motivated to question, wonder, inquire, explore… and learn.

Still thinking…  please join me.


25 thoughts on “Did you ask a good question today?

  1. So interesting. BTW, i luv the cartoon.

    My thought is that eliciting questions is critical, but it really works best when the teacher/mentor/coach has a very clear idea of the path they want the student to take. Curiosity is a natural human behavior. There is no longer any doubt in my mind that the organization of Time, Space and Authority in many of the ineffective schools mitigate against that natural behavior.

    But once that hurdle has begun to be overcome, it highlights the need for a very clear path in the teacher’s mind. to the student it’s invisible. To me that magic of of great teaching is a bit like the magic performed by a great healer. It seems that the teacher is doing nothing. In fact, without the sure guidance of hyper awareness it may be fun. And engaging. But it’s not the learning that we know these kids need.


    1. Yes, that magical situation where the teacher seems to be doing nothing… is great! BUT that doesn’t mean the teacher should be stuck on that (albeit invisible) path to the place she wants to the learning to go. She needs to be open to veering off in different directions at times, allowing kids to take their own alternate routes to the same (and sometimes different) destinations, wandering (and wondering) without following the map. Sometimes. That’s how inquiry works. I’m not suggesting that learners just roam free with questions taking them all over the place. (although that has its place in learning too). In the PYP, for instance, each unit has an enduring central idea, essential questions and pre-selected key concepts that guide the inquiry. And I know there are still things that require explicit teaching too!

      Thanks for pushing my thinking (as usual), Michael!


      1. I’m pretty sure we see the same things. I put the comment in the thread out of a certain frustration in watching some of the edu conversation either focused on new technology or a cry for passion. I’m not against either, but my sense is that hard won fight has reached a different stage.

        I have a strong hunch that whoever doesn’t get it by now, is not going to get it by being “convinced.” What I think I see is a small but critical mass of educators who do get it and are doing it.

        My feeling is that we’re now ready to start the next step. Once you understand that respect, collaboration and teacher as guide or mentor or thinking partner is the way to be what are the new skills that kind of practice implies.

        Keep up the great work. You know that I am Huge Fan.


      2. Hello Michael. I have had a long think about your comment about getting it!!
        If you don’t get it will you ever????
        this is a conversation that I have internally and with colleagues who “get it”
        Shall I give up or just keep on believing??????
        I always think about the children who are in situations with teachers who don’t get it and so I will keep on like water on the stone.. it takes ages but eventually you get pebbles.


  2. thanks for the stimulation edna.
    so as the inquiry meanders during the school term, i keep asking myself, “whose questions are these anyway?” sometimes i realise they are mine, either because i am continually modelling questioning, or because -shock horror- i subsconsciously believe my own ‘schooly’ questions are the ones that count more.
    how can i get my students to come up with their own natural questions? perhaps i can broaden the time and place for students’ questions to pop up, i can give students opportunities to record their questions out of school hours, through a blog, Voicethread, Edmodo,Wallwisher, or a groovy-covered notebook. i can coach parents to accept (and not feel obliged to answer), appreciate, marvel and record their young child’s questions in these ways also.
    your toondoo leads me to think that an inquiry is not a neat item to be tucked away in the cupboard after use. my supportive leader, head of junior school, once told me, “the inquiry is never finished.” yep, it’s like a hook, dangling from the classroom ceiling, amnd we can keep adding our questions to it any time we want.


    1. I always enjoy your responses, Brette. I think using a blog (or any of the other suggestions) to encourage, record, and respond to questions is great. And I like the comment that the inquiry is never finished….


  3. Yes, great advice and something I internalized with my son the moment I heard it from you almost a year ago.
    But, a small caveat emptor thing for readers…
    Don’t let the kids know!!!!

    My son for example, knows that he can impress me by just asking the right question at the right time.. And focuses on that art to the exclusion of everything else!

    They’re always two steps ahead, aren’t they?!



    1. Rajendran, I hear you loud and clear but we can’t help it that the kids are trying to solve us at every turn. We were successful in our education because we were good teacher solvers.I think that if we all look back, we always tried to find out what our teachers wanted. It’s human nature. And most of us aren’t good at hiding it. Solution is, be worth solving.


  4. Thanks for posting this and keeping our conversation going. Reading this, I am reminded of the days when I simply told my students last year that I wouldn’t ask any more questions. That the questions had to come from them. They were a bunch of serious inquirers, curious and open-minded and always up for a challenge. They were 8, 9 and 10 years old, although I don’t think this should matter, because we start our lives with asking a lot of questions that are meaningful to us.

    I would like to try this again. YOU ask the questions. I probably haven’t made it so explicit. And then, at the end of the day, we could reflect, asking ourselves “Did you ask a good question today?”

    I will think about the rest a bit more,…. I feel a blog post coming up too!


  5. I love this post Edna. The really important idea that many teachers fail to grasp is that inquiry is student directed not teacher directed. It’s a frustration I have in many planning meetings. You are absolutely right: as teachers we need to plan the provocations that motivate the students to want to inquire and learn.


    1. I’m wondering if helps to think of it as inquiry is student generated but shaped by the teacher. I think it’s fair to say that Socrates knew pretty much where he wanted his students to wind up as he was relentlessly asking questions to get to where he wanted his listener to get. An under appreciated fact is how irritating that process is by necessity.

      Before around middle school it’s not that much of a problem for most students as they have less invested in being the person that is just right. But once being the “smartest” becomes a method of judging self worth, the irritation gets more problematic. With adults (teachers and admins ) folks will vigorously defend their “correctness.”

      Important to remember that Socrates had a bad end because he irritated the wrong people.


  6. To Layla ,

    Thanks for your comment. I think teachers who “get it” need to refocus their energy from trying to convince those who still don’t, towards making it work for their students in their classrooms and schools. Nothing will change attitudes faster than success. Not in terms defined by most educrats and politicians, but in terms that we understand.

    An under appreciated fact is that the rate of educational innovation has been faster than at any time in human history. Bringing billions of people on the planet into the liberation of literacy is epoch changing.

    In richer countries, the new ways of applying well understood principles of learning – Dewey, Piaget and others in that tradition, are growing faster than ever. Education as timely evidence and experienced based interventions to clear a student’s path to knowledge are only now practical because of the nearly ubiquitous connection to essentially free telecommunications in voice, words and video.

    Gibson said “The Future is Here. Just unevenly distributed.” Important to keep in mind that Google is only 12 years old. Now with smartphones, iPads, and other mobile connections the last piece for the most fortunate is in place. To get to reliable communication with those less fortunate, I’m pretty sure it will need Print. But that’s another story.

    In any case, if the word of the new ways of teaching got to the public at large, instead of being focused on convincing other teachers, the whole thing could get from here to there much faster.


  7. I have been reading your blog for about 3 months now and have been really inspired. Our school is a candidate school for the PYP and this is our first year trying to implement the model/framework. I am a little bit worried that the PYP framework will not allow as much free inquiry as I would like to see but your post today came at the right time: yes, we need to make sure we provoke in our students the need to question. They were doing it constantly when they were 3 or 4 years old and now, even at just 6 years old they seem to have lost some of that sense of wonder. On Monday I will start a poster on which we will post all the questions that the students are asking. I think I will divide the poster in two: questions that require inquiry and questions that are facts; this way i hope the students will begin to understand the difference between the two kinds of questioning. I am just brainstorming out loud here but that’s what I do every time I read one of your inspiring posts. Thank you.


    1. Fantastic idea! I have put up a “Wonder wall” but now I think the division into two kinds of questions would be great.
      My students seem to find asking questions difficult, so maybe I will just use the wall to record all types of questions, and then we will look at the difference together.


      1. I have thought a lot about the idea of the question. I have to come to think that the question is often embedded in the conversation and requires some teasing out for the students. I have learned so much about questioning from working with early childhood teachers… who are so skilled at listening intently to the student’s thoughts and discussions. Judith Linfors is marvellous at this for she deconstructs conversations with children. We have used some of these conversations with teachers in order to sharpen their capacity to really listen!
        Maybe we think too much about the form that the question takes… it could look different but still be a question.. just not in our traditional western structure.


  8. As someone who has had the real pleasure of working extensively with PYP candidate and authorized schools, and as one who has been a follower of “Izzy’s” mother’s challenge, “Did you ask a good question, today?” ever since 1988 I applaud the conversation here about fostering inquiry.

    Just returned from a PYP school in Canada where we had exemplary experiences with students’ posing excellent questions about changes over generations using pictures of my mother from age 12 to 90; about artists like Leonardo and Munch; leaving Beijing and why; and exploring Antarctica as an example of an extreme environment.

    All questions stemmed from presenting students with problematic scenarios or provocations.

    Agree with previous posts that inquiry can be free, open and unexpected but should be planned for within the framework of a well-developed unit planner. Timing is of the essence.

    John Barell
    Why Are School Buses Always Yellow? Teaching Inquiry Pre-K-5.


    1. Hi John. Thanks for the comment! I’ve read your work 🙂

      I love the provocation you used for change over generations. We’re actually in the middle of planning a unit on change over time and wondering if I can email you to exchange some ideas?


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