The Power of Inquiry
– Project-Based Learning Part 2

"Do questions help you learn?"

In Part 1 of my series, Project-Based Learning (PBL), I talked about the probing question. The probing question kick starts the project, providing motivation, inspiration, and direction for the activity. But this is only the beginning. The next step is to engage students with more questions. This time, the teacher does not ask the questions. The students do.

In Part 2, students learn how to ask questions, which questions to ask, and what to do with those questions after they have been asked. That seems like; and it is.

Why so many questions?

Do Questions Help us Learn?

“Which type of question helps us learn better, solve problems through analysis, and generates more ideas that inspire more learning?”

Questions fall into two categories. One category is Closed-ended Questions. Otherwise known as Detail-oriented, Closed-ended Questions focus on specific pieces of information. I use the following question as an example. How many planets are there in our solar system? Before 2006, the answer was nine. However, given the size and distance from the sun, Pluto was downgraded to a “dwarf planet”. This means, there are eight designated planets in our solar system. The answer is detailed and specific.

The other category is Open-ended Questions. Otherwise known as Conceptual, Open-ended Questions prompt for inferences from information. Open-ended Questions inspire discussion. The student is required to read, abstract information, synthesize, and process data to answer the question. There is a vast difference between open and closed-ended questions. Both are valuable. Used the right way, students learn a great deal.

Which type of question helps us learn better, solve problems through analysis, and generates more ideas that inspire more learning?

Image by GraphicMama-team from Pixabay
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Power of Open-Ended Questions!

“…helps put ideas into focus.”

The probing question helps students see the big picture. It also provides focus for addressing the problem. However, left alone, students may not know what to do next. To push the project forward, students learn how to ask questions. This is the inquiry process of any research project. I call it the Inquiry Landscape.

To provide better insight into the Inquiry Landscape, I use a real probing question and a group of three professionals. This is their story.

The Probing Question

How can young people transition successfully into adulthood upon graduating from high school?

How Do You Start the Inquiry Process?

“…both the teacher and the student should be able to answer the ‘who cares’ question…”

First, convert the probing question into a statement.

High school seniors need to transition successfully into adulthood after graduation.

Step 1: Generate Questions

Students are given 3 to 5 minutes to generate as many questions as possible. Provide the following guidelines for this exercise.

  1. Ask as many questions as possible!
  2. Convert any statement to a question.
  3. Write down all the questions in a list.
  4. Do not answer questions now – time for this later.

My group’s responses to the project statement.

  • How do I get a job
  • Where will I live?
  • What will I do to support myself?
  • How do I start out supporting myself?
  • How do I set a career path?
  • How am I going to get around?
  • What supports do I have to help me transition successfully?

Step 2: Prioritize Questions

Students will then rewrite the list, prioritizing the list of questions from most important to least important.

My group prioritized the list this way.

  1. How do I set a career path?
  2. How am I going to get around?
  3. How do I get a job?
  4. What supports do I have to help me transition successfully?
  5. What will I do to support myself?
  6. How do I start out supporting myself?
  7. Where will I live?

This step helps put ideas into focus. Students will determine what is important to them. From here, they determine how to proceed with the project. However, this is not the time to start doing the research. Students need to be clear on what type of information they should be looking for. Then they need to know what to do with that information.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Step 3: Need to Know

For each question in the prioritized list, students will determine what they need to know. The process works like this for each question. On a separate piece of paper, students will write down the first question.

How do I set a career path?

Underneath the question, write down the following fill-in-the-blank statement three times.

I need to know ___________________________________________________________.
I need to know ___________________________________________________________.
I need to know ___________________________________________________________.

The participants in the group need to identify three specific things to answer the stated question. For example, my group of participants gave these responses.

I need to know what my career is.

I need to know what my end goal is.

I need to know what the requirements are to reach my career.

This is a good starting point for the research. However, there is one more step.

Step 4: Identify Tasks and Activities

With each statement, students need to list one to two specific tasks that they need to do.

For example, the first statement was. I need to know what my career is.

With prompts from me, the group determined that they needed to do the following to answer the question: How do I set a career path?

  1. Identify personal interests.
  2. Identify personal strengths.
  3. Do online research on career inventories.

Students will do this for each statement. Students need to be clear on what to look for and why it is important.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Continued Inquiry

“…now have a structured path to follow.”

Students – your learners – need to work through Steps 3 and 4 with every question in Step 2. Doing so, students now have a structured path to follow. They also know what they are looking for. They are not trying to search for the unknown.

School-based PBL activities take several weeks and consume much of your students’ time. For this reason, their efforts need to be focused.

My group continued with the process until they had a list of “need to know” statements associated with a list of tasks. They were able to successful complete the Inquiry Landscape phase of the PBL activity.

Summary

The Inquiry Landscape may take several sessions to complete. It is a mentally challenging process to think of both questions and answers. Carefully structure and plan this activity. Aside from the actual research for the project, the bulk of the work occurs here.

Have fun!

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