About Me

After 23 years as a high school social studies teacher, I have taken a leap into library media.
This blog chronicles my experiences making this transition and my learning in that process.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Using Question Stems to Spark Inquiry

As I am working with students on research exercises I am working to find ways to help them with the development of their research questions. The scope of their research and the means by which they explore what they learn are all products of a well-crafted research question. I am observing that students can ask very narrow questions that begin with "what" and very broad questions that begin with "why." Without prompting, they get stuck here: too narrow or too broad. To help them expand their inquiry strategies I have begun using these question stems to push their thinking:

Which?  This stem helps you to collect information to make an informed choice. For example: Which Twentieth Century president did the most to promote civil rights?

How? When you seek to understand problems and perspectives, weigh options, and propose solutions, try starting your question with this stem. For example: How should we solve the problem of water pollution in Long Island Sound?

What if? Your question can change history! Use the knowledge you have to pose a hypothesis and consider options. For example: What if the Apollo 13 Astronauts had not survived?

Should?  A question can invite self or community examination. Using this stem, you can make a moral or practical decision based on evidence. For example: Should we clone humans?

Why? Understand and explain relationships to get to the essence of a complicated issue. For example: Why do people engage in human trafficking?

I like these stems because students can decide on the purpose of their inquiry and use the stem best suited to that end. They also are versatile and can be used in any discipline. What is really key, is they push students away from bias confirmation, from the tendency to ask questions to which they believe they already know the right answer. By using these stems and asking many questions about the same topic, they are pushed to think critically about the subject of their research and remain open to a range of evidence and perspectives before developing their thesis.

Here are examples of the stems being used all about the Civil War:

  • Which Civil War general was the best military strategist?
  • How did King Cotton affect the Confederacy’s waging of war?
  • What if General Lee had better intelligence at Gettysburg?
  • Should Confederate symbols be used in official state flags and logos today?
  • Why did Great Britain favor the South during the Civil War?

And here are literary examples focused on Shakespeare's plays:

  • Which of the characters in Henry IV has the most relevance for today’s politicians?
  • How does Hal’s ascension to the throne affect perceptions of his father’s coup?
  • What if Brutus had made the final funeral oration in Julius Caesar?
  • Should Hamlet have minded his own business?
  • Why does Shakespeare use so many references to the natural and unnatural in Macbeth?

I have used these this year with grade 11 students researching the relationship between socioeconomic class and opportunity in modern America. These stems helped the students focus their topics under the umbrella of the unit essential question.

Today I will use them with grade 10 students. Their essential question is "What should be America's response to the current refugee crisis?" Imagine the research possibilities with each of these stems: Which country has a fair, enforceable policy in this current refugee crisis? How does US response to Syrian refugees compare with US response to Holocaust / Bosnia / Vietnam refugees? What if the US reinstated quotas like those of the 1920s? Should the UN establish and monitor camps for the refugees? Why did the French respond to the Calais Jungle as they did? Using these question stems, the students can focus their research on the aspect of this issue that is most interesting to them, and the teacher can engage with the students about content that the student has chosen so the curricular experience is personalized. Ultimately the students will be writing Op-Ed pieces and they range of issues and perspectives considered will read to rich classroom discussion and mean the teacher is not reading twenty five identical papers. A win-win exercise!

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