Ask Great Questions


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Originally posted on sonya terborg:

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I seem to write a lot about questions. The more I look into them, the more I see the massive potential they have to revolutionize the way we teach and the way students learn.

In preparing to share some ideas on questions at our faculty meeting, I came across an article about questions.  The article reflected on the results of a study in which they found that mothers are the people in the world who are asked the most questions each day.  And that the most inquisitive of question askers are four year old girls, who seek answers to an incredible 390 questions per day – averaging a question every 1 minute 56 seconds of their waking day.

I began the meeting by sharing the five most difficult questions kids ask – an interesting mix of curiosities (check out the presentation to see them).

All this was to lead into…

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Education Vacation

I learned a lot on last summer’s vacation to the North Island of New Zealand, but the biggest thing I learned was a lesson I had failed to learn earlier in my informal schooling.

First, a few of the things I learned:

  1. How to drive on the left side of the road, which meant slow and dangerous unlearning about driving on the right. (I never would have made it without my daughter’s coaching: “Dad, you’re drifting. You’re DRIFTING!”)
  2. How, once appointed to be the eminent chief of a tribe of confused Chinese tourists, to follow the nose-rubbing rituals of the Maori leaders and to lead my people in a fierce “haka” dance.
  3. The interesting history of the land, the sea, the wildlife, the Maori and the British, which features the usual depressing wars and extinctions but also redeems itself in hope for this mystical, emerald place.
  4. Why Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough have such a lofty reputation.
  5. What the world looks like ziplining through the canopy of a primeval rainforest.
  6. The look and feel of 4,000 year-old swamp kauri wood.
  7. The habits and personalities of new genera and species of birds: prions, gannets, kiwis, fantails and the virtuosic tui, a honeyeater that shakes the feathery bells on its neck to inspire the exquisite dance of Maori women.
  8. The honeyed sound of Kiri te Kanawha’s voice singing traditional Maori songs.
  9. The ways volcanoes continue to shape the landscape while providing free heat and healing mineral baths to the people of Rotorua (“Rotovegas” to some).
  10. What my lunatic wife and daughter look like in free-fall from a height of 1,076 feet above the concrete in Auckland, where they gleefully jumped from the top of the Sky Tower there.

There was so much more. I wished constantly that I had my short-changed New York students with me, the ones whose explorations had been limited to the handball courts in their local parks. Your identity and sense of potential do, I am now certain, expand with your geographic horizons.

But I was glad they weren’t there to see me learn the lesson that I had failed to learn, which, like most worthwhile lessons, is embodied in a story:

Returning my family’s rental car to the Auckland airport, the Avis attendant in the parking lot noticed scratches on the front fender that I hadn’t noticed before. They hadn’t been recorded on the rental agreement form. A trip through the airport to the manager’s office was required to see if the damage should be assessed to me. The manager quickly cleared the issue up. Seeing the scratches in a photo in the car’s electronic files, I was not to blame. Driving back to the lot to be reunited with my family, I began a conversation with the attendant, who said his name was Roger, and who was a South African of Indian descent. He told me how in South Africa he had been a photo lithographer. He obviously took pride in his identity as a professional who had mastered such unusual skills. He was rueful that his entire profession had died out with the advent of modern information technology. From his demeanor I could tell that he wasn’t bitter, however. Somehow, philosophically, he had attained the equanimity that comes with accepting an unavoidable downturn in one’s destiny.

Roger asked me what I did. When I revealed that I was a staff developer in the schools, he wondered if I ever “got involved with Shakespeare.” “Sure,” I said,” thinking of the several projects I had designed in collaboration with English teachers. The work had been successful at exciting even the least literate of students in Shakespeare. As a byproduct, research projects had been kindled, into the psychology of love, of greed, of altruism, of sociopathy.

I was as proud of my accomplishments as an educator as Roger was of his as a lithographer. Roger and I had formed a fellowship over our shared sense of occupational mastery. So much so that Roger felt free to quote, eloquently, Shakespeare’s sonnet “Let Me Not Into the Marriage of True Minds.”

I hadn’t really expected to delve this deeply into the literary arts with an attendant in a car return lot, but here I was. Roger finished the sonnet as we pulled into the parking place. I turned in the passenger seat to share the one Shakespearean sonnet I had memorized, “My Mistress’s Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.” I had committed it to memory after working with poet Carol Conroy, who advocated “learning poems by heart” (not “memorizing”) because (a) you never knew when you might need them, (b) your life would be infinitely richer for owning them, and (c) they work like prayers to center and calm the spirit.

But the poem wouldn’t come to mind. It had, like the fish that got away, descended deep, without a trace, into the murk of the brain cells associated with long-term memory. I was embarrassed. Me, a teacher of teachers and professor of writing and literature, mute in the company of a parking lot attendant. Who was the better educator here? Why had Roger been able to call up his sonnet and not me mine? Was it the product of the old English system, where bullying pedagogues hammered literature into their pupils’ hippocampi with their yardsticks? Was there something wrong with my system, based more on gentle inquiry?

On the long plane ride back to the states, I began a personal inquiry project to investigate these issues. First, by rote force, I learned my sonnet again, and have been mentally rehearsing it every day when I brush my teeth, wash the dishes, walk to the subway. I had the words, but they lay dead in my brain. They were not alive in my heart, until a recently, when I recited them to my wife Elizabeth on a drive to have dinner with friends upstate. That is where they came to life, creating a stillness of warmth and wonder as we passed through the snowy landscape of the Palisades Parkway. Since then I have recited it on other occasions in the schools, creating that sense of wonder and stillness each time, and with every performance finding new cadences and layers of meaning within it. I have it back, Carol, so not to worry. Those questions about learning, though – they still linger. I will be inquiring into them for a long time, I suspect.

(Note that this blog is a revised re-post from my personal blog “A Voice From the Classroom.”)

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PYP Exhibition Website

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Last week, I led a Roundtable Discussion at the AGIS (Association of German International Schools) Conference.  Following our discussion I acted on something that has been brewing in my mind for a while – the need for a space for resources related to the PYP Exhibition.

Initially, I was thinking of doing this for my school. We have a number of different storage systems in place – various Dropboxes, Drives, planners, folders on our server – and I wanted to ensure we were not missing any of the good stuff that we have worked on.  I also wanted to pull my own resources from the past 12 years of PYP Exhibitions as a mentor, Art teacher, and classroom teacher of Exhibition students, into one location.

I have ended up with this site:  PYP Exhibition Weebly   Web address:

Here is a quick video tour (or just go check out the site yourself!)

I would love to add to this site.

I have already had a number of people make contact who are looking for students to collaborate with their students and for teachers to share ideas with their teachers.  How to incorporate this sharing? One idea I have is to add a new page for students with a Padlet embedded where students can post questions, answers, articles, videos etc to share with each other.  And a similar page for teachers. What do you think?

Hopefully teachers at my school will find this useful (as the Learning Technology teacher, I am not directly working with a homeroom group this year) and other people will pick up some new ideas. It’s success will depend on people contributing and being open to sharing.

If you are embarking on the Exhibition, I would really encourage you to scroll back a few posts to Mary Collins post on how she has begun the Exhibition with her students.  It is a brilliant example of how to guide students towards their own inquiries and how to push them toward developing parameters for their own learning.

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The Question Formulation Technique

I like using the Question Formulation Technique with students. I usually introduce it in one of the first lessons of the year. By introducing it early, I’m trying to make a statement that questions are more important than answers in my class and that it is OK to ask questions that we might not know the answers to. It’s about fostering the disposition of curiosity and acknowledging that different people bring different questions to the table.

My Year 9 History class is currently commencing a unit on Australia’s involvement in World War One. I gave them the over-arching question/topic as simply ‘why was Australia involved in World War One?’ and then we jumped into the QFT.

The first step requires students to produce their own questions. They need to write down as many questions as they can in a specified time period, without pausing to discuss, judge, or answer the questions. This gets a whole bunch of ideas on the table.


The second step is to improve the questions. Instead of open and closed questions, I find it helpful to talk about fat and skinny questions, kids get this, and I always pause here to have a classroom discussion about what a good question looks like and what is involved in producing a good question. I’m continually amazed at their depth of thinking and insight.


The third step is to prioritise the questions. I ask them to choose the best two questions on their tables of four students, but before I do this I ask them to stop and consider the process of working together – ensuring that everyone contributes and nobody dominates.



Finally I get them to graffiti their best questions on the windows using liquid chalk. They love the sense of anti-authoritarianism in this. We then step back and look at the questions and talk about each of them.



Over the course of the coming term we will try to answer each of these questions in some depth. I hope that through the QFT process we have set a platform that we can keep looping back to as the year unfolds. I also hope to have the chance to work more closely with the Right Question Institute in the future.

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PYP exhibition part one

I’m back in the classroom (Grade 5 half way through the school year) after a few years of only teaching a few single-subject classes  every week, and have been struck by the need to maintain a balance – of learning experiences that really push students to challenge themselves and those which recognize that they’re tired and ready for something more relaxing and ‘low key’; of learning experiences that set up situations in which students are forced to interact to complete the task versus those that recognize the needs of more introverted students to  have the space to think things through and follow something up by themselves.  More recently I’ve had to balance the assumption by students that one of the jobs of a teacher is to plan the learning experiences and just ensure that students ‘get on with it’ versus my assumption that the exhibition should involve a high element of student choice and direction so that the learners themselves take ownership of the whole process from start to finish and ultimately learn what they’re ready to learn and what they need to learn.

We haven’t yet started our exhibition unit but with less than two weeks to go until the official starting date I knew that we had to reach consensus on the central idea, if only because other students and teachers have started asking questions like: ‘What is this year’s exhibition about?’ and ‘When can we start thinking about exhibition mentors?’ I’ve been struck by how uncomfortable some people –students and adults – feel when surrounded by ambiguity.  My feeling is that the exhibition will unfold on its own terms within the guidelines established by the PYP curriculum framework and based on the needs and interests of the students – therefore developing the skills, knowledge and conceptual understandings that the students themselves realise they need to complete it.  This idea seems to run against the view that ‘teachers know best’ and ‘planning everything in advance is the key to successful learning’.

So far we had established the following:

  • This year’s exhibition will fall under the transdisciplinary theme of ‘Who we are’.
  • We will be focusing on our passions.
  • There will be some action component.

We have some understanding of what the exhibition day itself will be like, having completed a Y-chart on our recent extended field trip (What will it look like, feel like, sound like?) but we have not yet determined the skills or attitudes that we will need to develop while working towards this culmination of the exhibition unit.

The central idea was now up for negotiation. I set the students the task, in groups, of unpacking the transdisciplinary theme.  At first there were comments along the lines of:

  • Do we have to do this?
  • What do you mean, we have to make the central idea?
  • What’s a central idea?
  • Don’t the teachers do that?
  • This is too hard.
  • What does ‘spiritual’ mean?
  • I don’t understand ‘beliefs and values’.
  • What’s ‘mental health’?
  • This [‘the nature of self’] is really confusing.
  • Why do we have to discuss ‘rights and responsibilities’?

That’s when I had to avoid the temptation to jump in with my own ideas, and allow the students more than a few moments of confusion.  I had to trust my instinct that they would be able to come up with something deeper than ‘Well our passions are just what we’re interested in’ and stop myself from leaping in and giving them the easy way out.  With a little bit of prompting, the odd example and what seemed like 20 minutes of uncomfortable silences each group suddenly, in stages, became animated. Individuals started grabbing the pen and saying ‘I want to write this bit’ and comments started to get deeper:

  • So our passions are about who we really are.
  • But what if we don’t understand who we are because we don’t want to think about it?
  • Children have the right to play and to do things they enjoy.
  • It’s about our dreams, not just our interests.
  • Sometimes our religion stops us from following a certain passion.
  • Why do our parents tell us what we should be interested in?
  • It’s all about our DNA .. our genes … our parents make us what we are and they shape our passions.
  • Health is all about happiness.
  • Being human is about happiness. How can we be happy?
  • We have to think about who we are if we want to be happy.
  • When we do what we enjoy we cooperate, so our passions help our social health.
  • Passions help us think, so that’s our mental health.

Later in the day we tried to pull some of these ideas together to create a central idea.  We analysed the central idea of our current ‘How the world works’ unit against some criteria for an effective central idea which helped the students to reach agreement on what this exhibition central idea needed to be.  So far we have a list of key words:

Our passions … skills and mindsets … health and happiness … sense of self … action

We’ll need to come up with some verbs to link these ideas, and then try our central idea out in the context of the transdisciplinary theme, then play around with it a bit more.  Already I feel a sense of curiosity within the group; a sense of wondering which will allow them to take ownership of the whole process of the exhibition.  It will be a messy, unpredictable process for much of the time but I’m being reminded of the need to let go, to allow long stretches of silence and thinking time and to trust that given some timely prompts and provocations, these learners will find out for themselves what they are capable of, map out their goals, identify their own areas of investigation and in the process take their learning to a deeper level.

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Step aside

People can make choices to support the sustainability of the Earth’s energy resources.”

Me to students : Does that make sense?
Students to me: (after a while)…not really…

Their understanding of “energy” during the pre-assessment task also reflected a superficial knowledge of the term.

And thus our unit of inquiry started.

As I was browsing the net, I came across this picture prompt- a map, which I thought would serve as a great provocation. The annual energy consumption per person. Kids love guessing where countries are, so it was a great way to address some geography at this point.

Annual energy consumption per person

Annual energy consumption per person

I had also been reading Craig Dwyer’s post which inspired me to change my inquiry cycle and use a simpler one. Wonder (while exploring)- Explore (while wondering)- Create (while reflecting)- Reflect (with subsequent wonderings). I was feeling more at ease now.

The map allowed the students to make a lot of inferences based on patterns which slowly started emerging during our class discussions.

Here is a visual of their wonderings once they went home and revisited the map on their class blog.


Over the weekend, I requested the students to help out with resources. I had no clue what they would come up with, but it had to be something to do with energy.

Now the part where I step aside.




At this point, no knows how we are going to sort all this junk into centers.

My students suddenly took charge.  The junk would remain where it was.  They would pick what they wanted and work with whom the felt like.

Here is what happened next…


Soon I would need to step back in and ask them to share their newfound understandings, thoughts and wonderings. Maybe after another day of uninhibited, joyful exploration.

How do you feel the unit should go on from here? It would be great to collaborate with such an amazing PLN present here!


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How do young foreign language learners inquire?

The foreign language-learning environment will always be a formidable space for provocations and explorations. Acquiring a language is not solely limited to learning a new set of vocabulary and grammatical structures, but a great opportunity to incorporate a new value system and a new conception of what is true or false into our lives.

A new language, as its finding a way to belong in a learner’s mind, will collide and have frictions with ideas and ways of thinking that already exist. It will also shake hands with similarities and commonalities that will make it feel like it’s at home; and it will also contribute to the architecture of ideas- just because it’s a good friend. In the words of a fourth grader: ‘ [Spanish] is making my brain grow more tentacles’.

Some teachers might experience frustration when they do not get the questions or responses they expected from students, but whose questions are these, the teacher’s or students’? Students will most definitely have a response for all stimuli they are presented with, except that we will need to look close and learn to ‘read’ their kind of reactions. While teenagers could take the inquiry to a different level by asking profound and thoughtful questions, by contributing sharp points to the discussion or by challenging the ideas being debated, young learners will do their job as well, but in their own way, in their own language, in a manner that corresponds to their biological age. We might hear sounds like ‘mmmm’; tiny (yet gigantic) expressions like ‘aaaah’; we might witness how a smile is drawn on their face; we might notice how they start scratching their head; or a set of hands might invade the air asking for a chance to give sound to a few thoughts.

Thus, I wonder what are some essential features of inquiry detectives? What are the signals that will activate our inquiry-opportunity radar? How to recognize those instants that will trigger attention to a good inquiry? Undoubtedly, being an active listener and observer and embracing such attitude ‘a flor de piel’ (passionately – literally on the flower of your skin) is important, but a willingness to take that journey with students and to welcome anyone who wants to be a part of it is equally important. It might be difficult to see, at first, but students’ wonderings and wanderings might just be able to take us to the destination we wanted to arrive at through different paths.

A pleasant dialogue with 4th graders this week made my day. We were discussing gender in Spanish, and how the ‘a’ at the end of most words is the sign that a vocabulary item is feminine. Right after a few examples were presented, along came the sounds, and the sights, and the hands in the air: “So, do Spanish speaking people feel confused when they see male names like Abdullah or Aditya, which are male but look female?” “So what do people understand when we cannot ‘boy things’ (meaning vocabulary items of masculine gender) with girl words (meaning vocabulary items of feminine gender)?” And this is where I sat and let them discuss. My task while I served as a moderator of the inquiry was to take notes, for some of them could be turned into meaningful and powerful examples that will help them see beyond vocabulary and embrace the universe that inhabits in every word.

This experience felt like a déjà vu for I had already experienced how PYP / primary students are also able to philosophize. Here is an excerpt of that experience on September 21, 2006

It is quite interesting to see how they understand the process of ‘making meaning’, and how quickly they associate sounds to representations in order to understand the difference between 西 and 四 (west and 4) in terms of meaning, sounds and stroke order. As the teacher mentioned that by combining characters we got new meanings as, for example we can use XI (西) to write Mexico. The A ha! moment came when a student asked: “when we want to write ‘Mexico‘  [墨西哥] in Mandarin, does it matter which character we write first?” and another student replied: “Well, when you write Mexico in English you do not start from right to left with O, C, I, X, E, M, do you? So the order does matter.” While for us, adults, this can be a very obvious conclusions, what would we think if I said that the student making this point was in grade 3?

While this observation and realization could have only stayed within my department, I felt it was important to share with my colleagues, for the WOW! Moments in a learning experience can certainly help teachers of other subjects to see how ready students are, how they see things, and how they are able to relate new understanding to new ones. Thus, as I said at the beginning, we are truly lucky at our school, for this kind of moments when we see how one child’s idea have an impact on the whole class (teacher included) is quite unique, and they must definitely be taken into account when designing learning experiences for which we might think students are not ready when they actually are!

We nurture stage artists with applause; and teachers and learners at heart are nurtured with moments like this.

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