One of the pieces of feedback I have noted regularly in pre-service teacher (PST) mentor reports is that writing good inquiry questions is often glossed over. I don’t remember being taught how to write good questions. Most of what I write here is from what I learned on the job through trial and error, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be taught.
I am not talking here about the little questions you ask in class while standing up the front (though they too need careful consideration). I am referring here to the questions that frame planning. This blog post is specifically for my History and Social Sciences (HASS) curriculum classes but the ideas are transferable to other disciplines because the conceptual foundation is in differentiation, not content.
Linda Graham and Kathy Cologon recently wrote a useful explainer on differentiation so I won’t go into huge detail, you can simply click through. The essence is that differentiation happens best in the planning, rather than in the classroom. If a teacher plans for differentiation, the teacher is not waiting for the students to fail, finish or get bored before the work is modified or extended. Furthermore, inclusive differentiation plans lessons in a way that the students that need differentiation do not feel like they are “different” from the other students in their class. Much unproductive behaviour can stem from students trying desperately not to be singled out. The technique I illustrate below is grounded in inclusive education in that it works towards making being different normal. In fact, it should go further than that: students should feel empowered and successful through the topics you plan.
The inquiry question that informs a lesson or lesson sequence is vital because it sets the tone for the entire experience. If the inquiry question is formulated using an inclusive framework, the chances of the learning experience being suitable for all abilities increases. I am not saying this method is fool-proof, but it’s a good start because the way you begin something tends to be the way it plays out.
The framework I begin with to frame inquiry questions is the Maker Model for Gifted and Talented Education. This does not mean that my lessons will only be for gifted and talented students. Consider the following (very busy and dense) Venn diagram then scroll down to my quick overview.
A high-quality differentiated general curriculum and a high-quality curriculum for gifted learners have four things in common: flexibility, authenticity, meaningful outcomes, and is challenging. With these in mind, I frame inquiry questions, deliberately and mindfully.
Let’s take an example from the Australian Curriculum HASS: Year 3 (History Strand) that considers the curriculum requirements within an inclusive education framework. I’m just going to do History for this blog post, though a rich HASS lesson sequence could include all strands…and a robust Year 3 lesson sequence would integrate many disciplines.
Step 1: What are the students required to know by the completion of Year 3 (what boxes does the teacher have to tick)?
By the end of Year 3, students identify individuals, events and aspects of the past that have significance in the present. They identify and describe aspects of their community that have changed and remained the same over time. They describe the diverse characteristics of different places at the local scale and identify and describe similarities and differences between the characteristics of these places. They identify connections between people and the characteristics of places. Students explain the role of rules in their community and the importance of making decisions democratically. They identify the importance of different celebrations and commemorations for different groups. They explain how and why people participate in and contribute to their communities.
This may seem like a lot to cover but the conceptual essence is in the semantics. This essence is what you are going for in framing an inquiry question because these are the concepts which run through HASS education. I have bolded them.
Essentially by the end of Year 3 students should understand why something is significant, how things change and stay the same, the importance of difference, and connections between members of the community. If students can do that, they are beginning to think critically and you are facilitating their becoming active and informed citizens. This underlying reason for teaching the content, then becomes the pipeline for your passion because you have a reason for teaching the content. Teacher passion goes a long way to addressing many unproductive behaviours.
Step 2: Check out the content you MUST cover to tick those boxes
Again this is in the semantics. The words a curriculum document uses. Does it say “include” or “might include”? Look carefully. Again they are bolded. It is usually the little words that make all the difference. They also empower you to design lesson to suit your students. According to the following, Australia Day, Anzac Day and National Sorry Day are compulsory, but others are up to you because the document says “for example”.
This is where knowing your students comes into it. The celebrations chosen should reflect the cultural diversity in the class. This provides opportunity for your students to demonstrate their expertise, because regardless of their differing abilities, they have some idea of who they are and where they come from. They hold expertise that the teacher does not. Empower them and allow them to celebrate their differences.
Step 3: Write an inquiry question that considers the curriculum requirements and inclusivity
The curriculum provides general inquiry questions which are very useful in framing the specific question presented to a class, but those questions are general. They are not specific to your school. Even if the Head of Curriculum wrote the question for you, it would not be particular to your class. So again its all in the semantics.
So our question needs to help the students
- Continuity and Change
- Similarities and differences (including the importance of difference)
- local Aboriginal peoples and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples
- the character of their local community
- important National days
- significant days for people in the local community
- flexible in how they approach answering
- about the school community (authentic)
- connect with their local community (meaningful outcome)
This all sounds very complicated but a lot of thought can go into a question as simple as:
Does everyone celebrate Christmas? Why or why not?
The question can be researched in multiple ways; can be researched within the school community and students can feel like experts because each is already one of the “everyone”s; it can be connected to the school community as research widens to other classes, parents, friends, neighbours, itinerants; students can be challenged to reflect on the fallible nature of historical research because they will discover they will never be able to find out from “everyone”. On challenging: I prefer to think of this in terms of complexity. The more complex a question, the more bits you can divide it up into. Students can then become experts in a “bit” and inform the class on their knowledge. You can allocate the sections according to ability, let the students choose according to their interest or negotiate a combination of both. By using a complex inquiry question, students don’t have to know who is doing the basic bits and who is doing the complex bits. They are all working together to solve a problem and every student’s contribution matters.
The teacher can guide the investigation of the why and why not by considering the importance of other National days and open up discussion about the significance or not of those days to diverse groups and that content can be explored specifically with members of the local Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander community.
Throughout all of the research, students are developing an understanding of significance, continuity and change, connections between people in communities, and why difference is an important part of community. Most importantly students learn that difference is okay because difference is normal.
A lot of thought goes into setting up inclusive lesson sequences and that is the key to inclusive education. Planning it.