Some say “Essential“
Some say “Compelling”
Others say “Open-Ended”
I say “Big Questions” recaptures the spirit of the Socrates in a comprehensive way. Though Socrates made asking questions seem deceptively simple, it’s actually a complex process. Here are a few criteria to creating the kinds of deep questions that lead to incredible conversations.
Criteria #1- Big Questions are clear on the surface but complex underneath
Certain questions cause confusion, throwing off comfortable ways of thinking. This is the critical first step in learning. Lack of clarity, though, becomes an asset that sets in motion the process of thinking through a complex problem. The inherent confusion of a really good questions motivates us to find an answer and- most importantly- invites us to have a conversation.
Criteria #2– Big Questions reveal multiple perspectives.
There is typically more than one way to answer these types of questions. Lack of certainty is again an asset, positioning us intellectually to develop logical arguments to convince others towards our perspective. Seeing multiple perspectives cultivates a spirit of empathy and tolerance for difference and encourages us to find new truths hiding inside conversations.
Criteria #3– Big Questions beg for clear definitions
Hiding inside many questions are words with messy definitions often overlooked. For example, “Does American history reflect the achievement or failure of the American Dream?” Notice the phrase “American Dream” requires immediate and extensive investigation. The American Dream for a union worker, business owner or farmer will be very different. Socrates demonstrated that the starting point for critical thinking is a precise definition of words. Confusion over words fosters conversations between people who must share their own unique understanding of what words mean.
Are Questions really that important?
There are standards in virtually all of the disciplines which reinforce the importance of questions. For example, here are some which come from the recently published C3 Framework for Social Studies. These standards coalesce to form an Inquiry Arc, described as “a set of interlocking and mutually reinforcing ideas that feature the four Dimensions of informed inquiry in social studies.”
Here are the four dimensions
- Developing questions and planning inquiries
- Applying disciplinary concepts and tools
- Evaluating sources and using evidence
- Communicating conclusions and taking informed action
Dimension 1 of the Inquiry Arc which highlights the importance of teachers and students’ abilities to design compelling and supporting questions reflects the heart and soul of the Socrates approach.
Teach Different uses a conversation technique that starts off with a great quotation and ends with an essential question that generates further sharing of ideas.
Here’s an example conversation starter:
Quote: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Mahatma Gandhi
Question: Is sacrificing for others always the right thing to do?