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 three essential criteria to creating Big Questions.
Criteria #1- Big Questions are clear on the surface but complex underneath
Big Questions sometimes 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 Big Questions motivates us to find an answer.
Criteria #2– Big Questions reveal multiple perspectives.
There is typically more than one way to answer Big 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.
Criteria #3– Big Questions beg for clear definitions
Hiding inside many Big 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.
Examples of good questions are also available through Teach Different, a professional development organization geared towards helping teachers design and implement essential-questions. There’s a cartoon you can watch and sign up to receive Think Alouds, each of which features an essential question.
Are Big Questions really that important?
There are now specific standards reinforcing the importance of questions 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.