Teaching English

What is so “Big” about Big Questions?

A few years ago, I was working as an educational consultant. Part of my job involved visiting schools that had outlined improvement plans regarding English language teaching and learning and observing classes.

In one case, I was struck by the contrast between the lessons of a regular English as a Foreign Language (EFL) class teacher and an English Through Science teacher. The classroom was the same, the students were the same, but one class went so much better than the other.

We’re going to revisit what I observed and examine why one teacher was far more able to engage her students and facilitate learning. It all comes down to Big Questions and how they can completely change classroom dynamics.

WWhat did I observe?
The first regular EFL group I observed did not go well; the students were bored, they couldn’t pay attention and the teacher struggled to keep them in control. Frankly, though the teacher did her absolute best, the class was a bit of a nightmare.

However, the second class, which took place immediately afterwards, was an outright success – even though it was the same group of students.

In the second English Through Science class, I saw that students were reporting their progress regarding plants they were growing. They analyzed the factors behind the growth of some of their plants and behind the fact some of the plants did not make it through the weekend. Then they discussed photosynthesis and were talking incessantly, raising their hands, practically jumping off their seats. They interpreted charts and drew conclusions.

Linguistically speaking, it was as if I were looking at a different group of students. While in their regular EFL lesson they were in the drill and kill mode, with short sentences that barely made the cut, in this lesson the sentences were rich in vocabulary and structure, much more sophisticated than anything they produced just 60 minutes ago.

HHow did Big Questions make the difference?
All the teacher did was give meaning to her lesson via a Big Question. The lesson was relevant, was meaningful, and though children struggled with words, the cascade of ideas and opinions they wanted to share was unstoppable. What a difference a Big Question had made.

A Big Question makes you think; it makes you bring your previous experience and knowledge to the discussion. A Big Question may not have a unique, correct answer, but any answer that is the result of a collective construction of knowledge will have fulfilled its purpose. We will always have something personal and relevant to say in response to a good Big Question. A Big Question makes me look for evidence to support my ideas. And that kind of depth of knowledge and rigorous thinking is what we as teachers should strive for in any classroom.

Effectively, Big Questions are essential questions that:

are open-ended; have no simple “right answer” and no “yes/no” answers
are meant to be investigated, argued, looked at from different points of view
encourage active “meaning making” by the learner about important ideas
raise other important questions
naturally arise in everyday life, and/or in “doing” the subject
constantly and appropriately recur; they can fruitfully be asked and re-asked over time
Here are some examples of Big Questions:

Are animals essential for man’s survival? Explain.
How would our culture be different without computers?
Why is science an important subject for us to study? How has science improved our lives?
HHow are Big Questions more meaningful?
In language learning, Big Questions have an additional role: they make us use language meaningfully.

We may struggle with what we want to say, but if the Big Question is relevant and challenging, students will always leave their comfort zone and look for ways of participating in a discussion. All we teachers need to do is provide scaffolding so that they can use new words and sentences meaningfully.

A Big Question makes learning move from being about language and turns it into learning through language. And language is, above all, a means to an end, the end being meaningful communication.

Perhaps it is good to bring up what experts say about questioning and discussing using big questions:

Student engagement using good questions and discussion lead to

Improved learning outcomes
Higher levels of thinking
Improved student achievement (Applebee et al., 2003; Murphy et al., 2009).
Employers report that these skills are important to career success (Wagner, 2008) and these skills support critical thinking and collaborative problem solving (Schmoker, 2006; Wagner, 2010).

That is why Cornerstone and Keystone center each unit around a Big Question: because this makes learning relevant, meaningful, and socially constructed. All that learning is about.

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