From the Magazine

Burning Questions: Using Big Questions That Lead to Big Learning

The BIG Question

I always open my high school English classes in New York City with a big question or a set of questions that are provocative, thought-provoking, mindset shifting and debatable. I ask questions that lead to more questions and set us off into a storm of inquiry. What I call “The BIG questions” ignite curiosity and heighten interest in the learning to come. They guide students to want to think and learn by sparking the inquiry process. 

During that remote learning class, as I taught into the Zoom abyss, I posed a question: “If you could see a simulation or video of how your life turns out, would you want to see it? Why or why not?” Instantly, the chat feature came alive. Answers were pouring in. Students were writing responses and some couldn’t type fast enough. They were writing. They were engaging. A real, live discussion was happening in the chat. Not only that, they were asking follow-up questions, noting quantifiers, making connections, and responding to each other. 

I followed up: “If you could see your life in the future, what might you want to know?” and “What would you definitely NOT want to know?” I heard the click of a mic come on, “Miss, I’m going to just jump in here, if that’s cool,” one student said, breaking the ice. And then more mics clicked on and we were actually talking. A few cameras popped on and I saw students in their bedrooms or in living spaces, surrounded by family members listening in. Finally, I asked, “Let’s say you were in love with someone, and wanted to know if they were the right one. If the technology existed and you could see a video of your future with this person, would you watch it or just see what happens?” The chat filled with “hmm’s” and one student responded through laughter, “Miss, now you’ve got me thinking. I don’t know!” The conversation continued.  

What was all of this leading to? It was all related to a short story to come — a sci-fi story called “Sequence” by author J. Marcelle Corie from the anthology “A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope.” Now, I had students hooked into the moral questions examined in the story. They were not only willing, but eager to read it. The high-interest questions paired with a high-interest text was a winning combination. We read the story, we asked a lot of questions and imagined ourselves in the character’s shoes. Then, we dug into the philosophy of free will, determinism and moral responsibility. Later, the students took to writing about these ideas in connection to the text, and it wasn’t a daunting task because they had already thoroughly explored the ideas. They had a lot of material to pull from in crafting their responses, and were easily able to refer back to the text because it all made such an impression. 

Later that week, a student’s mom emailed me and said, “My son, who usually hates school, is talking about the big question from English class at the dinner table and is telling us about the story you read and the debate in class.” That was a win. In the first few days, this particular student was normally very quiet in class, but suddenly he was fired up and was taking that fire home. That’s the power of simply asking big questions. 

Essential Questions 

Many of us experienced questioning in the classroom that was solely rooted in a correct or incorrect answer structure. Questions were merely checks for understanding, instead of firestarters, with the teacher asking a question having a specific answer in mind. And of course, that’s appropriate sometimes. But “The secret to teaching may be as simple as asking students good questions — and then giving them the opportunity to find the answers,” said Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Distinguished Professor of Boise State University, Co-Director of the Boise State Writing Project, and an internationally-known teacher, author, and presenter. He described an essential question as one that “Frames a unit of study as a problem to be solved. It should connect students’ lived experiences and interests (their only resources for learning something new) to disciplinary problems in the world. And it should connect what they learn back to the real world, where they can put their new understandings to work.” Essential questions are open questions, with no exact right answer. Wilhelm noted the key to crafting successful essential questions is in creating compelling questions that lead to ongoing discussion and authentic (real-world connected) learning. 

Big Questions Work Everywhere

Big questions are not just for English class or remote learning. They work across content areas and are particularly effective at generating lively participation in the live classroom. Students generally enter my classroom excited for the day’s big question. Does that put some pressure on me to make them count? Yes. And realistically, some don’t fly as high. The point, however, is to make engaging connections between academic content areas and the real world. You’re doing something right when you foster relationships and a classroom culture in which students feel comfortable to think, be critical, and even argue. All of this is the pathway toward deeper learning. Academic subjects aren’t just theories in textbooks to be memorized and recalled. Asking big questions builds a bridge between the learner and the content — one they may just take to the dinner table and beyond. And that’s … big.

How to Craft Big Questions

  • Think BIG: Look for the overarching themes, moral issues, and big concepts of the intended topic. 
  • Make Connections: Create questions that form a link between those big ideas and real life. 
  • Keep it Open: Your essential question should be open-ended with no exact correct answer.
  • Explore Human Experience: Explore how learning the content relates to the human experience, human emotion, or morality.
  • Keep It Debatable: Let your question intentionally leave room for argument, and let your students run with it. 
  • Know Your Audience: The more you know your students, the more likely your questions will land. Know their interests, passions, trends, and concerns. 

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teacher, teaching coach, and educator in New York City. She created Right to Read, a literacy acceleration program for teens, steeped in social justice. She also created the progressive learning models, The Big Idea Project and We the Change. Jennifer is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation. She is a regular presenter at conferences and frequently writes about education, adolescent literacy and innovation. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter: @jenniferlmgunn.