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« When Kiwanians get it... | Main | Deb Stafford »

What's an authentic question?

Never ask a question to which you think you know the answer - Junior Great Books training

Why do so many school "research" assignments fall flat? One big reason is because they don't ask students to answer an authentic question - only to supply a "right" answer.*

A genuinely authentic question may have mutliple right answers, no right answers, or no answers at all, only the conclusion that consists of more questions. Nobody knows at the outset of the assignment what the answer will be. The task should be a reseach assignment, not a fishing trip for pre-determined outcomes.

During my training to lead Junior Great Books discussions many moons ago, I encountered the statement made above. The exemplar authentic question was, "Why despite having a bag of gold coins and a goose that lays golden eggs, does Jack make a third trip up the beanstalk?" I'd still like to know the answer to this question.

Teachers and librarians, celebrate ambiguity in your teaching - there are very few "right" answers. And don't a few surprises in kids work make teaching a whole lot more interesting?

* Thanks to Jeri Hurd's post that stirred these thoughts.

Related writings:
   Embracing Ambiguity
   Designing Research Assignements Students (and Teachers) Love

Somewhat off topic, but I liked this quote:

From the moment kids are asked to subdue their passions in order to get straight As to the time they arrive at a company and are asked to work 70 hours a week climbing the ladder, people have an incentive to suppress their passions and prune their souls. David Brooks

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Reader Comments (6)

Great question, Doug. (Sorry, I couldn't resist) Sometimes it's hard to convince harried classroom teachers of the importance of this and even harder to convince students that they really need to look someplace else besides Wikipedia. If we only ask them to give us back facts, why would they need to dig deeper? This reminded me of many of Jamie MacKenzie's books and posts, and David Loertscher's writings, especially his "Ban Those Bird Units." Thanks too for the link to Jeri Hurd who I have added to my Twitter list of people to follow.

October 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJanet HasBrouck

Thanks for the post. This is something I have been considering for the past year since I began working as a school librarian. I very frequently see pupils with research projects that only require them to answer straightforward questions, but then their teachers complain the pupils never go any further than Wikipedia.

Does anyone have any suggestions for tactfully introducing research projects that will require higher order thinking skills? I should point out that I am a newly qualified librarian and my school classifies my post as clerical, so I am not considered an instructional partner (although I am challenging this classification by trying to integrate the library programme with the curriculum). How can I encourage teachers to create more engaging research assignments without offending them?

October 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Great post, Doug! Reminds me of the oldie but goodie "The I-Search Paper" by Ken Macrorie.

October 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMartha Bogart

Thanks, Martha. I am a big Ken Macrorie fan as well and I actually cite him when I do workshops on this topic. There is an iSearch book for elementary students published by Linworth too.


October 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Our learning commons team is examining the role of teacher and student questioning skills as they relate to student engagement and achievement. We hope to get to a stage where we're not just studying the role of questioning in education but trying new ways to encourage thoughtful and deep questions in both our staff and students. Looking forward to seeing what transpires.

December 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJo-Anne Gibson

Thank you, Jo-Anne. I hope you share what you learn in this exciting endeavor!


December 4, 2015 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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