Questions and Inquiry

I have a recent publication in E-Learning and Digital Media and the following post is a shorter version of some of the ideas I discuss in this paper on Questions, Curiosity and Inquiry.

Questions are the root of inquiry; they initiate, sustain and invigorate all aspects of deep learning. Questions direct investigation, drive creativity, stimulate discussion and are the bedrock of reflection. In order to understand inquiry we need to deal with questions. I begin by attempting to clarify potential misconceptions of what exactly questions are. I argue for precision in language and I encourage a fuller conception of questions as situations and processes rather than simple sentences. I also discuss curiosity and elaborate on Dewey’s conception of curiosity as a natural resource for use in the training of thought. These ideas on the nature of questions and curiosity help to frame our understanding of the Inquiry Cycle as a model of learning. They can also act as a bridge, closing the gap between theory and practice, contributing insights on the integration of technology in teaching and learning and suggesting new areas of application and research on learning and inquiry.

Questions as Situations

Questions and questioning are familiar processes ubiquitous to human communication––they are what we do. It is perhaps because they are so essentially embedded in the way we think that we find it difficult to step back and contemplate what it means to question. When we describe learning in terms of inquiry we are clearly affirming that learning and questioning processes are somehow intertwined. From an educator’s perspective, it is therefore important to establish a conceptual framework to deal with questions and questioning.

2014-09-16 18.16.04In attempting to provide such a framework one has to begin with a clarification on the use of language. There is a source of potential confusion that arises when we discuss the nature of questions in everyday life. This occurs when we regard questions merely in terms of sentences rather than situations. If I were to ask you now to provide me with a sample set of questions, say for the purposes of illustrating the points I wish to make, you may be tempted to write a list of sentences beginning with words such as ‘who’, ‘what’ or ‘where’ and ending in question marks. Does this list constitute a list of questions? In an everyday sense it may be acceptable to argue that it does; however, for the purposes of any meaningful analysis, standalone sentences like these are insufficient to be considered as examples of questions.2014-10-02 23.27.30

Consider for instance the sentence “What was the result of the match? “ This can indicate a great variety of queries: it may arise as a text message from me to my son and he will take it that I am asking about a football result; in another context, it is plausible that the same sentence would be included in the text of a scientific paper. The meanings in each case are entirely different. When sentences are presented without a situation of context, even when they adhere to the appropriate grammatical conventions to indicate a question format, they are insufficient to warrant consideration as examples of questions. Such sentences indicate only a class of question or question types. A sentence only becomes a question when it is spoken or read and interpreted within a context. Furthermore, we need to consider what responses or feelings arise in the individual as a result of experiencing the sentence-question.

Put together the experience, the response, the consequent feelings and the manner in which each of these in turn transacts with the other and we have a broader, more useful concept, that of the ‘question situation’. Question situations comprise the full extent of a query and context. In education, this distinction between question types and question situations is important. All too often the question type is considered in lieu of the situation. When we talk about textbook and exam questions we often fail to appreciate the full context in which the student encounters the question.

Goal-oriented Questions versus Intrinsic Curiosity

This conceptual shift, to regard questions as embedded in situations rather than standalone entities, gives rise to further linguistic challenges. We often talk about a person ‘having’ a question and our immediate tendency is to fix and locate questions in the mind of individuals. This is understandable as we regularly seek information by means of a question and expect matters to be resolved by means of an answer. However, this information seeking is always undertaken within a wider context or purpose. We wish to know the time so as not to miss the train and so on. We require constant feedback as we go about the accomplishment of the goals we set in daily life. 2014-07-15 15.23.14In instances when we ask questions such as to seek directions or test the temperature to see if we need a coat or search the Internet, we are seeking information to help us progress or decide upon a course of action. These questions are functional in that they are directed at the achievement of a goal. However, this is precisely the reason why we should regard questions within their wider context. When we seek information in this way there is always pretext and subtext, an underlying purpose and setting.

However, what of question situations that appear unrelated to an external goal or purposeful activity? What happens when a strange object catches our attention or we investigate a novel experience as when a child plays with sand and so on?   Clearly such a posture arises directly from an intrinsic interest in a situation or opportunity. In the absence of external goals these impulses are usually described as curiosity. From an educational perspective, this distinction between goal-oriented questioning and questions that arise from intrinsic curiosity is significant. The notion of harnessing natural curiosity as an enabler for learning is evident in many writings on education from Plato and Confucius to Montessori, Brunner and of course Dewey. In school contexts, much pedagogic design and classroom practice is directed at stimulating curiosity.

Helpfully, in the English language we usually say that we ‘find’ a situation or object curious. This recognises the transactional nature of curiosity and that it is a characteristic of the interplay between individual and environment. Once again the notion of question situations is reinforced especially so with intrinsically oriented questions. From an instructional perspective, we need to be mindful that we are trying to bring about situations with certain qualities. We cannot manufacture curiosity the best we can do is create the conditions that will facilitate it.

Questions and Decisions

Often our inclination is to regard questions as static or fixed. We often regard decisions we make about a future course of action in terms of a single point or question. Even when we take context into account we tend to reduce the situation to a single point rather than a continuous dynamic. Consider the following story:

Three hikers were traversing the mountain range when a dense fog enveloped them. They needed to decide whether to progress further to the next town or to turn back. Going forward was a shorter journey but involved a greater risk, as there were dangerous cliffs ahead.   Going back was longer and would mean loss-of-face, as they would not achieve their stated goal. They argued for some time and eventually they split up; two went forward and one back to base.

Suppose I were to stumble upon this group as they were arguing on the mountain. I, or even they, might say they were considering the question of whether to go forward or back. However, it is easy to see that that was not the real issue at hand. They were weighing up the balance of increased personal risk in going forward against the shame and disappointment or going back. Perhaps, they were also considering future consequences such as the camaraderie of the group–whether to stick together or each to act as an individual. These were underpinning questions and the outcome for each individual was the selection of a future direction. So rather than single points we have a complex interaction: questions arise, questions are considered, some lead to other questions, some grow while others get resolved.

Locating questions in terms of a single point in time, place or person seems unsatisfactory. Questions are nebulous and difficult to pin down. It is more useful to consider questions in terms of dilemmas of disturbances that propagate outward. In the story above the fog precipitated the argument and so on. The question may be regarded as a state of affairs. Questions have trajectories.

Open and Closed Questions

We often refer to open and closed questions and intuitively we recognise that some questions may be quickly resolved while others seem to propagate outwards leading to an endless sequence of possibilities. Consider for example, the question one might ask while scanning for a particular author in a bookshop: “Does the letter P come before S on the shelf?” (q1). For most people this is easily and quickly resolved; a rapid internal recitation of the alphabet and the matter is settled.

In contrast, recently a teacher’s ICT discussion group reported the following question, as asked by a child: “Why is the alphabet always in the same order?” (q2). This question perplexed many adults and through subsequent discussions I came to hear about it. It is as if the question caused a ripple of curiosity not just on the nature of the alphabet but also as to why children frequently ask such profound and apparently obvious questions.

What’s interesting is perhaps, and I can only speculate on this, the child who asked the q2 question expected a straightforward answer. From a child’s perspective, q1 and q2 are closed questions not too far apart in their nature––matters easily resolved by means of new information. However, for others, including myself, q2 is qualitatively different in nature to q1. For q1 (the order of letters) one knows there is an answer to the question, one has a strategy to arrive at the answer and importantly, with the answer comes a form of closure to the situation. On the other hand, for q2 (why the order of letters) one can only speculate if there is an answer, there is no obvious strategy available to arrive at an answer (as many possibilities would need to be considered and investigated), and finally, one can sense that in attempting to resolve the question––far from closing off a situation––new areas of inquiry will be opened up.

Questions and Critical Thinking

Consider again the child’s question (q2) on the order of the letters of the alphabet. To this kind of question many adults might say “Oh! I never thought about that”, what they mean is that their attention has never been drawn to it. As adults we cannot possibly attend to all of the stimuli that we encounter and, as a means of dealing with such complexity, we have developed schemes to manage how, when and what we will pay attention to. In education, critical theorists promote a model of adult learning centred on awareness and transformation of previously taken-for-granted assumptions. The challenge for many adults is awareness of what would otherwise be taken for granted and this begins with attending to these assumptions.What are New Year's resolutions and why they seldom work

Children often ask questions that initiate critical thinking in adults. For example, I remember the following conversation with my father from when I was about five or six years old:

Me           “What’s that tall thing sticking up from the building?”

Father   “That’s called a crane it’s used to lift things

Me           “A crane! I see! Yes but who decided to call it a crane?”

Father   “I don’t know it’s just called that I suppose

I suggest that from the perspective of a five year old, the question may be regarded as nothing more significant than a request for more information on the situation. If my father had answered: “the government get to name things” I may well have been content with that and closed my line of questioning. Thankfully, he answered honestly by saying he didn’t know and implicit in his response “I never thought about that”.   As adults we may be impressed when we hear children ask potentially critical questions but what is really occurring is that our attention is drawn to previously uncontested assumptions.


Thus far I have argued that we consider questions as situations characterised as disturbance, disequilibrium or matters that must be attended to. In many instances such matters can be quickly closed off and resolved; however, there are also questions that open up new concerns, they develop outwards as ripples or as trajectories of inquiry. As educators we should have a special interest in these open questions as they have self-sustaining qualities and are processes that can lead to new insight and understanding–in other words they are learning processes. Consider again the question of why the letters of the alphabet are always in the same order (q2 above). When I first heard this I thought, “that’s interesting I never considered that before”. New possibilities came to mind–why don’t we order the alphabet putting the most frequently used letters first or why not organise to separate the vowels and consonants and so on. My curiosity was aroused. It is this curiosity intrinsic to the situation, which drives the subsequent questions. Curiosity may therefore be regarded as the capacity for one question to stimulate another by means of the level of intrinsic interest that arises.

This characteristic of curiosity, involving as it does a causal connection between attention and interest, is implicitly understood by many teachers. When we talk of arousing curiosity in others perhaps this process of drawing attention and thence desire is really what is involved. Note that the causal relationship is mutual: once attracted, interest arises, interest in turn sustains and enhances attraction.IMG_0587

In many circumstances educators take questioning and the nature of questions for granted; ‘I know a good question when I hear one’ is a common approach. The implication is that you wait for good question situations to arise rather than actively seeking to bring them about. Part of the challenge for teachers is the gap between theory and practice. Insights on the nature of questions and curiosity as discussed above are often difficult to connect with practice and translate to useful strategies for the classroom.

 Note: all the pictures are mine and I’ll leave it up to you to work out the connections. Curiosity and all that!