What’s the big deal with Big Questions?


You might know them as Fertile Questions, Enquiry Questions, or plain old, Big Questions, but the idea that the curriculum ought to be organised around broad, disciplinary, substantive enquires is a popular one. It seems to be an especially popular approach with the history teaching community. Christine Counsell goes so far as to say that such questions are “vital in history because without [them] you can’t learn how the second-order concepts of the discipline work.” As an example she goes that a question such as ‘Why did Russian Revolution happen in 1917?’ are required for students to get a feel for issues of causation. She goes on to say that such enquiry questions “need to be tight, focused, rooted in real scholarship, visible across a sequence of lessons [and] constantly referred to.” She then makes the point that training history teachers in posing such questions isn’t easy and often requires “months of practice.”

I’m more than willing to accept that the Big Question is an intellectually respectable way to organise the study of history and that, with months of practice, teachers can learn to organise teaching sequences effectively in this way. But does that suggest that teachers, whether they teach history or anything else, ought to be compelled to organise the teaching of their subject thus? It is this point on which I’m sceptical. To accept that enquiry questions can be an effective way to teach history requires a very low bar of evidence, but to leap to the notion that all teachers must use enquiry questions in their teaching is a very different matter.

To begin with, I tend to dislike any form of compulsion which requires subject experts to move away from their experience of ‘what works’. Of course, we are all prone to confirmation bias and we all tend to be poor at critically evaluating what we like. Over the years I have been confronted with good evidence that my preferences were sub-optimal on a number of occasions and, in response, I’ve made changes in both my beliefs and practice. But, I’ve also experienced many more occasions where an approach or idea with which I find value has been criticised by someone in authority and I have felt compelled to stop doing what I think is best in favour of what they think is best. This has rarely ended happily.

In order for fertile questions to be imposed on teachers it’s reasonable to ask that their efficacy would have to clear a very high evidential bar. As things stand, I’m not aware of any such evidence base. The best that we can currently say is that they may be an effective way to introduce some areas of the curriculum, sometimes.

This website sets out the characteristics of what makes such questions:

Fertile questions have some or most of the following characteristics:

  • Open — they have no one, definitive answer but rather several different and possibly competing answers.
  • Undermining — they cast doubt on individual assumptions or ‘common sense’.
  • Rich — they require research and grappling with information and ideas.
  • Connected — they are relevant to the learners and the world in which they live, and particular disciplines and fields.
  • Charged — they have an ethical dimension with emotional, social and/or political implications.
  • Practical — they are researchable within the world of the student.

I like many of these ideas, but, attractive or not, I can find no reasonable grounds for any argument that states that they must be used. There are many areas of the curriculum that benefit from closed questions which allow students to test competing, binary propositions. Although it’s often true that children’s naive understanding of the world benefits from challenge, there’s good reason to be sceptical of benefits cognitive conflict. It may be desirable that some areas of the curriculum should require students to grapple with ideas but I doubt it would desirable (or practical) to always take this approach: it’s sensible to suggest that some things are better accepted on faith rather than thoroughly researched. Where aspects of the curriculum connect and overlap these correspondences should be made explicit, but there are important areas of the curriculum with don’t neatly connect with other areas and these must also be studied. I’m dubious about whether it’s a good idea for the curriculum to ethically or emotionally charge; there may be some areas where this is a good idea but, equally, there are definitely areas which will not benefit from such an approach. My biggest bugbear is the idea that children’s experience of the curriculum must be practical. If students’ understanding is limited to what is researchable within their world, then it is limited indeed.

As this back and forth indicates, fertile questions might be worthwhile sometimes but definitely not always. When it comes to making decisions about running schools it can be very tempting to mandate our favourite ideas and to compel teachers to do what we think is best. The problem with such an approach is that the very best you can achieve is compliance. Whenever teachers feel that someone in authority is ‘looking for’ a specific pedagogical approach, their own considerations of what might be best are automatically undervalued.

My advice is that  teachers to be encouraged to be professionally sceptical. We need to seek out challenges and awkward questions; it’s always lovely to have keen, enthusiastic staff how ask how high you want them to jump, but it’s often the naysayers from who we learn most. Obviously, no one wants unprofessional scepticism – shouting down good ideas, mutinous grumbling and defiance – but the professionally sceptical teacher is empowered to weigh options, suggest reasonable alternatives and offer checks and balances.

If we decide we’d like to ask all teachers to investigate the use of fertile questions in their curriculum areas – or introduce any other limits on teachers’ professionalism, the approach I would advise is as follows:

  1. Explain the research base – how do you know this is likely to be an effective course of action?
  2. Encourage teachers to ask questions, suggest alternatives and identify problems in advance. It’s an excellent idea to conduct a pre mortem.
  3. Set out in advance how you will evaluate the new policy: be clear on exactly how long the project will run before it’s evaluated and be rigid about the conditions under which you will agree that it has not been worthwhile.
  4. You will be tempted to change the goalposts. Resist this and encourage teachers to call you on attempts to wriggle out of the pre-determined conditions you set.
  5. Consider the opportunity cost in your evaluations: it’s not enough to find that x is positive, you also need to weigh it against the costs and benefits of y. Acknowledge that this is hard to do and ask for help.
  6. If you find there is overwhelming evidence that all teachers should be made to teach in a particular way, then fine. But be aware that you will not find this! Be humble and acknowledge uncertainty and then offer advice.
  7. Do not confuse equality with fairness. It is always unfair to treat everyone equally. It may be reasonable to compel teachers you feel to be struggling to teach in your preferred way, but always allow room for those you trust to do what they believe to be best.

If, hand on heart, you can say you do these things then you can be truly proud of the culture you are creating.

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