Starting with a Big Question

How can we inspire students from the word go? This is a question that teachers everywhere ask themselves when introducing a new topic or project to their classes. And, as you might have guessed from the title, it’s all about asking questions.

Perhaps your own social interactions have taught you this already: questions nearly always generate more conversation and inspiration than statements do.

Let’s explore this idea for a moment. Look at the following approaches and select the responses below:

A) This week we will be learning about space exploration.
B) Do you think it is important to explore space?
Students…
  • can agree or disagree with the statement/question. A or B
  • can start to discuss the topic, using their prior knowledge. A or B
  • will feel that their opinion is valuable. A or B
  • will feel that they can contribute to the topic. A or B
  • will feel that the topic is led by you. A or B
It’s clear that the question is more engaging than the statement. It encourages students to use their imaginations, respond to you, and explore their own thoughts.

However, not all questions are made equal. Some will generate lots of thought and discussion. Others, however, will simply encourage yes or no answers and fall rather flat.

By asking BIG questions about BIG issues, we can carry on the conversation and the learning for as long as we wish.

But wait, what are Big Questions?

Big Questions do not have one correct answer; they are a springboard for ideas and opinions. They also give the students the correct impression that in our lessons we will explore the topic and provide new information and share our knowledge.

Which of these would you consider Big Questions? Which do you think would generate most interest in your students?
  • Do you use electricity in your home?
  • What powers our lives?
  • What makes someone a hero?
  • What is your favorite superhero called?
  • Why do we go to school?
  • Do you like your school?
  • Do you live in a village or a city?
  • Why do people live in cities?

What should we do once we have introduced the topic with a Big Question?

We need to ensure that our students who are more outgoing and willing to speak have a chance to shine, but do not dominate the class. It’s therefore a good idea to provide opportunities for different ways of responding. For example, you can ask students to:
  • Make notes
  • Draw sketches
  • Work in groups or pairs
  • Respond individually to the whole class
It’s also a good idea to use a bulletin board – by pinning your Big Questions to it you can encourage students to add their sketches, notes and ideas. Since none of the Big Questions can be answered completely and easily, make sure that the students know their ideas and thoughts can be changed and added to at any point.

Feeling free to change our minds, to experiment with ideas, to throw things out for discussion in a thoughtful but random way is vital for mental growth.

We don’t have to get everything right first time and it is important to convey this to our students. It’s okay to get things wrong and say something which you later reassess and reconsider. Think of the Big Question in the same way as you might a craft or nature table; let your students contribute as they wish with ideas big and small.

How can we build up our ideas and knowledge?

Of course, for Big Questions to become answerable, we need to provide stimuli, information, facts and ideas and help increase our students’ knowledge and awareness.

We can do this in lots of ways. For example, if we look at the Big Question ‘What powers our lives?’ we might want to provide information about the sun, about wind and water energy, about how electricity is created, how fossil fuels are found and why they are difficult to renew.

This could lead us on to thinking about our own usage of different sources of power, if we could become more ecologically aware, and how this might be achieved.

It’s important to do this type of activity in stages. If we take the sun as our first subtopic, we could break it down like this:
  • What is the sun? What is it composed of?
  • What effect does it have on our planet? How is sunlight utilized?
  • How do we harness the energy of the sun to power our homes and industries?
  • Is the sun a renewable source? What other energy sources are renewed by nature?
  • Why is it good/ necessary to use renewable energy sources?
Now let’s look at a Big Question which we might use with younger children: ‘Why do we go to school?’

We can break this down like this:
  • What lessons do you do at school?
  • Which lessons are your favorite?
  • Why do you think we learn math?
  • Do you use math outside of school? When and where and how?
  • What about other lessons? How are they useful outside school?
  • Apart from lessons, what else do you do at school?
  • Do you like being with your classmates? Do you sometimes like to work alone?
  • Do you think you could do everything you do at school if you stayed at home all day?
  • Can you think of something which you don’t do at school now but would like to?

Take your time

As well as the reading, writing and speaking which the Big Questions will involve, you will also be introducing new vocabulary and grammar structures. So, take your time; it’s always best to do a little less and leave time for the students to absorb everything they are learning. So use your textbooks, but don’t feel rushed by them. Really delving into any subject is more rewarding than skimming over it and, most importantly, our lessons become more enjoyable and memorable.


About Jeanne Perrett

Jeanne Perrett has been working in the language teaching sector for over thirty-five years as a teacher, school owner, publisher and writer and is the author of many acclaimed pre-primary and primary EFL series. She has trained teachers all over the world and frequently presented at professional conferences. Jeanne graduated from Sussex University with a degree in English Literature and has lived in Greece since 1981. Apart from her professional experience, she draws a lot on the practical knowledge she has gained as the mother of four children and now as the grandmother of five.

Jeanne is one of the authors of the Now I Know! series for Primary.

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