Eighty percent of my teaching load is in the role of senior school teacher librarian and much of this aspect of my job is spent working on research skills with our middle years and graduation years students. One of the hardest tasks students face when starting with research is knowing where to start. Often times students will start with a topic that is significantly too broad and they lack the skills to narrow down their search focus, which leads to a frustrated student proclaiming they can’t find anything at all on their topic.
One technique I have used with my students to help them narrow their focus in their research and to guide them through the search process is a technique called question storming. Question storming is a technique I discovered in the educator section of The Right Question Institute website and I have used it with success in research lessons with Grade 6s all the way up to my Grade 10-12 AP students. Question storming is similar to brain storming, but instead of generating ideas or statements that come to mind, students are asked to generate questions. The following are the steps I take to guide my class through the question storming process.
Step One: I model the process of question storming by walking through the process with them. I love to use images as prompts to generate questions as I find students really become engaged with the images the more they ask questions about it. After I briefly explain what a question storm is, I project a thought provoking image on the screen. With my most recent question storming practice with my AP Capstone class, I used the viral image of the Palestinian protester in Gaza.
Step Two: After projecting the image, I ask students to generate as many questions as possible about the image. In my initial modelling with my students, I have them call the questions out and I record them on the board. I also remind my students that at this stage we are not trying to answer the questions and we are not judging the questions, we are simply trying to generate as many questions as possible. The first questions generated are often rather surface level, things like why is the man holding a flag or where is he, but after the first few questions, I am always surprised at the depth that starts to emerge in the questions.
Step Three: After a few minutes of generating questions, we stop and review the difference between a closed question (one that can be answered simply) and an open question (one that is complex and has multiple possible perspectives) and we go through the list of generated questions and label each as being either an open question or a closed question. At this stage we talk about how it is the open questions we want to explore in our research, but the closed questions often help us in our research, as well because they help us explore what basic information we need to understand about the topic before we can delve into exploring the open ended questions.
Step Four: Once we have labelled our questions as being closed or open, we then select the one open question we want to explore as our main topic. Some of the open ended questions my students generated about the Palestinian protester photo included: To what extent are the Palestinian protests in Gaza affecting the conflict? How has the media coverage of the conflict in Gaza affected the conflict? To what extent has the media coverage of the conflict in Gaza affected the level of aid provided by other countries?
At this stage, students have a significantly more focused starting point for their research and have narrowed their focus with their open-ended questions. As well, they can use their close ended questions to help provide search terms to help narrow their research down even more.
When students start research or an inquiry with a powerful question they find the research process to be easier and more meaningful and question storming is a technique that helps make the challenge of coming up with the right question easier.
For some more practical teaching strategies, check out Shana’s post on some strategies she learned from the pre-service teachers she works with.
Pam McMartin is a Senior School Teacher Librarian, Senior English teacher and English department head at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia Canada. When she is not wading through storms of questions with her students, she is braving the perpetual winter stormy weather outside that comes with living in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow Pam on twitter @psmcmartin.