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Starting with generative questions

Written by Paul Allison
October 17, 2010

Our first step toward authentic conversation is to ask students to find a real question, to launch into a self-chosen inquiry, not teacher- or curriculum-driven inquiry. Youth Voices teachers ask students to wrestle with the question, “What are you passionate about?” Another way to pose this question is to ask students to come up with an inquiry that they could sustain for the whole semester or even year, if possible. “What’s a big idea or a social issue that you would like to explore?”

Right?! Ask a teenager questions like this and you often get a cynical response or one that’s a unthinking parroting of mass media or typical school assignments: abortion, capital punishment, animal cruelty. Still, we have found many ways in Youth Voices to sneak up on this big question, social issue, passionate inquiry.

Although we are always looking for new ways to keep our classes focused on self-initiated, self-interested, self-sustaining inquiries, one place that many us begin is with a list that we call “10 self / 10 world questions.” Here are a few of the first steps that we ask students to take toward passionate, personal inquiries that will involve them in authentic conversations with their peers.

  • Write 10 questions that you have about self and 10 questions that you have about the world.
  • In parenthesis, type at least 5 tags after each question. (“Tags” is another word for keywords.)
  • Next, pick one question and write about it as though you are the expert. Write about why it is of interest to you and all that you already know about it. Write about what you would like to know about it that you don’t already know.

We’ve borrowed James A. Beane’s beginning point for inquiry that he describes in his book, Curriculum Integration. We have learned from Beane and from Paulo Freire that we can trust a problem-posing approach.  

For the dialogical, problem-posing teacher-student, the program content of education is neither a gift nor an imposition — bits of information to be deposited in the students — but rather the organized, systematized “re-presentation” to individuals of the things [questions] about which they want to know more. (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 93)

The teachers who are using Youth Voices have found that when we allow students the freedom to explore their own questions, they find significant, generative themes that both reflect the big issues of our time and their personal passions. It’s in this place of personal, passionate inquiry into issues of significance that students develop the voices they need to engage in authentic conversations with their peers.

When we engage students by asking them to seek to find and explain their own passionate inquiries, they write about inquiries related to topics such as these: race, religion, sex, sexuality, child abuse, corporal punishment, death, boy on girl violence, video games, anime/magna, and more! These are the topics of the posts that have received the most response over the past couple of years, and these topics are usually only found on the margins of school. Youth Voices, on the other hand, is a place where we encourage students to write about and to do research on topics such as these, and to do it with passion, expecting equally committed responses.