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The Art of the Question

Written by Myles Curtis
July 07, 2015

Students are often eager to jump into their project on the first day.  They want to rush together a timeline and dive headfirst into their work.  To slow them down enough to survey the waters before they take this plunge, teachers work with them at forming a “guiding” or “overarching” or “open-ended” question for their project.

Why is forming a question an important starting point? Young people – especially middle schoolers – cling to what they already know and can do – these points of emerging expertise are like rocks they cling to in the stormy waters of adolescence.  And so unsurprisingly, a student will often design a project around something they already have some experience with.  But the purpose of a project – as opposed to a hobby or a pastime – is to deepen and expand an area of interest, to find something new in something known.  Putting a student through several rounds of Socratic dialogue – pushing them to think closer and closer about their ideas, their plans, their aims – without inserting one’s own opinion on how they should approach it – is another challenge that a teacher must work on.

But once a student has a guiding question, it becomes a reference point for all their work to follow. It helps them keep a clear focus on both their process and their product.  It pushes them to reflect on their activity from week to week.  And at the end, it allows them to think thoughtfully about what they uncovered. Using questions to guide a project turns the work from being just an activity or a practice into a search, a quest, a journey.


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