1) Beginning A New Unit (K-12)
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If a class is about to spend several days or weeks studying a particular topic or concept, traditional practice and unit design gives the teacher primary responsibility for identifying the key questions and the key answers. The outcome does not have to be a didactic exercise in memory and mastery, if it uses students' curiosity through questioning.
Try starting a new unit by asking your class to think of questions that could be asked about the topic; "What questions should we ask about the War of 1812? about stars? about dating? about nouns?"
If students are not used to this type of experience, they are likely to echo the kinds of questions they read at the end of textbook chapters or the kinds of questions teachers generally ask around memory of facts and generalizations. A self-check on the kinds of questions you ask is to try this exercise with your students - they will probably ask the same kinds of questions you usually ask.
If you ask many tantalizing and divergent questions in your classroom, your students are likely to model after your behavior for example, "What would have happened if Lincoln was shot in the first month of the American Civil War ? Why did Lincoln only free the slaves in the rebel states? How did it feel to be a woman in the path of Sherman's army?"
If on the other hand, they are used to information questions, they may ask, "Which states joined the Confederacy? What were the six main causes of the war? What happened at Shiloh? Who was the Union commander at Shiloh? When did the war end?"
As students begin to suggest questions, it is essential that the teacher restrain judgmental cues. If is better to list questions without verbal or body language comments. Otherwise, students may play a game called "Please the Authority" instead of liberating their curiosity. This is a natural response to criticism whether it comes from the teacher or other students in the class. A key tool in eliminating criticism is brainstorming. The four rules of brainstorming:
1. all contributions are accepted without judgment;
2. the goal is a large number of ideas or questions;
3. building on other people's ideas is encouraged;
4. farout, unusual ideas are encouraged.
As students begin to generate questions in response to your initial question - "What could we ask?" - they will need to be recorded. New questions can come from old ones, as everyone reads them over when they are recorded on chart paper, newsprint or the blackboard. Questions can fly more rapidly than most of us can write, so it is advisable to delegate the writing to student assistants, dividing the blackboard into sections and keeping four students busy. This tactic keeps the pace fast and exciting.
Younger children present a different challenge because they need the pacing even more yet cannot help with the writing. In this case it is helpful to enlist a parent volunteer or instructional aide.
Once the questions are listed and the storm of curiosity has subsided somewhat, it is often useful to go through an exercise of categorization, asking the students how they might group any of the questions. These categories can then provide the basis for organizing and structuring the investigation for the next few days or weeks. The list of categorized questions may not include all the original questions if there is overlap among them. This is an appropriate time for some evaluation to take place.
Initial efforts may be somewhat clumsy if students are not familiar with the task of categorizing. Ask, "which ideas go together?" Questions about the Civil War may cluster into such groups as People, Causes, Politics, Feelings, Military Strategies and others which do not cover all possibilities or represent a complete set of categories. The skill of creating categories which are mutually exclusive and comprehensive must be taught over time. First efforts need not be precise. Eventually students will use the categorizing step to generate even more questions as they realize that they have omitted a parallel category or the process of categorization leads them to extend one of the categories.
In most cases, the categories students come up with as a result of this process will mirror the standard topics you would have chosen. The fact that they came from the students, however, adds intrinsic motivation for finding the answers. Just as in a teacher-designed unit, categories can form the basis for research teams or they can lead to a succession of class mini-lectures and discussions, depending upon your preference as a teacher.
Reading of text can be structured around the categories rather than proceeding in a linear fashion, and it may become necessary to broaden available information beyond textbooks. Teacher and students can organize available supplementary information around the categories.
Once students have categorized questions, you might spend some time asking them to identify which questions seem most interesting and which would be the least interesting. Which questions are the easiest to answer? the hardest? Why? What is it about questions that makes some easy and some hard to answer? This kind of discussion should lead naturally to the development of a Taxonomy or Typology of questions for your classroom (the next activity listed below). Once students begin to label different types of questions, questions become powerful tools for thinking. Thinking about thinking and thinking about questioning both tend to strengthen the power for student thought.
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