Should students set their own guiding questions?

tdixon Curriculum Leave a Comment

Effective lesson planning involves distinguishing content lessons from process lessons.

This article is in response to my other post on why every lesson should have a guiding question.

After reading my thoughts on the power and importance of framing a lesson using a guiding question, some teachers might be thinking – “but students should be asking their own questions!”

My answer to that: well, it depends. Is the outcome of the lesson content based, or process based?

If we’re teaching students about learning process-based conceptual understandings, then yes, they should ask their own questions. For example, we might want them to learn how to access, filter and sort information. If our primary aim is for students to “learn how-to-learn,” then we can absolutely encourage them to set their own content-based questions, because the answers they find are of secondary importance to learning about the process of learning.

However, if our learning outcomes are devised around subject content-based conceptual understandings, as they mostly are in IB Psychology, I think that it’s best if the teacher assigns the questions and prepares the materials for students to use. For example, if I want my students to understand specifically how and why variables influence behaviour, why particular research methods are used or why some ethical considerations are relevant in particular fields of study, it’s far more effective for me as teacher to be setting the questions, designing the curriculum and pulling the strings.

Student-devised content outcomes are effective when we’re trying to achieve learning about learning outcomes, and ineffective when we’re trying to develop subject-based conceptual understandings. 

And there’s a pretty simple reason for this: time.

Content-based outcomes

I want to make sure that all of my students have every opportunity to develop subject-content-based conceptual understanding in the limited time we have. If you look at the relationships involved in culture and aggression (as outlined in this blog post), I can develop that understanding in over 80% of my students in around 10 lessons, because I’ve selected the material and carefully structured the lessons and topics. There’s no way I could expect that depth of understanding if students were left to investigate this topic completely by themselves.

I choose my content-based conceptual understandings very carefully, because I want to give my students every chance at being successful in life. I also strongly believe in the power of education for sowing the seeds of positive change for the future. For example, I really want students to understand the origins of violence, so in the future they can help to overturn the circumstances that produce it. I want them to understand the origins of bystanderism, so they won’t stand by and watch someone needlessly suffer. I want them to understand how their diet can affect their brain, which affects their thinking, but also how their thinking can affect their brain. I want them to understand how their brain can change throughout their lives, and while they are their brain – their brain can change. And so on, and so on…

But in order for students to actually develop these understandings, I need a really carefully designed curriculum that introduces the right content, in the right amount, at the right time. When these concepts are subject-based and derive from the content, it is the teacher who should be setting the guiding questions.

Process-based outcomes

On the flip-side, I think that school should also be about sparking kids’ imaginations – my goal as an IB Psychology teacher is to have students graduate with more questions than answers – but, with the ability to seek and find answers to those questions. Which is why a good curriculum has a balance between content-based outcomes, and process-based outcomes (and yes, there is overlap between the two, as students apply processes to acquire the teacher-selected content, and vice-versa, they develop content understanding when learning how to apply processes).

Getting back to IB Psychology, the luxury of mixing core and options is that a lot of time is freed up (over 70 hours in HL, for example). At the end of units, I can now give students a few lessons where they can ask their own questions and explore topics of interest to them.

For example, at the end of PTSD I will offer students the chance to research further into an aspect of PTSD they want to learn about, or perhaps a different disorder or something else about disorders that they’re interested in. It’s important to note here, however, that the learning outcomes now are not subject-content based, they’re process based. In these student-driven lessons, I’m less interested in the content of what the students are learning, and the focus is more on the process of learning: are they evaluating their sources? Are they asking effective questions? Are they using strategies to comprehend information? etc.

I’m not worried if they don’t learn the content, because they’ve got concepts related to PTSD as a back-up for their high-stakes exam. I am, however, focused on the processes. So while the students can ask their own content questions, like “Is PFC function related to depression?” or “Is mindfulness being used in prisons?” I will still have my own process-based guiding questions (because I’m still teaching, after all). My questions might be along the lines of: “What use are popular media websites for research?” or “Why should I ask specific questions when I’m learning new information?”

I think a common mistake that is being encouraged by educational “experts” is to encourage process-based lessons when we’re trying to develop subject-content conceptual understanding. It’s a highly ineffective way to go about things, in my mind.

Some people might be thinking that this is too controlling and that students should be left free to do their own thing when researching for themselves. But I disagree. Strongly, I disagree! If I don’t ask guiding questions that aim to develop understanding of learning processes, all I’m doing is baby-sitting. I’m also helping to extend the gap between the can dos and the can’t dos. Students who know how to use resources, who have strong executive cognitive functions and are effective individual learners, will do fine without any guidance or support – they’ll continue to learn. But not all students are like this. Many won’t know how to evaluate sources, or why they shouldn’t trust everything they read on the internet. It’s still my job to teach the processes; where they now have the freedom is in the content! Make sense?

A final thought

There appear to be two opposing camps in education. On the one side, you have the likes of John Hattie who encourages things like making learning visible, having constructivist curricula, teacher accountability, etc. His catch-cry is, “know thy impact.”

On the other side of the war zone in education, you have the likes of those in these ten TED talks that are advocating for student-driven education. They think the teacher should be facilitator, content is irrelevant and it’s all about processes.

I advocate for a balanced-curriculum that embraces both of these perspectives! If we do not develop content-based conceptual understandings we are missing out on a massive opportunity as the shapers of future generations to advocate for positive change. How many 15 year olds are going to come to class and want to learn about how their hippocampus changes as a result of learning? But isn’t that a pretty important thing to know about our brain? How many would want to learn about the effects of child-abuse on the brain and how this can lead to violence in the future? Only those kids who were probably never going to grow up to be child abusers themselves. And sadly, that doesn’t describe every teenager.

But if we are always the ones assigning the content, then we’re missing out on the opportunity to spark creativity and ignite a passion for a particular subject. School should absolutely be a place that fosters talents and develops personal interests. If we overlook the value of letting kids explore by themselves and learn from their mistakes, then our students will leave school half-baked. Because while there is a lot of valuable  content we can teach them, there’s no way we can teach it all. So we absolutely must be teaching students about the learning process, how failures teach us more than successes and why education is a life-long endeavour.

I like to keep things simple. When I plan my units, I plan a series of content-based topics and lessons, and also allow extra time for process-based and experiential lessons as well, to ensure that I have a balanced curriculum. But I think it’s essential that I know which is which. Personally, the IB could be doing a lot to reduce their content demands and empowering individual teachers and schools more freedom to do the same.



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