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Good Questions For Inquiry-Based Projects

March 2013 • Sue Jackson

Once you have a classroom environment which promotes curiosity, fascination, and mindfulness, students begin to raise questions and seek answers through the inquiry process. Because the framing of a good question is the driving force in any inquiry, let's explore: What makes a good question for inquiry-based projects?

Any question that matters to students is a good question. If students are genuinely interested in the answer and learning about the topic, then the question is worthy of investigation.

'Quick Find' questions are information gathering questions, closed in nature but important to the understanding of a topic (e.g., What kinds of clothing did the Incas wear?, What is the weather today?, Which teams will be in the NHL playoffs?). These questions can be answered through 'mini-inquiries', short-term research experiences that enable students to search for and find information quickly. To determine an answer, it may be as simple as jumping on the Internet or skimming through a book. Mini-inquiries are great ways to teach students how to investigate questions, pursue answers, and demonstrate their learning (Harvey and Daniels, p. 143).

During inquiry-based projects, students should be drawn into thinking critically and creatively about big ideas and key concepts. Good questions enable students to learn and apply learning to wider circumstances and can be posed by the teacher or students. These good or 'essential' questions have several common characteristics, including:

  • relevance to the learner
  • open-ended and higher-order (have no right or wrong answer)
  • answers are not already known
  • multiple possible answers
  • not too personal
  • cannot be answered without careful and lengthy research—answers have to be more than simple facts
  • able to be researched given the available resources—must be answerable
  • make learners question their basic assumptions
  • promote further inquiry

According to Wesch, "...[g]ood questions are the driving force of critical and creative thinking and therefore one of the best indicators of significant learning. Good questions are those that force students to challenge their taken for granted assumptions and see their own underlying biases. Oftentimes the answer to a good question is irrelevant—the question is an insight in itself. The only answer to the best question is another good question." (M. Wesch, A portal to media literacy, University of Manitoba, podcast, 2008)

You might want to ask your students: What makes a good question? The chart below represents the thinking of grade 4 and 5 students around the criteria for a good question. The list was posted in their classroom for student reference when generating questions.

A Good Question:

  • has more than one answer
  • has a very deep meaning
  • gives you lots of information
  • doesn't have a yes or no answer
  • is hard to answer and takes a lot of thinking to understand the question
  • contains exciting words that make you want to look for an answer
  • is about something you can research
  • takes a long time to figure out
  • makes you think, know, and wonder
adapted from Barell, John. Why are school buses always yellow? p.91

What are examples of essential questions? The chart below lists examples of questions appropriate for various grade levels. Note that these questions promote understanding of concepts such as friendship, justice, leaders and leadership, community, cycles, or health and wellness. To answer the questions students would need to gather and process information by inferring, drawing conclusions, comparing and contrasting, or explaining and then apply their understanding to evaluate, judge, imagine, speculate, or create.

Grades K to 3 Grades 4 to 6 Grades 7 to 9
  • What makes a good friend?
  • What makes a bad storm?
  • How can we eat well?
  • Why do you suppose the rain falls down?
  • If you could change the town we live in, how would you make it better?
  • What are the traits of a good leader?
  • What makes a fair punishment?
  • What makes one writer more powerful than another?
  • How could you invent a better city?
  • How do you know if a law is just?
  • How is a hero different from a celebrity?
  • Which leader of the previous century relied most on propaganda and appeals to fear?
Adapted from:

Make sure you check out next month's tip which examines ways to assist students with the creation of good questions!

Harvey, S. and Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension & Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action. Heinemann Educational Books.

Sue Jackson, a classroom teacher for 20 years, is an enthusiastic and innovative author, speaker, consultant, and educator.

Scholastic Education
National Literacy Consultant

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Also available online, previous Teaching Tips for
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Literacy Place for the Early Years (K–3)

Moving Up with Literacy Place (4–6)

Stepping Up with Literacy Place (7–9)

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