It should be self-evident that new knowledge anchors itself in prior knowledge and that learning has a lot to do with finding out what you don't know, based on what you know already, by asking questions.
Students MUST learn to ask their own questions. How will they learn if teachers, even secondary teachers, give them questions? Who owns the questioning process then?
Questioning is, arguably, THE fundamental information skill. It is a skill so fundamental to learning - from books, from people, from Encarta, from the Internet - that I hope it features prominently in the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) information skills tasks.
I've had years of observing new Zealand students (primary through to tertiary) floundering around doing projects with nothing more than a vague, very vague, idea that there are things called open and closed questions, and, somehow, open questions are automatically 'better'. Are they?
In questioning any information source - person, print, electronic - the rules are really simple (even if the application of the rules is not!):
1. Work out what you know;
2. Group/ cluster/ map your knowledge into topic categories;
3. Work out questions related to your topic and sub-topic categories using the 'W' prompts: who, what, where, when, why (and how).
4. Sort your questions; short FACTUAL questions come first;
5. Large, thinking, inferential questions come later; they inevitably involve opinion - and opinion must be grounded in fact, evidence.
Students often see these broad, inferential questions , for example, "What is Kiwi ingenuity?" as better. Of course this would be a useful question if you were doing a qualitative research study involving interviewing X subjects. But if you want information from print sources, Encarta, or the Internet, you'd be better asking a few FACTUAL questions first, such as:
• Can I find examples of Kiwi ingenuity? Rural sector? Urban sector? Industrial/ business sector/ Domestic sector?
• Are there any interesting/ significant Kiwi inventions?
• Have they been patented? how could I find out?
• How many people list their occupation as 'inventor'? More/ same/ fewer as other countries, eg Australia, UK, USA?
Questioning information sources also involves knowing where to look and how to look.
Most students are woefully shortsighted in their conviction that all the information they need 'lives' in Encarta, on the Net, or whatever is the flavour of the month!
OK, where would you go to get information relating to the above questions, and what would you look up - 'kiwi ingenuity'? This is exactly what most students would look up without support and guidance from you! And then they'd say that the information source 'sucked' because there wasn't anything on their topic!
Teaching students that key words are 'important' words is fine, but not for questioning information. 'Kiwi' and 'ingenuity' are clearly important words in this topic, but are they key SEARCH terms?
What information sources and search terms would you advise them to use?
Back to questioning: Another common problem is that students often see questions as inviolate, immutable, set in concrete. They have developed their questions, and that is IT! They want AN answer to precisely the the question they've asked. It doesn't work that way! Questions need to be seen as infinitely flexible and malleable. They grow, shrink, change shape and clone themselves!
It's a lot easier if you look for information related to these shape-changing questions rather than for AN answer to A question.
There are three key remedies here for teachers:
1. Give students the idea that they are interviewing information rather than looking for an answer to a question;
2. You need to model ways of shrinking a question, making it grow, asking it differently;
3. You need to model how to recognise when information (from people, from printed or electronic text) matches their information need, even if it isn't a perfect fit with their questions.
Age is no barrier to modelling, demonstrating, discussing, checking questions. Even with New Entrants you can play "how else can I ask that question?" You can read simple information and ask children to put their hands up when they think that it says something about what they need to know.
Having a 'need to know' mindset is a lot healthier as a base for developing effective questioning than being wedded to the notion of finding a pre-processed shrinkwrapped answer to a question.
Why is simple seldom easy?