Education, Question Asking, Learning

How We Teach Problem-Solving, Or, A Step-by-Step Guide for Having Questions Lead Your Learning Experience

This is the fourth in a series of blogs on on questions in the classroom, following Turning Around Question-Asking in Your Class, Learning in a Content-Saturated Environment, and Teaching Via Inquiry Learning — An First Step?.

"Wait, I’ve just realized that as we read these articles and try to answer our questions, that getting an answer is really complicated…so what does it mean to know something? How do we know when we know something?"

"We’ve figured out that those earlier questions we asked weren’t well-posed. Now we know how to ask better questions, so we’ll get to our answers faster."

"I’ve learned how to read something hard for the first time in my life, and I feel ready to work on my own research and projects."

The quotes above are some of the comments students have made in these question-guided classes we’ve been running. We’ve been having so much fun, and experiencing so many learning and teaching revelations, that we’re eager to share and see how it works for other people.

Here’s our step-by-step guide to using the whole Beagle method in a classroom. We also build software to help manage online or blended classes, or to use this process with dispersed teams, but Lindy’s done this in face-to-face classes several times without the software, as described here. We’d love to hear your responses and experiences if you try this!

STEP 1: BEFORE THE FIRST CLASS

Identify an overarching GOAL for the course

When you are learning something on your own, you usually have a purpose, a goal, in mind, and that goal fuels your search for more information.

The goal will also serve as a landmark. Each class, students will gauge whether what they are learning is moving them closer to the goal, and choose questions that they think will lead them closer to it.

You can come up with a goal in a few ways. You can choose a goal ahead of time and present it in the same way as a course title. Alternatively, you can bring a broader summary of the content you plan to cover, and you and your students brainstorm and choose a goal together during the first class.

Goals normally take the form of questions:

  • “How can we design an environmentally friendly car?”
  • “What were experimental theatre artists doing the past century and why were they doing it?”

Keep in mind that the goal you choose is serving the same purpose as a personal goal on a personal learning project. Make it something you and your students are truly interested about, something that can spark your students imagination.

Prepare a first piece of content

Its hard to start a conversation without some common ground. In the first class, you will need to kick things off with a small piece of content to share.

In the “How to design a car” example, you might prepare a short presentation (10–15 minutes) about what it means to be environmentally friendly, based on a video you found on the subject.

This is natural to do if you, as the instructor, have already identified a goal and content. If you are waiting to decide on a project goal with your students, this is trickier. But you know the general theme of the class topic and could prepare a general overview of the field: “The basic science of the field,” “A classic example of the avante garde,” “The current standard textbook definitions and jargon,” “The key event in history that motivated this study.”

Alternatively, you may simply have a conversation in class about the topic. Make sure you know how you are going to start and support that conversation, then let the students run with their own ideas during this first lecture. You might get a good preview of what your students do and do not understand, and what might most interest them.

STEP 2: THE FIRST CLASS

It’s time to dive in! During the first class you will run through a full inquiry cycle:

Introduce your class to the Beagle method

Highlight that this class will be different — it will be an exploratory experience based on an iterative cycle of examining a piece of content, asking questions relevant to the overall goal in response to the content, deciding on which next questions to explore, and repeating.

Discuss why you’ve chosen to use this approach — the importance of not only exploring content but understanding why it is important and cognitively engaging in the practices of setting a goal, assessing your own learning, and identifying your own path forward.

Share or decide on the goal

If you have already decided on the goal, you should share it early on and explain why you personally are excited about it. If you are going to decide on a goal with your class, kick off that conversation. Either way, make sure to write the course goal on a whiteboard so everyone can keep it in mind.

Explore!

Present or discuss your first piece of content and start the conversation. Draw a first “card” on the whiteboard or your Beagle Map to record this first piece of content.

A First Piece of Content in an Inquiry Map
The first piece of content, in blue, and the natural next questions, with winning questions check-marked

Respond

Ask the participants to shout out their natural next questions in response to the content they have just seen, keeping in mind the goal of the course. Write them all on a whiteboard.

Some comments on student question asking:

This process of question-asking is new to many students and can be intimidating. Your role as an instructor could very much be to model the process of asking questions, so feel free to ask questions yourself and add them to the board! It’s fantastic to show learners that the instructor does not have all the answers, and that you don’t need to be scared to search out new knowledge.

And remember that great brainstorming is fueled by a “Yes, and” mentality.

At first, the questions asked are likely to be not well articulated and not too deep. That is fine! All the questions the students offer should be accepted. But as the class progresses and this process is repeated we have found that students begin to analyze the questions being asked:

Is the question being asked answerable?

Does the question being asked move us closer to our stated goal?

Does the question being asked connect to previous asked or answered questions?

Is the question being asked actually interesting?

In many courses there are, for certain, pieces of content that must be attended to. If the questions being asked don’t naturally lead in the required direction you can exercise your role as the instructor to nudge things in the right direction. Just ask your own question, or offer tweaks to questions others are asking.

Decide

After the round of question asking, invite each student to vote for the three questions they are most excited to learn about next. You can do this by a show of hands, or by giving everyone a whiteboard marker and letting them mark their vote next to their favorite question

The question (or, if appropriate, questions) with the most votes is your topic for the next class.

Finally, take a photograph of your starting map and questions.

The Full Inquiry Cycle
The Explore-Respond-Decide inquiry cycle for iterative problem-solving.

Step 3: Preparing for the next class

After each class, your goal as the instructor is to make sure your students have some content that helps answer their question. A few ideas on how to do that:

  1. Develop a piece of content yourself if the question already falls within your area of expertise.
  2. Ask the class if anyone knows about this topic. Have them send you suggestions of articles for the rest of the students to read, or ask them to develop a brief write-up or video for the class to view on your Beagle Map.
  3. Ask your colleagues and friends for helpful content.
  4. Find the content by searching the internet.

As students become comfortable and more energized, they can find their own content, share a summary of it during class, and add it to your Beagle Map, if you’re using one. This can be a key learning goal for the course.

Share the new content with your students over email, if possible. (You might establish a set rhythm for this — for example, commit to sharing the next piece of content within 48 hours of the previous class)

Students are to review the content before the next class, and write a list of questions they have about the content before the next class.

Some comments on finding content: New understanding often comes in many small chunks. Learning to tolerate those partial answers in the process of reaching a larger goal is a great skill. Content provided does not have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be written or produced for the assumed level of the student. Communicate clearly to your students, when appropriate, that they don’t have to understand everything in every piece of content. They can bring in their questions to kick off the discussion in the next class.

STEP 4: THE FUTURE CLASSES

From here on out, you’ll be repeating the same process each class. Start by redrawing the discussion map as it currently stands.

An Inquiry Driven Map
The inquiry-driven map of learning is growing

Discuss in class the content students read. You or your students may use some of this time to present relevant content or explain content from previous classes. In the final 10–15 minutes, ask students to share their current questions. Write them on the board and vote on the next one(s) to follow for next class.

That’s It!

You are now in a rhythm you can follow for future classes!
Keep an eye out for future posts, including examples of classes using the Beagle method.

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About Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Lead of NASA Psyche mission; School of Earth and Space Exploration and Interplanetary Initiative at ASU; co-founder of Beagle Learning (www.beaglelearning.com)
  • Phoenix, Arizona
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About Turner Bohlen

I like thinking about interesting ideas, especially when thinking about them with friends. I'm curious how people find and pursue passions, and believe our educational system should help them do it.
  • Olympia, WA