While big questions are becoming more common in classrooms, it's important to note that there is currently no one-size-fits-all definition. Some schools may define big questions as overarching, broad questions that guide learners through an entire unit or semester, while others may define them as specific questions that help their children connect ideas within a smaller scope. Ultimately, the definition of a big question will vary from school to school, and even from teacher to teacher.
The questions themselves should be designed as open-ended and thought-provoking, encouraging learners to think deeply about the subject matter and develop a deeper understanding of the world around them. The key is to identify questions that challenge students to think critically, make connections, and apply their knowledge in meaningful ways.
Big questions were included in a small selection of IPC units, however, these task-based questions were not big enough to connect learning. The big question concept continues to be developed by IPC teachers in their classrooms and applied in different ways. In this article, we will explore how four teachers from different IPC schools in Asia use big questions in their classrooms to improve learning.
Life worthy questions in Vietnam
Yvette Jeffrey, Principal at TH School in Vietnam, believes that the key to effective big questions is to make them "life worthy" and relevant to the children's lives. In the unit "Existing, Endangered and Extinct," TH School’s big question is "Can we preserve biodiversity on this planet?" This question encourages their children to think about their impact on the environment and how they can take action to preserve the natural world. By posing a big question that connects to the learners' passions, they are empowered to take action and make a difference.
Evaluating understanding in Malaysia
At Nexus International School in Malaysia, Janine Grassby, a Year 3 teacher and IPC leader, uses big questions to measure and evaluate understanding. Nexus’ big questions can be answered with a yes or no, but students must always justify their answers by making connections to knowledge and experience. By using an "understand-o-meter," the children can place themselves on a continuum in answer to the question and adjust their thinking as the unit progresses. The school believes that big questions provide an opportunity to connect learning and reveal the interdependence of subjects.
Accessibility and relevance in Japan
Tom Greene, a Year 3 teacher and primary coordinator at St. Michael’s International School in Japan, presents big questions when explaining the theme of a unit and revisits it before each task. A recent big question at St Michael’s was “How do forces help us live?” By making the big question accessible and life-relatable, the children are encouraged to connect their expanding knowledge to the question.
Daily learning links in Brunei
Maura Murphy, IPC Leader for Learning at Panaga School in Brunei, uses big questions to guide the direction of a unit and make learners think. At Panaga, the children are introduced to the big question after explaining the theme, and daily learning links are made to the question. To prepare for the Exit Points, children use the big question as a scaffold, explaining their learning from the unit in a coherent way.
As these IPC schools highlight, big questions can be a powerful tool for guiding student learning, promoting critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity in the classroom. By encouraging children to explore complex and multifaceted issues, they are able to apply their knowledge. In doing so, as educators we can help them to develop a deeper understanding of the world around them and to build important skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.
Big questions can challenge students to engage with content in a meaningful way and become active, lifelong learners. As such, they can become a component of thematic learning, strengthening connections within and between subjects.