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Designing Inquiry Questions

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: Successful learning inquiries depend in part on choosing questions and problems that are both the right size and at the right level for the inquirers.

Introduction

Inquiry takes an approach to learning that is very different from standard educational practices. One of the most basic differences is that the focus of each learning project has not been predetermined by the instructor or the curriculum. Tailoring the inquiry to the needs and interests of the learner makes the learning process much more understandable, interesting, and memorable for the learner, but one thing that is lost is a ready-made plan designed by education experts to guide the learner in useful directions at reasonable speeds.

This makes the first step of an inquiry - asking a question - very important, because it is the question that determines the "speed and direction" of the inquiry. In formal teacher-guided inquiries, one of the most crucial roles of the instructor/facilitator is to ensure that the question is well-connected to curriculum goals as well as to the learner's present understandings and interests. In self-directed inquiries, the learner can become permanently discouraged if the questions asked don't seem to be leading in useful directions.

A good inquiry question:

  • Is challenging - If the learner can simply look up and understand the answer, there is no need for a structured inquiry.
  • Is within reach of the learner - If the learner cannot be expected to make significant progress in answering the question after several weeks of reasonable effort, a more manageable question should be adopted.
  • Will lead the learner to new understanding, skills, and/or ways of thinking - A superficial inquiry that concentrates on learning new "facts" is not the best goal.
  • Is of intrinsic interest to the learner - A teacher may provide suggestions and guidance and even insist that the inquiry take a certain form or lead towards a particular skill or type of understanding, but the actual question should be one that the learner would like answered.

The music-learning inquiry below is intended both to provide practice in conducting an inquiry and also to help the inquirer learn how to recognize and create the types of questions that will be most useful in future inquiries about music.

Ask

This inquiry will be the "guided" type, for two reasons. One is to provide a focus so that the instructions and examples below don't get too unwieldy. The other is to give you an example of what guided inquiry might look like. If an instructor has a particular curriculum goal, substantial progress can be made towards that goal by asking the student to ask a certain type of question. In this case, you will start your inquiry by choosing a composer whose work interests you. (You can choose a song writer, or a performer of largely-improvised works, but not a musician who primarily performs works composed by someone else.) One of the main ideas in music history/appreciation/theory curricula is that musicians influence and are influenced by the music of others. You will be asking about the influences on this composer's work or on the influence this composer had on the work of others. Although the specifics of what you learn will depend on your interests and prior knowledge, this is a "big picture" concept that you can learn more about whether you are a novice or a knowledgeable musician.

Asking questions that will have complex answers, such as "how" or "why," or sometimes "what," will help to produce well-rounded, in-depth inquiries. If you already have some idea of the kinds of influences on or by your chosen composer, you may be able to start with an inquiry-type question, such as "Why did Beethoven have such a substantial influence on Romantic-era composers?" or "What influence has Ravi Shankar had on American music?" or "How did church music influence Elvis Presley?"

Questions that involve "who," "where," or "when" usually lead to bits of knowledge rather than deeper understanding. However, if you do not know who influenced or was influenced by your composer-of-interest, you may have to start with that question. It is not unusual for inquiries to start with some early investigations that help to shape the direction of the inquiry. In fact, in this inquiry, rather than posing one question, you will pose and keep track of a whole series of questions that arise as you investigate, and this will help you identify the "good" inquiry question or questions that you create along the way.

Investigate

Begin your investigation with any relevant question (for example "What music influenced Joan Baez?") When a question occurs to you, write it down, and take notes on the answers you find until something in the answers inspires a related question that interests you. Write down the new question, and continue your investigation until you have enough information to create a short but thorough and interesting report or presentation on the influences of or on your chosen composer.

Note:

Note that it will be very important to the next step in the inquiry that you keep track of all of your questions, as well as all of your answers. You will also find the next step easier if you can keep track of what made you wonder about each new question. Think of your notes as a journal or diary of your curiosities and your investigation.

Suggested Resources

  • Online articles - Articles focused on your composer of interest can provide the orientation you need to start asking relevant questions.
  • Online search - Focus on pertinent information by searching for phrases such as "influenced Brahms", "Brahms influential", and so on. If you phrase your searches as complete questions, such as "How did Duke Ellington influence American pop?" then your "search history" will include a record of the questions you asked.
  • Books - You may be able to find a book about your chosen composer. Books about a musical era, genre, or style are often organized as a discussion of how the music developed as it was passed from one influential set of composers and musicians to the next.
  • Recordings - Listen closely to the music of your chosen composer and the others whom you are discovering in your inquiry. Can you hear the similarities and differences that are being discussed in your reading? Can you analyze and discuss what you are hearing in your report? Does your listening raise questions that are useful for your inquiry?
  • Personal Contacts - If you have chosen a contemporary composer or songwriter about whom not much has been written, a letter or email stating that you are a big fan and that you wonder who has influenced their music might receive an answer. If the composer is local or is giving a show in your area, asking the question in person after a show or while purchasing a CD may get an answer. Follow up by reading about the musicians named and listening to their music.

Create

To encourage progress, both in learning about inquiry questions and in learning about how musical influence works, aim your inquiry at the creation of two things:

  • A short essay, report or presentation that summarizes what you have learned about the influences on or by your chosen composer
  • A list of the questions that you asked, categorized by their usefulness in your investigation.

Report your Findings

This step is important because reading a great deal about something can make you feel that you know it and yet leave you unable to recall or explain it. Taking the extra step to organize what you now understand into a coherent report, essay, presentation, or even conversation, is an important step that will help connect the facts you learned to each other and to the other things that you knew before the investigation. It may also lead you to notice gaps in your understanding and ask a few more useful questions before you wrap up your investigation.

Categorize your questions

Your investigation should bring numerous new questions to your mind. For example, if you were investigating the influence of Johann Sebastian Bach on European Classical music, some of your research might cause you to wonder:

Examples of questions inspired by an investigation

  • What does "well-tempered" mean?
  • Just how many of J.S. Bach's descendents were also composers?
  • Does Classical music really sound so different from Baroque?
  • What is counterpoint?

Typically, as you do your research, you would just follow up on these questions, to see what the answers tell you in relationship to your main question. But for this investigation you should write down each question that the investigation inspires and make notes on what you found out in answer to that question.

After you are finished with your investigation and your report/presentation, categorize your questions. You can do this either by creating a table with three columns and putting each question in the correct column, or by creating a question "tree" in which each question leads either to an answer, to other questions and searches, or to a dead end. In either case, you should end up identifying three types of questions.

Figure 1: Two of the questions in this inquiry led to more questions; they were good inquiry-type questions. Three led to fact-gathering, so they were good for the investigation, but not for inspiring an inquiry. The "how did he..." question was too difficult for the inquirer to pursue without more music theory and ear-training background.
A Question Tree
A tree created by drawing lines from a question to the other questions it inspired

Question Categories

  • Questions that you answered with a few facts
  • Questions that inspired further questions, deeper investigation, insights, attempts to test or practice tentative understandings (for example, while listening to or discussing music, or while playing an instrument), or attempts to organize, compare, or check the information you have gathered.
  • Questions that you abandoned because understanding the answer required background knowledge that you do not have

It is important to realize that how a question is classified depends on the learner and the context.

For example, Inquirer A might look up J.S. Bach's descendants, note how many were composers, and include that as a "fact" in the report. But Inquirer B might become very interested in those sons and how their lives and music were affected by the fact that J. S. Bach was their father. B's final report might even focus on a musical family "dynasty," a phenomenon that is fairly common in the world of music but that B had never thought about before, making this question one that led to new insight.

On the other hand, Inquirer B might find that discussions of "well-tempered" tuning employ many unfamiliar terms and so require too much background knowledge to pursue during this inquiry, while the same question leads Inquirer A to new insights about tuning systems and the history of keyboard instruments.

So the goal of this creation is to develop some insights about you as an inquirer. What types of questions led you simply to discover facts that you found easy to understand and use in your report? Although they are useful during an inquiry because they lead to relevant information, "fact" questions do not make good inquiry-guiding questions, because they do not encourage you to stretch your understanding, abilities, or the ways you think about music.

Which kinds of questions became the focus of your investigation, causing you to ask more questions, dig deeper into the literature, think about what you found, question or compare the answers you found, or change the way you think about music and musicians? Investigation/insight questions make the best inquiry questions. Did you have only one question in this category, or was there more than one? Consider carefully what it was about these questions that put them in this category for you.

Finally look at the questions that you could not pursue because understanding the answer requires more background than you have right now. Some of these questions may have lost your interest already. However, there may be a question or two in this category that really frustrate you because you would like to have that background and be the kind of person who can understand the answer to that question. Questions that require more background than you have right now do not make good questions for your next inquiry; however they can serve as guide-posts to keep you on track in a long-term series of inquiries.

Setting a long-term goal for a series of inquiries

Inquiry based learning is often driven by a long-term "practical" goal. Typical goals in music learning are often a bit vague, for example:

Vague long-term music-learning goals
  • I want to know more about music.
  • I want to play an instrument better.
  • I want to be a better composer.

In inquiry, it is much more useful to have very specific learning goals that are stated in terms of being able to do something that you cannot do now. This helps to keep you on track and measure your progress over the course of a series of inquiries. For example:

Specific long-term inquiry goals
  • I want to be able to understand what "well tempered" means.
  • I want to be able to play my favorite tunes by ear.
  • I want to be able to include counterpoint in my compositions.

The long-term goal should be something that would genuinely please you. For example, "I want to be able to play all the scales on my instrument" is almost certainly a goal that comes from your teacher's interests, not yours. However, if you find in your investigations that one reason you cannot play your favorite tunes by ear is that you don't know your fingerings well enough, you may decide that studying scales is an inquiry step that would get you closer to your goal.

Once you have a long-term inquiry goal in mind, you can start looking for the first inquiry question that will start you in the right direction. For example, if your long-term goal is to understand what is meant by "well-tempered," you might decide to begin by studying one of the terms used to discuss it. Ideally each inquiry will lead naturally to a new inquiry that will bring you even closer to your long-term goal. However, if your goal is very ambitious or very distant from your present state, you may find yourself getting sidetracked by new interests or backtracking to pick up other necessary knowledge. You can either choose to change your long-term goal or stick with it, but you cannot rush the process any more than a five-year-old can rush the process of becoming fifteen years old. Either way you should feel you are growing as a musician, and you should be enjoying the learning process. If there is no progress or enjoyment, take the "reflect" step of each inquiry as an opportunity to try to figure out where the problems are and what changes might help.

Once you have a long-term inquiry goal in mind, you can start looking for the first inquiry question that will start you in that direction. For example, if your long-term goal is to understand what is meant by "well-tempered," you might decide to begin by studying one of the terms used to discuss it. This might lead to an interesting investigation, or you might have to follow up on difficult terminology a few more times before you find explanations that you are capable of investigating right now. If you cannot seem to find an entry point into a subject area, consider doing the Types of Knowledge inquiry to find out more about the types of knowledge and resources you do have that can serve as a starting point.

Discuss

If you are doing this inquiry as part of a class or group, share your report/presentation with others in that setting. Also set aside some group/class time to discuss everyone's experience with designing inquiry questions. Did everyone have at least one question in each category? In what ways do people's categories of questions look the same or different? Did the inquiries follow roughly the same course?

If you do not have a formal setting for sharing this inquiry, consider how you might get some feedback on it. Can you adapt the report or presentation to be appropriate for some other class assignment? Can you discuss it with a music teacher, or share what you learned in a conversation with a friend who has similar interests in music?

Reflect

Good inquiry tends to lead to more inquiry. One of the main goals of reflecting on the inquiry you just finished is to identify questions that it raised for you that might become future inquiry questions. As you reflect on where this inquiry has left you, here are some points that you may want to consider:

  • Do you feel ready to try setting the questions for your own music-learning inquiries? If not, what is missing? Would it help to do more practice in classifying questions? (If so, try doing the question-classifying inquiry above, but starting with the question about music that most interests you right now.) Would it help to do more inquiries that set the question for you? (If so, try Listening to Unfamiliar Music.)
  • Do you still have questions about musical influences that you would like to follow up with another inquiry?
  • Was one of the "too difficult" questions something that deeply interests you and that you might want to use as a long-term inquiry goal?
  • Did you run into problems that suggest that you might benefit from guided practice in other inquiry steps, for example, Types of Music Knowledge, Finding Useful Music Resources, Creative Responses to Music Inquiry, Getting Feedback on your Music Project, Positive Music Critique, or Assessing a Music Inquiry

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