Questions as Open-Ended Explorations - National Council of Teachers of English
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Questions as Open-Ended Explorations

This blog post is written by NCTE members Lisa Diomande and Nargiza Matyakubova. 

Question Mark“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” emphasizes William Butler Yeats, one of the most prominent poets of the twentieth century.  That burning passion is so ingrained in our teaching that it continuously sparks ideas to enhance our classroom experiences.  To address our students’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as our successes and failures, we often set a time to meet and collaborate, and as a result of these meetings, we have identified an important skill most—if not all—students lack, and that is the power of questioning.

In a rushed modern world, it is difficult for educators to slow their students down enough to engage them in the act of inquiry.  For most of them, inquiry is asking a question, answering it, and then moving on.  For us as educators, inquiry is a much bigger and more vital activity that teaches reasoning, discernment, discrimination, evaluation, assessment, and ultimately, independent thought that engages the world.  Most of all, inquiry teaches us to see connections all around us.  So, how do we get students’ attention?

The key, of course, is engagement.  In the lower levels of literacy learning, this concept may mean teaching students how to engage with a text, a challenge for students who see letters and words swimming on a page and have no experience with creating an internal dialogue with the content.  For more advanced learners, who can skim the surface of texts enough to spit back the main ideas and then move on, our challenge is different: How do we ask them to converse with the text in a deeper and more open-ended way?  How do we move them away from result-oriented thinking toward the potential pleasures of a treasure hunt, a pirate’s booty, a scavenger hunt?  How do we show them that the pursuits bring them rewards apart from grades, honors, and graduations?  These objectives are doubly hard when all our pursuits are designed to show an immediate outcome.

While raising these questions, we developed a set of ideas that we started applying in our classroom practices.  We also decided to share them with other instructors at the Teacher-to-Teacher Conference held by the New York City Writing Project.  In our workshop titled “What Is Inquiry? Scrutinizing Evidence to Uncover Truth,” we outlined different strategies an educator could use to develop students’ abilities to raise thought-provoking questions that ultimately lead to deep discussions of the subject matter. We distinguished two categories of questions: content-based and form-based.

Using the text “The Miracle in Front of You: Raymond Barfield on Practicing Medicine with Compassion,” Janice Lynch Schuster’s interview published in The Sun magazine, we followed several content-based questioning steps:  What central idea / message does Dr. Barfield convey?  What are his implications?  What themes or underlying issues does the text reveal?  What questions can guide us to thoroughly explore these themes and ultimately help us discover truth (which was another central focus of our presentation)?

Both in our classrooms and during the presentation at NYCWP, we witnessed what engaging and unique questions every individual could ask to challenge others’ understanding of and relationship with a text.  Below are a few themes and questions developed in the process of inquiry (based on “The Miracle in Front of You”):

 Does Dr. Barfield claim that hospitals need more hospitality?
 How can the field of medicine be improved
_ with treatments?
_ with administration?
_ with doctors’ / medical personnel’s demeanor?
_ with education?
 What is a cure?
 How can a doctor best serve a patient?
 Is there always a solution to a disease?
 Do people need to fear death? What happens if this fear prevails?
 How can we define one’s life purpose? What are the fundamentals of satisfaction and happiness?
 What does it mean to be fully present in the situation?
 How could language help connect a doctor to patients? How can understanding of the following help a doctor better address the needs of patients?
_ the patient’s personality and background?
_ their interests and expectations?
_ their fears and hopes?
_ their life goals and dreams?
 How important is it to make a place for creativity in a life devoted to professional advancement?
 What is the price people pay for over-emphasizing achievement over exploration, expansion, and investigation?

Such questions not only engage students in the act of inquiry, but also develop their critical and creative thinking skills.  They learn to do close reading by discovering what is beyond a text.  They learn to synthesize information more efficiently to discover the truth and, in the long run, compose more complex and distinct thesis statements and essays.  Once they have generated content-based questions like those above and developed meaningful answers to them, they can focus on the form-based questioning.

The purpose of form-based questions is to help students construct their own argument.  These questions involve rhetorical situations: audience, genre, stance, tone, purpose, media, and design.  Some of these guiding questions are: Who am I writing for?  What am I trying to accomplish?  What will I be contributing to the assignment?  How will I reach my goal or purpose?  How am I supporting my claims?  How rich is my evidence?  How valid is my reasoning or analysis of evidence?  How can I best present information?  What layout of information is the most logical and appealing to readers?  How am I different at the end of this project?  What did I gain as a student, researcher, scientist, etc.?  How can my work affect readers in a positive way?

Facilitating student questions is best done in groups as collaborative thinking yields more results.  We believe that student collaboration and partnering, while time-consuming, can present inquiry in a way that is mutually beneficial when the questioning and exchanging are based on open-ended inquiry, not simply finding the answer.

Lisa DiomandeLisa Diomande’s background in theatre, dance and Orff-Sculwerk music instruction informs her passionate commitment to transformational and performative adult education at The City College of New York, La Guardia Community College, The College of New Rochelle, and Brooklyn Library.


Nargiza MatyakubovaNargiza Matyakubova teaches Writing for the Sciences at The City College of New York and Disciplinary Investigations: Exploring Writing across the Disciplines at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  She considers writing a crucial tool every student needs to cultivate knowledge.