Are you asking fertile questions? If not, you should be

If we really want our children to understand the what and the why of their curriculum, then fertile questions should be at the core of your teaching, argues Mark Enser
19th July 2020, 8:02am

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Are you asking fertile questions? If not, you should be

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/are-you-asking-fertile-questions-if-not-you-should-be
Pedagogy Curriculum

The word "curriculum" derives, ultimately, from a word meaning "a route of a race". A curriculum worthy of the name should, therefore, take you on a journey from A to B; it shouldn't be a collection of topics, texts and historical periods that you encounter during your time in school. 

And yet, when I think of the schemes of work I have taught over the years, this is often how it felt.

Year 7 might be learning about urbanisation, because the National Curriculum said they needed to, and so in one lesson they learn about the growth of megacities, then they come in the next week to learn something about urban zones and their features, and then later that week they have another lesson where they learn about shanty towns. 

Pedagogy: fertile questions

And so it goes on until we reach the end of the term and they would have some sort of assessment of what they had learnt. 

Each lesson largely stood alone with perhaps some reference back to prior learning, but with no overall sense of the journey they were on - no sense of the curriculum. 

One thing that helped my approach to shift was encountering the idea of "fertile questions" in a paper by Yoram Harpaz entitled Teaching and Learning in a Community of Thinking

Curriculum development 

Over the past few years, I have started to use fertile questions to underpin what my pupils are learning. 

So, what are they?

Fertile questions are intriguing questions that each lesson is seeking to help to answer and help to tie all the lessons in a topic together. 

So, rather than a series of disparate lessons on urbanisation, they are trying to answer the question "Will Lagos be able to meet the challenges created by rural-urban migration?", and rather than learning about Haiti, they are trying to answer the question "Why is Haiti the least economically developed country in the Western hemisphere?" 

New approaches

This sense of intrigue sparks my pupils' natural curiosity. The subject itself becomes engaging rather than an activity designed to hook them. 

By phrasing each topic as a fertile question to be answered, I have been able to think more carefully about the disciplinary knowledge that a geographer would need in order to answer it. 

I find myself asking, what propositional and procedural knowledge will they have to bring to the question? Rather than, what can I teach to fill up the lessons this half-term? 

Harpaz suggests that fertile questions will have the following characteristics.

  • Be open
    There should be more than one possible answer to the question. This is not to say that some answers to it won't be wrong, but it should be more complex than a simple yes or no. 
  • Be undermining
    Misconceptions should be challenged by answering this question. It should make the pupil think in a new way about the topic and go beyond their everyday knowledge. 
  • Be rich
    It should be based on powerful knowledge that needs to be researched and thought about from multiple angles. 
  • Be connected
    There should be links to different parts of the discipline, as well as the potential to connect to their everyday knowledge. The fertile question may be a good opportunity to show the complexities of our subject and the fact that no topic stands in isolation just as no lesson does. 
  • Be charged
    The question is likely to have an ethical dimension that deals with rights and wrongs, human rights or difficult decisions. 
  • Be practical
    It needs to be within the ability of pupils to get hold of the information they need to answer the question. This information might well come from the teacher. But then you need to ensure that you can get hold of the information. 

I hope that by planning my curriculum around these fertile questions I have been able to create a curriculum that truly takes my pupils on a journey through my subject and on their own quest for truth. 

They are starting to see the connections between lessons much more easily and there is a new sense of purpose to their work. They want to get to the end of the journey and see what is there. 

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