‘Better research starts with better questions’

Training pupils to be effective questioners will transform their research skills, say this teacher and school librarian

Julie Greenhough and Emma Wallace

A new initiative, Networking the Networks, aims to promote the sharing of research in the FE sector

There is a saying: while you can tell a clever person by the answers that they give to questions, a wise person can be identified by the questions that they ask.

Unfortunately, in schools today, pupils rarely get an opportunity to be "wise". Curriculum demands and testing regimes mean that we often spend more time focusing on how to get the answer right than on how to ask the best questions.

But the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) demands a different approach. Our pupils take the EPQ level 2 in Year 9 and level 3 in Year 12.

To support them, we give them all a research toolkit – an "academic superhero" utility belt of research skills, which they can then deploy across the curriculum.

The most important of these skills is being able to question what you read. Research is, after all, cutting-edge learning; it does not involve regurgitating taught knowledge.

The challenge is to enable pupils to question through research and to think for themselves, rather than repeat facts they have learnt in lessons or read online. They should be able to pose suitable and probing questions, to seek out information, apply independent learning skills, and to challenge and demonstrate knowledge of a topic.

These are the skills that will carry a pupil through life, from school and beyond, setting them up for a fast, changing and unpredictable world.

You can't just Google the question 'word for word'

There is, of course, a difference between asking a question and asking a "good" question. Bad questions seek answers that merely confirm what pupils may already know – resulting in them getting stuck in echo chambers, unable to tell fact from fiction or bias from balance.

We all know pupils who type a homework question word for word into Google and then select the first website in the results list, copying and pasting related information and handing that in as their completed homework.

This approach is littered with pitfalls, never more so than amid the rise of “fake news”. Pupils need to be more savvy and critical of information than ever. We need to show them how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

To help pupils to do this, and to understand what makes a “good” question, we need to model the research process to them.

Brainstorming and mindmaps

One of the best ways to start this process is to use mindmaps. It’s summer, so let’s think about ice cream. Look at this mindmap we created using Coggle. This is a great way for students to explore what they already know, break the topic down into categories and highlight keywords, which could be used to carry out effective online searches.

Brainstorming the question “What’s the best ice cream in the world?” allows pupils to identify various facets of the topic, such as brands and marketing, countries and cultures, ingredients and health concerns.

From this point, they can then hone in on a set of keywords to use in their online searches. They can combine and connect these keywords, using Boolean search operators, such as "AND" or "OR", to create meaningful and specific searches.

This will ensure that pupils are challenging and experimenting with possible results, drawing up relevant resources, and will make sure that they do not spend their research time lost in echo chambers.

Julie Greenhough is head of, and centre coordinator for, extended project qualification; Emma Wallace is school librarian, both at St Benedict's School in London

The 3 August edition of Tes, is a research special, packed full of advice about engaging with education research: how to find it, how to assess it and how to use it. Pick up a copy from your local newsagents or subscribe to read online

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Julie Greenhough and Emma Wallace

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