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Vol 16|No 3|February|2020


Questions of import (revisited)

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)

For quite some time I have been arguing that questions of import should guide and inspire student learning activities in schools. They are similar to essential questions but do not necessarily have the sweeping scope or huge importance of an essential question. For a thorough explanation of these questions and a comparison with essential questions, read my 2010 article, "Questions of Import" -- a small portion of which is quoted below:

Questions of import are worthy of our time and are also likely to spark interest and awaken curiosity. They require thought rather than the mere collection of facts or simple cut-and-paste thinking. They bring a curriculum to life and inspire learning.

No more trivial pursuit.

No more topical research.

No more hunts for simple facts - deadly, tiresome and lacking in value, mind-numbing activities without import.

How do they differ from essential questions?

Essential questions tend to be grander than questions of import - exploring sweeping major issues of life that could serve as the basis for a year's study. They might even be worthy of a lifetime of study.

Questions of import, on the other hand, while consequential, may sometimes be settled within the hour.

"What's the best way for me to treat my friend right now?"

"What's the best way for me to spend the rest of this afternoon?"

Or they may take much longer . . .

"What's the importance of Captain Cook's taking of hostages?"
"What does that tell you about his character?"
"How do we feel about hostage taking these days?"

While this may be an essential question . . .
"Why do we so often turn characters from history into icons?"

Recent political events in the USA provide a good example of such questions.

An essential question . . .
"Why did the founders think separation of powers was so important that they placed it in the Constitution and added safeguards like an impeachment process to protect against the executive branch exceeding its powers?"

Some questions of import . . .
"What did the founders have in mind with the phrase 'treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors?'"
"Was it wise for the Democrats to impeach President Trump in the House?"
"Was it wise for the Republicans to exonerate him in the Senate?"
"How will his impeachment influence the 2020 election?"

Another essential question . . .
"How will history judge President Trump and current members of Congress 100 years from now?""

Questions of character for political candidates

With a major election coming to the USA in 2020, questions of character loom large, as citizens decide which candidate to support for local, state and national positions. The following list of questions, originally developed as biography questions of import were adjusted to support evaluation of those running for political office.
  1. What do you think of this candidate's ideas for the future? Are they realistic proposals or pie in the sky?
  2. Can this candidate beat the candidate of the other political party?
  3. In what ways has this candidate's life prepared her/him to tackle the challenges of this job?
  4. In what ways has this candidate's life been admirable?
  5. In what ways has this candidate's life been shameful?
  6. What human qualities were most influential in shaping the way this person has lived and acted?
  7. Which quality or trait has proved most troubling and difficult?
  8. Which quality or trait has been most beneficial?
  9. Has this person made any major mistakes or bad decisions? If so, what were they and how would you have chosen and acted differently if you were in their shoes?
  10. Some people say you can judge the quality of a person's life by the enemies they make. Do you think this is true of your person's life? Explain why or why not.
  11. Many people act out of a "code" or a set of beliefs which dictate choices. It may be religion or politics or a personal philosophy. To what extent does your person act by a code or act independently of any set of beliefs? Were there times when the code was challenged and impossible to follow?
  12. Does this candidate have a history of keeping or breaking promises?
  13. Who is backing this candidate financially? Does it matter?

Questions of character for cities, states or nations

J. McKenzie

In studying other countries, states and cities, questions of character may also serve well to build understanding. This approach is superior to studies that engage students in the mindless scooping of facts.

In a previous article, "Otherworldly research," I outlined this way of studying in detail, suggesting that students pose questions to learn about various facets of life in a city such as tolerance. The diagram below shows aspects of cities worth exploring.

  1. How safe is it to walk about on the streets of this city at night?
  2. To what extent does this city have a problem with homeless people and what programs are in place to address this problem?
  3. To what extent can one safely speak their mind and challenge the government?
  4. What does it take in the way of income to enjoy a comfortable life in this city?
  5. How good are the employment prospects?
  6. To what extent is this a good city in which to raise a family? How good are the schools and recreational resources?
  7. To what extent is the city friendly and welcoming?
  8. To what extent is this a healthy place?

Using photographs to practice question generation

J. McKenzie

The Internet now provides extensive photographic resources to stimulate questioning and thought like the photo above. Students can be challenged to list a dozen or more questions of import provoked by this image. They might then extend their inquiry further by going to Flickr.com and doing a search for "I read the news today, oh boy" which is a phrase from a Beattles song. On the day I was writing this paragraph, there were 1,002 photos available. Students can compare and contrast photos from this collection and augment the list of questions they generated from the first photo.

This approach also works well teaching students how to deconstruct the messages embedded in videos as outlined in my article, "Questioning Video, Film, Advertising and Propaganda: Deconstructing Media Messages."

These two videos, one by Dove and one from Greenpeace, offer a rich opportunity to pose questions of import.

  1. What techniques are being used in each video to sway the thinking and feelings of the viewer?
  2. Does either video distort reality or make false and misleading claims?
  3. What is the clearly stated message of the video?
  4. What other messages are implied?
  5. Why is Dove - part of the beauty industry - seem to be attacking the beauty industry?
  6. In what ways is the Greenpeace video a good example of parody?

Laptop Thinking and Writing

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