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Wide Open Questions: Unleashing the Power of Curiosity in an Agile Classroom

Agile classrooms provide avenues for students to learn more than the mandated content. In the same time that one might dedicate to a teacher-focused unit, students are given the opportunity to immediately apply new knowledge to real-world situations. To facilitate this type of learning, the unit needs to be anchored by a Wide-Open Question (WOQ). A WOQ begins a unit that encourages students to explore new ideas and unique solutions to a problem. Unlike traditional content-based questions that seek a single "right" answer and therefore set students on identical learning paths, WOQs start with interrogative words like ‘Why’ or ‘How’ and are designed to be broad and open-ended. This allows students to bring their own interests and prior knowledge into the learning process. WOQs engage students in personalized learning and deepen their understanding of the content, as well as build skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

WOQs promote the type of learning that goes beyond the walls of a traditional classroom. Yes, the student must use new knowledge learned in class to try to solve the problem, but the complexity and uniqueness of the question ignite intrinsic learning. Students become engaged in answering the question and PULL new learning as they search for an answer. This builds strong connections that go beyond one content area and allows students to build broad networks of knowledge that they otherwise may not learn or connect. Making connections among different knowledge areas is when sparks of innovation emerge. By replacing Essential Questions with Wide-Open Questions, new pathways of learning are developed that will have lifelong benefits for our students.

Qualities of Wide-Open Questions (WOQs)

WOQs start with teachers working with their course standards, institutional competencies, and curriculum. When reviewing the necessary content, teachers summarize the big ideas of a unit. These are the important concepts students must know by the end of the unit. Typically, teachers then transform these big ideas into an essential or driving question. The essential or driving question leads students through the unit and keeps them focused on the big ideas and the expected end result. Essential questions are terrific at defining a learning path but often lack complexity and real-world application. In contrast, a Wide-Open Question is not tied directly to the content. It is a large complex question in which new content knowledge can help students find their own solutions. These questions do not have one answer but are broad enough that each individual may think of a different answer. The questions are too complex to Google or be answered by a ChatGPT prompt, which would only serve as the starting point. The teacher can then facilitate the student’s ability to navigate the process of digging deeper to find a solution. WOQs require deep thinking, testing, evaluation, and reflection. At the end of an Agile unit, students not only learned the new material but also learned about the world around them and how this new information helps them solve current problems.

WOQs are effective in the classroom because they challenge students to think critically about how to apply the new knowledge they are learning to a real-world situation. Since it offers no easy solution, students often have to brainstorm, collaborate, and test ideas before being able to find feasible solutions. Allowing students an opportunity to “struggle” to answer a question, especially in teams, provides opportunities for students to develop the AI Proof skills they will need when working with more complex problems and technology because tools like ChatGPT would be the starting point for finding a solution—they do not provide it. The students' own history and experiences are integral to building upon the foundation they may get from ChatGPT to continue problem-solving.

Using WOQs at the beginning of a unit changes the function of learning in the classroom. The learning transforms from learning content to finding an answer or answering questions on a test to UNDERSTANDING new concepts and their relationships so that information can be immediately applied to a novel question.

Future of Education

As we shift and search for new ways to reach our students in the age of AI, WOQs offer a new way to engage students and ensure that they are not “cheating” by relying on new technology to pass traditional assessments. WOQs allow teachers to continue to teach the mandated content, but because each student group must try to answer the question, they will apply the information in different ways. When students present their work at the end, there will be no two groups that offer the same solution. And instead of sitting through cookie-cutter presentations, students will be intrigued by how different teams used the same information to solve the same problem but found their way to unique solutions.

Wide Open Questions are small changes that can have a significant impact on how a classroom functions. Their effectiveness is enormous on learning outcomes and how the learning space functions; it is a shift from a content-heavy push-based instructional space to one where students are pulling information and developing the AI Proof skills that will serve them in the future. Wide Open Questions are an effective tool for teachers who want to engage students and facilitate their learning. These questions encourage students to think critically, explore their own ideas, and develop communication and creative problem-solving skills. By incorporating Wide Open Questions into their teaching practice, teachers create an environment that is conducive to learning and unleashes the power of curiosity in their students.


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