Provocative Questions or boring teacher questions?

The other day our PYP programme coordinator, Derek Pinchbeck, shared, what I perceived as a revolutionary new idea (sparked by Lynn Erikson) : why not turn our teacher questions into provocative questions. It’s one of those things that you just want to slap your head and say, “Of course! How could we not have done that before? It’s so obvious.”

For example, if the line of inquiry is: Making personal choices about our health. Here is what I would have done in the past:

Teacher question: What choices do we have? (Boring.  Ask a child this and you will get a list: eat healthy food, exercise, sleep, etc.)

Here is an example of what we might do now:

Teacher question: Do healthy choices differ between cultures? (Ask a child this and you will get questions, comparisons, thoughtful thinking, and debates)

Don’t you feel more engaged  emotionally by the second question? Don’t you want to start talking about it immediately, asking questions and sharing personal experience and beliefs? I do.

Read more here: Derek’s blog.

11 thoughts on “Provocative Questions or boring teacher questions?

  1. I like this approach. But is the word ‘healthy’ a value-laden word. Why not just say ‘choices or perhaps ‘healthy and unhealthy choices’. Just thinkering here.


    • Hi Stuart. By using the word ‘healthy’ in the question the students themselves will discover that it is a value laden word. That’s the point. Instead of avoiding the issue, have them identify it amongst themselves and draw some conclusions through debate. What do you think?


  2. Hi Marina, that makes sense. then they can discuss what constitutes a healthy choice. I imagine some choices are seen as healthy in Germany and not healthy in China. Sounds interesting as it is really based on culture, tradition and history.


    • Absolutely. In my classroom, for instance, we have different cultural beliefs about the amount of sleep needed each night, the type of clothes that need to be worn in certain seasons, the drinking (or not drinking) of cold beverages or eating of ice cream in winter, and a big one…peanut butter – heathy food or junk food?


      • Interesting discussion Marina and Stuart. While I follow and agree with much of your line of thinking, there is a physiological element to ‘healthy’ that may not necessarily be subject to cultural values. For example, children’s bodies at certain ages need a certain amount sleep for proper development. This, I’m sure, would become part of the inquiry.


        • Exactly. And the provocation continues…what does ‘healthy’ mean? Is it cultural? Is it scientific? Can it be both? We know that science is constantly making new discoveries and the definition of ‘healthy’ in any culture is continually changing. How do we cope with that? All great inquiry discussions.


      • Very good points, Marina. I also think there’s difference within the same culture. For example, it’s very difficult to go on a diet these days. Health Canada is telling us the bottom of the pyramid has fruits & vegetables, grains, meat and dairy; Atikins says the bottom needs to be meat with grains closer to the top.


  3. I like the idea of tweaking the guiding questions to make the questions more thought provoking. However, I don’t like starting guiding questions with the words ‘Do, Does, or Has’ because they result in simple answers. For example: Do healthy choices differ between cultures? Yes.
    I find it’s helpful to start guiding questions with ‘How’ or ‘Why.’
    For example: How do healthy choices differ between cultures?
    Now the problem with this is that there is a presupposition that there are existing differences in healthy choices between cultures.


    • Yes, I’ve talked about that with others and ended up deciding that ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions make great provocative questions because you have to take a stand and defend it. One becomes more emotionally engaged in these questions and ready for a debate. By answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ the speaker needs to start supporting her position with proof. She also has to listen to the one who says ‘no’ and counter argue his points. Lot’s of high level thinking going on in debating.
      The ‘how’ question closes the debate down and asks the student to create a list.
      Which one would you rather do?


  4. I think with these questions we need to ask these questions during collaborative planning time and see what possible discussions arise from it. Of course, there will always be surprises from the students but at least we are prepared for the discussion.
    I have proposed that the planner has a place for research questions that the teachers are interested in. It could simply be: How do children understand choices? or Do children have different understandings of healthy choices?



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