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Using key questions for enquiry

‘Enquiry is question driven. It encourages curiosity and a questioning approach to knowledge.’

Margaret Roberts, 2016

Topics on this page:

What is a good key question? | Big geographical questions | Identifying key questions | Who decides the questions? | Using key questions in practice | Question generators for enquiry | Reading

Introduction

Key questions are a curricular tool used in geography to organise content. They are also referred to as ‘fertile’ questions. It is possible to identify a key question/s as a theme for a lesson, or sequence of lessons, taught by teacher-led, explicit instruction. 

However, to use key questions most effectively they should be explored through the pedagogical approach of ‘geographical enquiry’; this is described in What is geographical enquiry?

What is a good key question?

Good geography starts with good questions. A good enquiry question shapes curriculum content. High-quality enquiry questions enable students to develop both substantive and disciplinary knowledge simultaneously. Lessons with a good question at their heart are focused and purposeful. That is why geography teachers often use key questions to frame their curriculum units and lessons. Good key questions should:

  • Capture the interest and imagination of students
  • Focus on an aspect of geographical thinking or investigation
  • Result in challenging activities that achieve substantial learning.

Key questions are likely to be most effective when applied across a series of lessons. This allows students to develop the depth and breadth of knowledge they need to think about and discuss different aspects of the question. Students can then adapt and develop their judgements as their understanding deepens across several lessons and this iterative process will lead to more secure understanding.

Ofsted (2023) reports on how schools operate this in practice by planning ‘topics around geographical enquiry questions. These are overarching questions that should link together a series of lessons. Examples include questions like “Why are some places more at risk from earthquakes than others?” or “What impact will deforestation have on Brazil?”‘ They noted that ‘when this was done well, pupils were taught the stages of geographical enquiry. They worked through them towards answering the enquiry question over a carefully planned series of lessons‘.

Such key questions are carefully formulated and planned by the teacher to focus on a particular area of knowledge and the teacher requires good geographical and pedagogical knowledge to craft them. Key questions are often used as the title for a lesson or scheme of work. They are most effective when applied across a series of lessons to allow students the time to develop the depth and breadth of knowledge they need to think about the question.

Ofsted (2023) notes that this approach ‘had the greatest positive impact when the topic had been designed around the question. It was much less successful when the question was added to the topic retrospectively‘.

Some examination specifications use key questions to frame their content. For example, OCR’s Geography for Enquiring Minds uses key questions, such as these on the topic of climate change:

  • What evidence is there of climate change?
  • Is climate change a natural process?
  • Why is climate change a global issue?

Key reading

  • Roberts, M. (2013) Geography through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 3.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 4.

Big geographical questions

Sometimes the term ‘big question’ is used to indicate its importance as an overarching question.

Lofthouse (2011) explains how she uses what she calls ‘Big geographical questions’ (BGQs) to root geography in the principles of enquiry and to provide a purpose to learning. She identified these (as shown below) to make geography accessible for students and help them to make sense of the world in all its dimensions.

  • Why do people live where they do?
  • Why do weather and climate vary from place to place and time to time?
  • In what ways do people change the environment?
  • How can we represent the world we live in?
  • Why do people have such different lifestyles?
  • How are decisions made that shape our lives?
  • Do people share the same values about the world?

BGQs transcend individual topics, can be responded to at many levels and be investigated at different scales. She believes that using BGQs should be used to remind teachers and students where the learning journey is taking them; to promote an enquiring attitude; and ‘to foster deep understanding not superficial coverage’. She believes that BGQs can help teachers to translate their personal subject knowledge into a form that students can engage with and learn from.

Identifying key questions

A key question puts a geographical concept or process at the centre of learning. It should provoke curiosity and may set up a puzzling situation or problem that students are keen to explore. This is particularly important when it is to be the focus of an investigative enquiry. Norman (2014) describes some of the ‘crazy questions’ she has used to engage students in geographical learning.

In the Think Piece – Concepts in geography, Taylor (2007) suggests that a good key question for enquiry has:

“…‘both “pith and rigour” – that is it is engaging, making you want to answer it, and gives opportunity for careful and challenging development of those pupils’ geographical learning. An example might be “Should people be allowed to destroy the Amazon rainforest?”. Good enquiry questions will set up issues or puzzles which can be unpacked in the enquiry sequence (for example the word “allowed” in this question gives opportunities to think about who the Amazon “belongs” to and who should have a say in what happens to it).”

The key question that Taylor suggests here opens up so many more different channels of enquiry than a simple question such as ‘What is the Amazon rainforest like?’. See how Taylor develops ways of employing alternative key questions for this theme in Geography’s Big Ideas.

In this example, Taylor illustrates how each alternative question has a certain big concept as its focus, which enables students to adapt and develop their ideas about the Amazon rainforest as their understanding deepens across a series of lessons. They are developing their disciplinary knowledge because they are challenging assumptions and looking at the questions from different viewpoints.

The Geographical Association’s key stage 3 Geography Teachers’ Toolkit series also uses key questions as a framework. Kinder (2008) explains that when choosing these questions the authors asked:

“Would a geographer answer this more thoughtfully than a specialist from any other discipline?’. For example, when considering the question: “Should I buy a Valentine’s rose?”, learners might first be struck by the apparent simplicity of the question. A simple product, a simple answer?”

He goes on to explain that the strength of this key question are the subsidiary questions it spawns and it leads on to questions about:

“The global pattern of rose production, the interdependence of the people and places involved in flower production and consumption, the economic, social and environmental processes at work and the difficult ethical questions involved in making a personal decision about buying a fresh rose in February!”

The many geographical concepts and processes that can be studied make this a very good key question. Look at some of the other key stage 3 toolkits in the GA shop, with equally interesting and productive key questions.

  • Refer to Roberts (2023) p 37 Figure 4.1: ‘The characteristics of “fertile” questions’.

Who decides the questions?

As we have seen in the Amazon and Valentine rose examples, the key question leads on to several subsidiary questions that are necessary steps to answering the overarching question. A good key question is capable of generating many sub-questions. But who generates these questions?

Allowing key stage 3 students to play a part in setting the agenda with their questions creates the opportunity for them to develop skills that will be essential for independent enquiries later required in examinations. 

A good way to do this is by involving students in devising subsidiary questions to explore so that not all the questions are ‘given’ by the teacher. Students need time and space to frame questions so that they think carefully about what they want to ask. Teachers must help students to structure their questions based on their knowledge, rather than asking them at random.

Amis (2012) explains her approach to enquiries. She does not pre-determine the questions and expects the class to agree the big question. She first asks students to record ideas on sticky notes and then sort and shape them into questions. They share these and select the important or big question. Once they have that in place, they select the sub-questions and finally identify the facts and knowledge they will need to drill down and make their enquiry effective.

When students do identify questions, it is important that, at the end of the series of lesson, the teacher returns to the questions that framed the work and explores with the class the extent to which the questions have been answered and whether they identified ‘good’ questions to ask.

Using key questions in practice

Roberts (2023) p 37 explores how a ‘pedagogy of inquiry’ can be based on questioning, and describes three stages for how this could operate in the classroom.

Study the example of a unit of work on climate change for year 7 students in Roberts (2023) p 38 and how the ‘fertile question’ prompted a range of students’ own questions.

Question generators for enquiry

A question generator (see Students’ questioning skills) can be a good way to set up student-led enquiry. The framework helps students to ask better and deeper questions.

Kitchen (2017) suggests how question generators can be used to support A level students to devise a suitable enquiry question for their independent investigation.

Reading

  • Amis, K. (2012) ‘Finding the big questions’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Ellis, L. (2009) A Thorny Issue: Should I buy a Valentine’s rose, Geographical Association.
  • Kinder, A. (2008) ‘A teacher’s toolkit for key stage 3’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Kitchen, B. (2017) ‘Developing a ‘toolkit’ for the A level independent investigation’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Lofthouse, R. (2011) ‘Is this big enough? Using big geographical questions to develop subject pedagogy’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Norman, R. (2014) ‘Creating crazy enquiry questions’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Roberts, M. (2013) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 5 ‘Encouraging students’ questions’.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 4.
  • Taylor, L. (2007) Some ideas for enquiry questions – Amazon Rainforest in Available at: Geography’s Big Ideas.
  • Taylor, L. (2008) Think Piece – Concepts in geography, Geographical Association on-line.