In my work as a local-history librarian, I am asked a lot of questions about houses.
Nearly all of the questions people ask first are closed-ended questions such as: When was the house built? Who was the architect? Or, Who lived there? These closed-ended questions inevitably lead us to open-ended questions like: What were the previous owners like? Why did they sell?
Often, the closed-ended questions are the only ones we can answer based on available information in documents like city directories, architectural surveys, historical maps, legal papers, and newspapers. We might be able to surmise why an owner sold, but only after answering a lot of closed-ended questions.
In education, the closed-ended question is often undervalued.
In the Right Question Institute’s courses, teachers are sometimes confused about the equal emphasis placed on closed- and open-ended questions. A common question is, “Why do you have students change one open-ended to a closed-ended question and not just closed to open?”
While people tend to understand the theoretical or philosophical value of all questions (which creates the safe, judgment-free space for students to ask anything), they are skeptical about the practical value of all questions. They might believe that closed-ended questions are useful and important, but want to know more about how they work. So let’s take a closer look at our friend, the closed-ended question.
Here are four powerful ways to use closed-ended questions in the classroom:
Closed-ended questions help us build context
Looking at the list of questions that have been generated during a Question Formulation Technique session can help shape the investigations you’re asking students/participants to conduct. The answers to these closed-ended questions lay the foundation of a subject. These are the ‘dig and dive’ questions that teach us the terms of art for our subject. Terms of art are the important words that have specific meaning within the subject and provide people with the specialized vocabulary to talk about it. We might call these words “jargon,” or maybe “lingo.” They provide subtle meaning that those in the profession know and understand without explanation. These are also terms that can be used as “keywords” as we search for more information with our web browsers. All lawyers know that “TRO” means temporary restraining order, while those in the movie profession know that when the camera moves in a circle around a room it is known as an “arc shot.” Cosmetologists talk about “graduation” in a different way than educators do.
Here’s an example: I know nothing about photosynthesis, so I ask some questions about it.
The priority questions I chose were: What is photosynthesis? (Open.) Is photosynthesis important? (Closed.) Where does photosynthesis occur? (Open/closed. I’m not sure yet if there would be one or more locations.) Do all plants use photosynthesis? (Closed.)
By checking my “dig and dive” resources, such as my encyclopedia, textbooks, and other fact-based compendium — I used Encyclopedia Britannica, available through the local public library — I discover these concepts and words, which I write down like this:
- Photosynthesis = a process.
- Transforms light energy from the sun into chemical energy of food.
- Important to the food chain.
- Cellular respiration.
- “importance cannot be overstated.”
- Chlorophyll. /Co2 / stomata, chloroplasts.
From notes like these, I now have some new terms to add to a search in a web browser. After reading further in my encyclopedia, I will also have a sense of what to check in my internet sources to help me verify that the information is reliable.
Closed-ended questions open the doors to further questioning
Example: When researching women’s rights, a young student chose a couple of priority questions to check first: What is “suffrage”? When did it happen? Did women get what they were fighting for?
These questions were the starting point from which she was to choose one to research. Thinking that her project would probably center on one of those questions, she headed into source material to learn more about the topic. One paragraph stood out. It was a short description of the groups — one that included women! — that opposed the right for women to vote. This surprised her. She then added a list of new questions that included the one that really intrigued her: Why would women be against the right to vote? She found her research question only after asking and researching several other closed-ended questions.
Like my student in the example above, I often begin my research with one question, only to discover that there are many more questions that pop up in the process. Very often, the question that we are most interested in pursuing is among the last to be discovered. Likewise, should we get stuck in the process, discovering that we’ve hit a dead end in our research, stepping back to ask questions about our questions can often unstick us. Good research is a journey that includes and builds upon closed-ended questions.
Closed-ended questions can provoke discussion and debate
Some closed-ended questions function almost as open-ended questions in disguise. These are closed-ended questions (and they are closed-ended) that make us pause before we answer them. The answer seems a little more than“yes” or “no.” Questions like:
- Did the Civil War solve the problem of slavery?
- When did climate change begin?
- Was Thomas Jefferson a good person?
- Is it really impossible to divide by 0? Has anyone ever tried it?
- Does fate control our lives?
These questions can be answered with a “yes,”“no” or one word, but the conversation is still open, and those one-word answers seem incomplete. There’s more discussion to be had. RQI’s Sarah Westbrook reminds us that “human language is unpredictable. When you ask the question, you don’t know what the answer will be. Even if the answer ends up being ‘open,’ that doesn’t change the structure and category of the question you asked. Close-ended questions can sometimes elicit very long responses and open-ended questions can sometimes elicit one or two word responses. So, the assumption that closed-ended questions never spark discussion or critical thinking is flawed.”
During the QFT, the activity of changing one open-ended question to closed (and vice versa) often sparks the “aha” of how easily we can transform the conversation with just a little change of language. Students discover some of the complexities of questioning-language and are better prepared not only to ask one question, but also to quickly pivot to ask multiple follow-up questions if indeed they receive one of those unexpectedly short or long responses. Close-ended questions are often highly effective follow-up questions.
Closed-ended questions support self-advocacy
Asking closed-ended questions such as, “What time do I need to get to practice?” and “Who can help me with this assignment?” help students to organize their time and their thinking. Accomplishing goals in school requires the same skills students need to organize their lives outside of school. When faced with a daunting task such as navigating the college admissions process, babysitting a recalcitrant child, or applying for a job, closed-ended questions can help lessen anxiety and pave the way to taking action on one’s own behalf.
In daily life, we often rely on closed-ended questions to navigate situations as varied as deciding where to go on vacation, voting for one candidate over another, or interacting with health care providers or public services:
- Is this medication as safe as this other medication?
- Is there an earlier appointment available?
- Did you receive my application?
- Have you reviewed my application yet?
- Can I speak to your supervisor?
- Do I need to bring identification?
- Where is that office located?
- Can you show me where in the policy it says that?
- Can we make this policy work better for more people?
- Whom do I call to get the answer I need?
- Do I want to vote for this candidate?
- Does this candidate support an issue I care about?
Self-advocacy through question asking helps to identify next steps even in complex and confusing situations. Building the skill in school ensures that students have more tools at their disposal throughout their lives.
About the author: Connie Williams, NBCT, MLS, was a school librarian for Petaluma City Schools and is now the Petaluma History Room librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library. She is the author of Understanding Government Information: a teaching strategies toolkit for grades 7-12 in addition to articles on history and research. She is co-author, with Blanche Woolls, of the book, Teaching Life Skills in the Library. She hosts the LibGuide, Primary Source Starter Kit for Teachers (because every subject has a history), at chwms.libguides.com.