Questioning Techniques to Drive Service Learning

“The humble question is an indispensable tool: the spade that helps us dig for truth, or the flashlight that illuminates surrounding darkness. Questioning helps us learn, explore the unknown, and adapt to change. That makes it a most precious “app” today, in a world where everything is changing and so much is unknown.”

Warren Berger, Author of A More Beautiful Question

Have you thought about how the role of questions will advance your service learning process this year? Students engaged in service learning are challenged to find and address authentic needs facing their community. To do this they must inquire about what is happening in the world around them. As the process of service learning gets underway in your classroom, it is important to help build a culture of inquiry that celebrates students’ questions as much as their answers. Use this guide to help you make questioning a vibrant part of your service learning culture this year.

1. Asking Questions About Ourselves

Knowing who’s in the room will be an essential resource for your service learning endeavors. What interests do your students have? This might give insight into the societal issues that will engage them or that they will find relevant to their lives. What skills and talents does each student bring to the table that will be of value as they design and implement their service plans? Service learning consultant and author, Cathryn Berger Kaye, developed the Personal Inventory process as a resource for student-centered service learning from the beginning of the experience. This activity can help you with an important motto for creating student voice and choice: To thine own students be true.

2. Creating a Supportive Culture for Questions

Visit The Right Question Institute; they propose that when students are able to ask their own questions they will be more deeply engaged in acquiring answers. Join their educator’s network to learn about strategies that help students formulate meaningful questions. As you continue to build your service learning curriculum, students will then be involved in the decision making process for how to answer the questions they care about most.

To help students ask meaningful questions, ask a Questionologist. Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, shares practical insights in this Edutopia article for developing a culture that cherishes questions, as well as activities that help students become proficient questioners. Imagine applying the 10 x 10 activity he describes to your investigation stage of service learning: “Can you come up with 10 questions in 10 minutes about the societal issue we’ve identified?”

3. Asking Questions About the Community

To determine an authentic need in the community, students benefit from being engaged in deep social analysis of the identified issue. Cathryn Berger Kaye suggests an approach she calls “action research” to encourage the use of media (newspapers, books, television, maps, internet), interviews (asking experts), surveys (encourages a broad base of questioning), and observation and experience (seeing for one’s self or drawing from prior experience). Each method requires the formulation of questions that help students become more attentive to the world around them. All is aimed at authenticating a community need. Challenge students to use these four action research methods to shed light on the community need. For more on surveying, read Cathryn’s blog Action Research: Whom should students survey?

4. Asking Questions About the Chosen Societal Issue

When the community need has been identified, continue making connections between the societal issues and ongoing learning. To make the concepts relevant to students’ lives, you can use a simple KWL activity, a questioning exercise familiar to many educators:

  • What I know.
  • What I want to know.
  • What I

Students question what they already know about the societal issue, what they want to know about this topic, and keep track of what they have learned. Applying prior knowledge to the societal issue helps students make connections to what they’re learning.

Once personal connections are made, they can then critically address what they know by examining preconceptions and assumptions, a critical aspect of service learning. Educator, Holly Chesser uses a questioning activity that used social media commentary to encourage students to explore bias. Students read comments posted at the end of online articles and wrote questions regarding how the reader may have come to their conclusions. By considering the assumptions other people make, with continued discussion, students can consider their own assumptions. (Note: during this activity, students also consider how they are making assumptions about what they read.)

Also critical for service learning is developing questions that lead to student action. Sometimes teachers create these essential questions, and sometimes students take part. Either way, including a question that integrates words like “my” and “our” can propel the students to consider their role in social change. For example, students studying ocean pollution might question, “How do my daily actions impact the health of our oceans?” Questions that show students’ personal involvement with the issue can frame a meaningful social action.

5. Asking Questions About the Impact of Service

Teachers can reinforce ongoing inquiry with questions that monitor the progress and impact of the service performed. The class should regularly revisit the essential questions they’ve developed about their societal issue. Have they discovered new information about the community need? Do their service actions need to be refined or changed to address the cause more effectively? Teachers might also consider borrowing questions from the sphere of personal development. These questions, for example, have been adapted from writers Marc and Angel who focus on providing practical tips for productive living: Based on our routines and actions, what difference could we expect to make by the end of the year? What do we need to spend more or less time doing? What about our actions is worth smiling about right now?

6. Asking Questions as Reflection and for Demonstration

Rather than being seen as the stage of service learning that follows action, consider that reflection is both ongoing and occurs during and as a transition between the other stages of investigation, preparation, action, and demonstration. Making time for reflection validates this critical process’ role in learning, retention and considering how an experience has impact on self and others. With reflection, students use metacognitive skills as they consider, for example, “How can we become effective thinkers and learners so as to gain the most from our service experience? How can what we learn about our community and ourselves be applied to future endeavors in the classroom and in the world? Keep in mind that simple questions are also of utmost importance. Cathryn Berger Kaye frames four basic questions for reflection: What happened? How do I feel? What are my ideas? What are my questions?

To help frame your reflection process Edward Burger and Michael Starbird in The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking offer a way to deepen learning. They discuss thinking techniques (understand deeply, make mistakes, raise questions, and follow the flow of ideas), which are strategies that can be used as areas for reflection: How have you deepened your understanding of the cause? What mistakes have we learned from? What further questions do we still need to answer about the societal issue? Looking back, trace your flow of ideas to retell how we came to this service experience.

As the service experience comes to a close during demonstration, teachers can circle back to questions that address the value of the collective efforts. Students chose to be dedicated to and work towards a cause. Why was this process worth the time and effort it took to improve our neighborhoods and communities? What did we do to learn? What did we find out? What is different because of our actions? Enjoy the responses you receive from thoughtful citizens engaged in your classroom.

Whichever questioning activities and techniques you use to hone your students’ inquiry skills, their ability to develop high-quality questions will aid the service learning process. May inquiry and questioning become an accepted and celebrated part of your service learning classroom atmosphere!

Here’s a final question: What questioning strategies are you using to enrich your service learning practices and deepen the learning for your students? Share your comments below.

*With thanks to Cathryn Berger Kaye for her consultation on this article.

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