Trivial, Hard, Impossible & Nonsense Questions (THINQ): A scaffolding approach for nurturing questioning skills

Introducing THINQ: A note from the 100mentors team

At 100mentors, our mission is to educate humans to ask the questions that matter – from the classroom to the boardroom. So, we’re proud to welcome guest blogger Dimitris Grammenos, whose work and workshops on design, creativity, and questioning are effective for all learning environments: children, parents, teachers, workplaces, and the general public, too. It’s our great pleasure to host his THINQ series (Trivial, Hard, Impossible & Nonsense Questions), a special feature on questioning.

This 6-part series will take a step-by-step practical approach to the question generation and formulation phase of inquiry-based learning, wherever it takes place. Now that most schools are out of session for the summer, we’re thinking about all the spaces and places we can use for inquiry in our lives, and invite you to do the same with this series! We hope you enjoy reading about Dimitris’ perspective on motivating and engaging participants in actively thinking and creating more, better, diverse, and stimulating questions about any given topic, while also having fun. 

Enjoy THINQ and leave your questions and comments for discussion for Dimitris below!

Inquiry-based learning (Lee et al., 2004) is an approach to teaching and learning, also supporting competence-based learning (Voorhess, 2001), that places students’ interests and ideas at the center of the learning experience. The approach builds upon questions posed by the learners in the context of an educational process curated by an experienced facilitator (educator) which are used to actively introduce or produce knowledge (Chichekian & Shore, 2014), as well as to construct personalized representations of this knowledge. Those questions, which may “not necessarily have known answers” (Shore, Chichekian, Syer, Aulls, & Frederiksen, 2012), have the potential to (Chin & Osborne, 2008):

(a) direct their learning and drive knowledge construction; 
(b) foster discussion and debate;
(c) help them to self-evaluate and monitor their understanding; 
(d) increase their motivation and interest in a topic by arousing their epistemic curiosity.

Beyond the sheer number of the questions generated, these 4 dimensions can also be used by the facilitator as evaluation criteria for assessing the outcomes of the process, as well as individual learner achievement. Additionally, the quality and the quantity of the questions posed can be critical for successfully implementing inquiry-based learning. Too simple questions will not provide high learning potential. Too few questions will not fuel the process and the activity will stop too quickly. If the most obvious questions are raised, participants are challenged to come up with more daring and creative questions (Stokhof et al. 2019), especially if specific criteria are set.

THINQ (Trivial, Hard, Impossible & Nonsense Questions) is a practical scaffolding approach which can be used during the question generation and formulation phase of inquiry-based learning, for motivating and engaging participants in actively thinking about, creating more, better, diverse and stimulating questions about a given topic, while also having fun. 

Overview of the THINQ Approach

If you are introducing THINQ to a group of learners for the first time, you should go briefly through all steps emphasizing in getting familiar with the approach and not in the quantity and quality of the results. When participants are familiar with THINQ, steps 1-4 can be omitted. 

Step 1. Set a Topic: This is the main theme around which participants will formulate their queries.

Step 2. Cold start: Without any further instructions, ask participants to write down as many questions they can think of about the given Topic. 

Step 3. Introduce THINQ: Present as 4 vertical columns or, as a 4 quadrant chart, 4 categories labeled as Trivial, Hard, Impossible and Nonsense

Step 4. Code & Reflect: Request from participants to review their questions and write down to which of the 4 categories each one belongs.

Step 5. Think again: Ask participants to try to come up with at least one question per category.

Step 6. Collaborate, Construct & Argue: Have participants pair up, discuss their individual ideas, construct additional questions and reach a common agreement regarding their coding.

Step 7. Share, Inspire & Doubt: Either: (a) go through each category and ask pairs to share their questions; or, (b) ask pairs to transcribe their questions on post-it notes and place them on the THINQ chart. Discuss and argue regarding the “proper” categorization of the questions.

Step 8. Prompt deeper thinking (optional): Have another go (i.e., go back to Step 5) and modify some parameter of the process (e.g., form new pairs, enhance the topic, set a motivational goal). 

Step 9. Answer & Recode (optional): Seek answers to the questions and use them to revisit their categorization.

Step 10. Discuss, Reflect, Evaluate: Contemplate as a group about THINQ and its effects on questioning skills. Use this information along with quantitative data to evaluate the process and its outcomes, as well as individual learner achievement and improvement.


Questioning can have multiple educational benefits for both learning and teaching (Stokhof et al., 2017).  Regarding the learners, questioning can foster intrinsic motivation, supports knowledge construction, helps to monitor and self-evaluate one’s level of understanding and can assist higher level thinking. On the other hand, teachers can use questioning to (Stokhof et al., 2017) diagnose students’ level of understanding, evaluate their students’ level of thinking, enhance enquiry, and evoke critical reflection.

But, being able to ask numerous, relevant, quality questions about a topic is a skill that needs to be learned and exercised. Research (Chin & Osborne, 2008) suggests that questions often do not emerge spontaneously from students but they rather have to be encouraged and elicited through appropriate strategies. This article introduced such a strategy, entitled THINQ, along with background information, its goals and rationale. 

THINQ comprises a number of steps that guide participants (both individually and in groups) to actively think, create, argue, laugh, and doubt about questions. Ideally, THINQ should not be used one-off but rather as a cyclic activity where new-found answers retrofit the creation of further questions, following the paradigm of progressive enquiry. Also, the approach should not be taken as a “recipe” to be strictly reproduced, but rather as a roadmap for exploring the act of generating questions. Thus, feel free to omit, adapt, or rearrange the steps based on your needs. The ultimate criteria for judging its successful application are that: (a) participants had fun, (b) fully engaged in the process and (c) want to do it again.

Today’s children are often characterized as the “Google Generation,” having grown up with a humongous wealth of ready-made answers to any question available at the blink of an eye (Grammenos, 2014). But it is not answers that move the world forward. Questions do that—especially new questions to old answers. Thus, what the following generation will badly need in order to make a step forward is an inverse-Google engine that will be able to take answers as an input and generate “unthought” questions, essentially creating new ignorance (by the way, a great demo of the high potential of such an engine is any child up to 5 years old).

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers”

Voltaire

You can read a more in-depth description of THINQ in the next article of this series entitled Using the THINQ approach for nurturing questioning skills. Subscribe to our blog to be the first to read it:


Acknowledgments

I would like to thank a number of people for reading the draft version of this series of articles and providing me with valuable insights and comments. So, in alphabetical order, thank you very much: Daniel Cape, Dr. Yoram Chisik, Meropi Hatzivei, Marilia Kostaki, Dr. Kalliopi Meli, Yiorgos Nikoletakis, Alexandros Papandreou, Dr. Antigoni Parmaxi, Dr. Iro Voulgari.

References

Chichekian, T., & Shore, B. M. (2014). The International Baccalaureate: Contributing to the Use of Inquiry in Higher Education Teaching and Learning (pp. 73–97). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Chin, C. & Osborne, J. (2008). Students’ questions: a potential resource for teaching and learning science, Studies in Science Education, 44:1, 1-39, DOI:10.1080/03057260701828101

Grammenos, D. (2014). Stupidity, ignorance & nonsense as tools for creative thinking. ACM interactions 21, 5 (September 2014), 54-59. DOI=10.1145/2647582

Lee, V.S., Greene, D.B., Odom, J., Schechter, E., & Slatta, R.W. (2004). What is inquiry-guided learning? In V.S. Lee (Ed.), Teaching and learning through inquiry: a guidebook for institutions and Instructors (pp. 3-16). Virginia: Stylus.

Shore, B. M., Chichekian, T., Syer, C. A., Aulls, M. W., & Frederiksen, C. H. (2012). Planning, Enactment, And Reflection In Inquiry-Based Learning: Validating The McGill Strategic Demands Of Inquiry Questionnaire. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 10(2), 315–337.

Stokhof, H.J.M., De Vries, B., Martens, R., & Bastiaens, T. (2017). How to guide effective student questioning: a review of teacher guidance in primary education. Review ofEducation. doi:10.1002/rev3.3089.

Stokhof, H., de Vries, B., Bastiaens, T. et al. (2019). Mind Map Our Way into Effective Student Questioning: a Principle-Based Scenario. Res Sci Educ 49, 347–369 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-017-9625-3

Voorhees, Richard. (2001). Competency‐Based Learning Models: A Necessary Future. New Directions for Institutional Research 2001(110):5 – 13

Dimitris is a Principal Researcher at the Institute of Computer Science of the Foundation for Research and Technology - Hellas (FORTH). He specializes in Human-Computer Interaction and also holds a Certificate of Competency for the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). Since 2014, he develops and delivers workshops and events that introduce the concepts and practice of design, creativity and creative thinking to children, parents, teachers and the general public. Up to now, he has run more than 55 workshops in 5 countries with a total of about 3500 participants.

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