On a More Beautiful Question

In rethinking the shift to constructivist approaches in the classroom, one guiding principle stands out as key in considerations around inquiry. Warren Berger, in his book A More Beautiful Question, captures the process of inquiry, “Ambitious, catalytic questioning tends to follow a progression, one that often starts with stepping back and seeing things differently and ends with taking action on a particular question” (Berger 7). Designing inquiry into classroom learning accepts that the learning trajectory of students:

  • Follow individualized, personal processes
  • May use investigation cycles for guidance
  • Can result in shifting perspectives
  • Can result in taking action based on learning

Inquiry is individualized and personal

Students may be curious about different aspects of the big idea presented in the statement of inquiry of a unit. Teachers need to consider the scope of the unit, the time it is allocated, and what could be personal trajectories and choices students can pursue. Design considerations about the scope of the unit depends upon the scope addressed in the statement of inquiry. One suggestion might be to discuss with students as the group deconstructs the big idea or statement of inquiry.

For example, if the statement of inquiry is something like, “Several forces act upon people as they migrate, creating challenges for both migrants and natives of a place and diffusing cultures in unexpected ways,” some of the sub-ideas might be:

  • There are personal reasons why people migrate
  • There may be social forces that compel groups of people to migrate
  • The experiences of migration are both individual and social in essence
  • Migration does not happen in a vacuum, so there will be forces acting upon the movement of people, and these forces are experienced in a variety of ways.
  • Migration of people can create challenges for migrants.
  • Migration can create challenges for natives of a place.
  • Culture is diffused when people migrate, as immigrants bring their culture to a different setting.
  • Migrants must necessarily encounter cultures in the place to which they migrate.
  • When ideas collide, new ideas might emerge.
  • Diffusion of cultures can happen in unexpected ways.

Students might choose to investigate different aspects as each seems significant to themselves.

When this happens, teachers need to allow for this scope and variation in the lines of inquiry.

Inquiry is cyclical and iterative

Firestein (Berger,16) suggests that “One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking,… but answers, on the other hand, often end the process.”

A linear approach to lines of inquiry means that as soon as students find the answers to a question, the inquiry ends.

We know that effective investigations give rise to additional questions. This is inherent in investigations because all knowledge and concepts are interlinked in any number of ways. When students are taught that asking questions means being open to an interdisciplinary universe, they might become more open to extending inquiry as they progress through their investigations.

The usefulness of Criterion B in any of the MYP subjects is perhaps to anchor inquiries to subject-specific processes. A process “may not provide any answers or solutions, but, as one design-thinker told me, having a process helps you to keep taking next steps—so that even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you still know what to do” (Berger 33).

Inquiry can result in shifting perspectives

In the unit exploring the big idea “Several forces act upon people as they migrate, creating challenges for both migrants and natives of a place and diffusing cultures in unexpected ways,” students might discover these ‘answers’ which might give rise to the follow up questions (in italics):

  • Students will know the subject content of migration cases, various reasons why people migrate, and the choices that are enabled or limited by standards and laws of migration in different countries. How do laws limit choices?
  • Students will understand the concepts of change, causality, choice, and perspective. How does perspective frame the freedoms of peoples?
  • Students will apply the skills of constructing a research question and explaining its relevance. Why might one research question be more effective than another?
  • Students will use both qualitative and quantitative data to answer a research question. To what extent are qualitative and quantitative data valid and reliable? How do I know?
  • Students will prepare a synthesis of the information they have gathered through qualitative and document research. How does my presentation influence how I communicate?
  • Students will think critically about the concepts, cases and data gathered in various text types, including both written and visual texts and through interviews. How do we know that a source is reliable? How do I evaluate sources?
  • Students will discover various perspectives about migration and explain these. To what extent does perspective influence people’s choices?

Inquiry can lead to action

We notice that questions deliberately unpacked from a generalization such as a big idea transcend the content of a subject area. As the questions take students to inquiries around big ideas, the questions (and answers) they find that their inquiries touch upon issues of our human commonality, issues that we grapple with in the real world in our attempts to find viable, sustainable and fair solutions.

As students consider these issues with some depth of understanding, they just might find shifting personal perspectives, and be moved to responsible action.

John Seeley Brown writes that “a questioner can thrive in these times of exponential change” (Berger 28). Brown suggests, “If you don’t have the disposition to question, you’re going to fear change. But if you’re comfortable questioning, experimenting, connecting things—then change is something that becomes an adventure. And if you can see it as an adventure, then you’re off and running.”


Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question. NY: Bloomsbury.
Lavina, A. (2015). Designing Understanding into Unit Plans. Amazon: Vitamorphosis.

Photo Credit: CC By Staff Sgt. Patricia McMurphy (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1977195) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.





Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

4 thoughts

  1. One of the most comprehensive articles on inquiry that I have come across. Has answered many questions that I’ve had and cleared many doubts.
    Thanks for sharing this and other posts. So hglad you are back to writing or posting what you write!

    1. Dear Mayura,
      Thanks for your comment. Like you and many educators I am curious about aspects of designing understanding into what we do in our classrooms, and happy that I can express these inquiries of mine through this blog. Would you have any questions you are wondering, that you might share?

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