Inquiry Clusters: Creating Questions that Improve Discussion
by Wendy Wilkinson Intro Being a discussion leader is difficult. You are tasked with facilitating a discussion that should be capable of leading your members into a deeper understanding of the text. The best approach to ensure success is to create good questions that are meaty enough to bring out deep conversation. And a good method for generating these discussable questions is by producing Inquiry Clusters (ICs). This handout will talk about problems we are trying to solve with ICs, the process of creating them, and the benefits of using them.
Common Problems We Encounter The pitfalls that discussion leaders encounter mostly center around the lack of a meaningful conversation. One of the most common problems is the quick question-answer-move on approach where one question is quickly answered by some intelligent reader before half the group has a chance to think about it, and the next question on some other topic appears just seconds later, making the event less of a discussion and more of a round of trivia. This problem often happens because the question has only one answer, and once someone says the answer, the leader moves on. Sometimes this can also happen with good questions and an impatient leader. If someone quickly gives an answer and the silence afterwards feels oppressive, the leader may move on even if there’s more to the answer than the first response. Another very common problem is the conversation going off topic and the difficulty leaders have in controlling where the conversation goes. As you will see, creating ICs will help with these issues and bring more conversation into the event.
Overview To put it simply, Inquiry Clusters is a grouping of questions on a single theme or topic. Any topic worth discussing should have more than one question. And any good question should have more than one answer. As you are creating your list of questions for the discussion, create multiple questions to every topic you wish to cover. This helps you improve your questions as well as giving you multiple questions to work with. Good and varied questions allow for breadth of conversation and not just a skimming of highlights.
Process of Creating ICs Start with your own questions and perceptions on the text. Read the work slowly or read it twice because we naturally skip through the difficult and ambiguous parts in favor of understanding the whole work. In order to find the places in the text that yield the most fertile ground, we must slow down and take notice. Examples of what you should mark while reading include:
Confusing points in a text or in the plot.
Lack of obvious motivations of characters in fiction.
Attempts to understand the material the author chooses to include or exclude as well as the logic of how they organized the material.
Mark anything that is recurring, including objects, descriptions (e.g. colors, metaphors), ideas, even actions and plot devices.
Parts of the text that you find moving, emotional, or beautiful/terrifying, even if you aren’t sure why. Mark the spot when you need to stop reading to think.
When you are done, you will have a long list of highlighted sections, single questions, and remarks. This poses so many problems: Where do you start? How do you organize all of them? Many leaders, feeling overwhelmed, will take this list to the event and try to ask them all. As we try to get through every question on the list, we often move on to the next question as soon as we hear only one answer. And many of the initial questions prove inadequate to discussion. We lose depth of conversation.
Instead, take the list of questions and comments you created while reading and choose approximately 5-10 topics (per hour of discussion) from the list: ambiguous elements that you felt conflicted about, questions you honestly cannot think of an answer for, texts and ideas that intrigued you the most. Topics can be big or small, specific or general, but all should be complex enough to handle an in-depth look.
To create Inquiry Clusters, take each of these topics and write multiple questions. Start with the obvious question. Ask yourself, does my last question have a “right” answer? If so, can I acknowledge the right answer and then ask a better question that requires critical thinking? If I like idea behind the question, is there another way to write it? Write them all down. Then ask yourself, is there another approach I can take to this topic? Keep doing this until you can think of no other ways to look into that topic. At the end, you should have a firm grip on the complexity of each topic with at least 4-6 different solid questions for each one.
Organizing ICs First, look over your topics. Make sure your topics have covered the breadth of the book. Have topics that cover the book as a whole as well as specific texts. Look for topics that encourage close reading as well as topics that inspire critical thinking. You should have topics that ensure understanding of the book and topics that let the discussion go beyond the book Have big topics and small topics. Then use your own judgement to put them in order. Be prepared to specify topics that must be covered and topics that could be covered given enough time.
Next, look at your questions under each topic. Eliminate any question that has a simple and obvious answer (unless you would like to use the question to jump into a better question, but I recommend instead just acknowledging that right answer and go into your better question). Choose the question you would like to start the topic with, the one with the most “meatiness” to it. Think of the rest of the questions on each topic as resources to be used as needed.
Using the ICs in the Discussion You now have a list of topics with multiple questions underneath. Jump in where you would like. Be patient after the first response, and even count to ten in your head if necessary. If there’s no second response coming, ask another question on that same topic. If you get a discussion going but it veers off topic, ask yet another question in your list to bring the group back to the topic. Give each topics several minutes of conversation to let the group work through it. However, don’t force yourself to get through all the questions—if your first question produces ten minutes of conversation and works through the topic, then go on to the next topic.
Benefits of ICs In creating ICs, you will naturally create order and depth to your topics. This allows you to bring a level of readiness and flexibility to the discussion. It helps you organize your notes and will give you a more sure footing with less work than a long, unwieldy list of hundreds of questions. But by far the best benefit of ICs is the resources they give you during the discussion. Multiple questions allow for creating depth in the conversation and help with crowd control as well. Here’s to many happy book discussions!