Open-ended questions are valuable if we want to stimulate thinking and foster deeper understanding in our students. They create room for a variety of responses and also build a climate of trust. Open-ended questions are best for most learning situations unless we have a particular reason for leading our students to a specific conclusion. It can be tricky to come up with a truly open-ended question when we have a lot of experience and knowledge. The trick is to have a sincere interest and curiosity about the answer.
One of my favorite books for initiating an interesting conversation is My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother. There are several wonderful places to stop and share what we are thinking about, but my favorite comes from a passage at the very beginning of the story:
My brother and our mother and I all lived with my grandparents on their farm in Union City, Michigan. Now my babushka, my grandmother, knew lots of things. She knew just how to tell a good story. She knew how to make ordinary things magical. And she knew how to make the best chocolate cake in Michigan. After she told my brother and me a grand tale from her homeland, we'd always ask, "Bubbie, is that true?" She'd answer, "Of course is true, but it may not have happened!" Then she'd laugh (Polacco, 1995).
So the question that pops into my head every time I read it is "How can something be true if it didn't happen?" Since I wrestle a bit with the answer, the ensuing conversation does not get polluted with my own preconceived idea. I've asked first graders through sixth graders to consider this question. The answers, which match their maturity and development, are often thoughtful and dotted with deep insightfulness.
It's a lesson that always reminds me of the importance and power of open-ended questions, and the beauty and power of a great picture book.
Polacco, P. (1995). My rotten redheaded older brother. New York: Simon & Schuster.