Chapter 5: page 35

Problem-Posing Questions

Our fundamental premises for meaningful academic research are based on the same critical principles of learning and reading outlined earlier – it’s all connected!. The reason we structured this book in the way we did is because your reading and writing process are integral to meaningful research. In fact, our old friends Alfie Kohn and Paulo Freire have more to say on this.

Kohn advocates for an education system that cultivates children’s authentic curiosity at a young age. By starting the inquiry process early in a child’s education, or in the First Year of college for that matter (which is considerably later, but important nonetheless), students come to see learning not as reading, memorizing, and providing the correct answer. Here, reading is more about satisfying your personal curiosities about life’s conundrums, whether that’s answering questions about privilege or racism in your life, or questions about the future of the planet. Meaningful research involves using the reading and writing strategies we’ve outlined earlier to investigate your own topics that can help you address issues that you and others like you experience, or even think about everyday.

Paulo Freire calls this student-centered questioning process a matter of “problem-posing.” Freire’s focus in education was primarily with adult learners in Brazil, where masses of poor and under-represented workers were denied voting and other political rights because they were never taught to read and write. Through his work with the University of Recife in the early 1960s, Freire created “culture circles” which based the learning and practice of reading and writing on the issues that his students faced every day of their lives. In other words, they learned to read using pictures (like parallel text sets from Chapter 1!) that showed bricklayers laying bricks, and pictured other situations that the students knew from their own lived experience and oppressive situations. Reading and writing became empowering because they gave these students a written voice for their struggles, and allowed them to engage in the “conversations” that directly affected their lives. Thus, reading, writing, and research based on Freire’s model of “problem posing” helps students see their own curiosity, interests, and “intrinsic motivation ” as important to their learning, and as the impetus for possible research topics in college.


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The way that we have set up this text, in terms of learning, reading, writing, and research, is intended to follow Kohn and Freire’s expertise and engage you with reading, writing, and research situations that matter to you—because remember, that’s how you learn best. Not only that, when you “pose real problems” to research, read, and write about, you will not only learn better but also enjoy the process, because the issue is real to you and your “intrinsic motivation” to research the issue is authentic.

How to Ask Inquiry Questions

So now we know that real-life experience and interest-based topics matter, and asking your own questions about those topics matters. But how do you write (and revise, and rewrite) a question that will give you the best approach to your research? Well, the first step is to remember the writing process from Chapter 3—a meaningful Inquiry Question changes and gets revised throughout the entire research and writing process, especially as you add new perspectives to your schema and your own knowledge and experience around your topic. So just remember, your question is always a draft, and you’ll have a better time if you practice being a flexible reader and writer during the “Inquiry” process.

Start with open-ended questions

In academic research, your goal is to create a conversation among various perspectives that contribute a new or diverse understanding to the problem or question you posed. Therefore, any question that elicits a single-word answer is . . . boring. The first thing to remember about this new view of “meaningful” research is that our goal is to make the conversation interesting enough that readers will want to get involved in it; that the topic you choose and Inquiry Question you pose is worthy of various perspectives that will make your conversation inviting to various and multiple dynamic, diverse, and interested readers.

Therefore, when you are drafting your question below, consider starting with the words “How” and “Why,” the two most “critical” questioning words. By critical, we mean the questions that get beneath the surface of a problem, questions such as “Why did things get to be this way?” “How do we solve homelessness?”

On the other hand, if you consider the questions, “Who” is the best candidate, or “What” is the best social system, these are based on opinion and perspective but generally have a single answer—“In my opinion, Mickey Mouse is the best candidate . . .” or “The best social system is Capitalism”—and the conversation is effectively over.

Image Source: Justin Main on, @photified

However, when you reframe the same questions with “How” or “Why,” you will get much richer answers to elicit a more interesting conversation. If you consider the question, “Why is Mickey Mouse the best candidate?,” or “How is Capitalism best?,” then there is something to discuss—a conversation to be had with your authors.

Other ways to start the draft of your question is by writing, “In what ways does . . .” or “To what extent does . . .,” which open up these more basic questions to a larger audience of opinions and perspectives.


Develop a Working Thesis or your “Public Motive”

Once you have your Inquiry Question started, you should consider your own stance or opinion on your question—before you do any research. This is your “working thesis.” Your working thesis is your preresearch stance, which means it will change through your research, reading and writing process as you gain new perspective from many sources—hence it is “working” or a “work in progress.” What is important is that you remain open to new perspectives as you research and read, but also recognize and keep track of your stance as you research, since this will guide the choices you make and the development of your project.

A useful way to think about your working thesis is by thinking about your “public motive” for researching. Miller and Jurecic (2015) introduce this idea in terms of the intersection of your personal curiosity, interest, and experience with the public goals of your research. In other words, consider your audience, and what connects you and your curiosity, interests, and experience to a larger social issue or “motive” for change. This also helps us consider the rhetorical situation when we begin the writing process for our essay (see Chapter 2 and 3), and appeal to our audience to join the conversation around an issue that is important to a public audience beyond ourselves.

When “reading like a writer,” it is also useful to notice how authors construct their own thesis statements in order to appeal to the public motives of various potential audiences, including you as college readers.

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