Asking a “Big Question” can be a powerful tool to garner interest and curiosity in learners at the start of a new topic, and provides a focus point through which the topic can be explored. However, how do you go about actually asking a Big Question in the classroom with your learners?

The KWL is a trusted method to go about it: it's a strategy that is versatile enough to be used from the Kindergarten/Early Years & Foundation/Primary phases right through to classes at the university level and beyond. The method in question begins with three letters: K, W and L.

To get started with this approach, all you need is a large board, or piece of A3 paper, or even just an expanse of wall that has enough space for three columns.

A column each will be dedicated as space to write answers for the K, the W, and the L. Here's an example of a KWL chart with learners using sticky notes to fill their ideas out on:

Credit: Sumbella Khan

The KWL Concept

K represents the “Know” in the question, “What do I know?”

W represents the “Want” in the question, “What do I want to know?”

L represents the “Learn” in the question, “What did I learn?”

If it’s the first time you’re doing the KWL approach with your students/participants, be sure to elicit their ideas about what KWL could stand for, and to go through the questions with them to ensure they understand what they’re about to do. Then you can begin: 

1.   First, Take Your Big Question And Put It Out There!

This is the question you’re going to be working through that session. If you’re stuck, the big question can simply be your learning objective (LO) for that lesson, flipped from a statement into a question. I.e.:

Traditional LO: To learn and identity the names of different shapes.
Big Question LO: What are shapes? 

2.  Ask Your Students What They KNOW About This Question/Topic

With the big question written above the three columns, the one on your left will be a column dedicated entirely to “K”: what do we KNOW about shapes?

It could be words, it could be pictures. You have flexibility here to use a visual aid to inspire words and thoughts from your students, or you could get them to write on their own little sticky note the things they aleady know.

*Remember not to panic if some write nothing at all and seem uninterested: it’s actually pretty cool when the first column is filled with nothing, because by the end of the lesson/session the L section is sure to be filled up and they can compare what they know now to what they knew at the start of the lesson!

3.  Ask Your Learners What They WANT To Know About This Topic, If Anything!

 This is the fun column, the column for igniting, tracking and capturing curiousity and inspiration in your learners about what they might want to know about this topic. This is a great activity to do in pairs or small groups, and lots of questions can be asked around this time, and visual aids or videos can really spark discussion here. This part could be done as a collaborative group activity to help share the curiosity and spark ideas among the group. 

4.  Hold Your Lesson & Activities!

Filling out the 'K' and 'L' columns should have helped set the tone for your session, and even gives you an idea of what interests your students and where their levels are at. Importantly, the answers to the first and second column gives you, the facilitator, a very good understanding of the differentiated levels of your learners. It also helps show you where the most interest is, thus helping you to strategically plan your activities knowing full well that they’ll be well received and not boring.

5.  Return To The KWL And The Big Question: Ask Your Learners What They've Learned!

Once you have finished up your activities and your “big question” focused session, the final step at the end of your lesson is to ask learners what they’ve learned. This step is about coming back to the big question that has propelled their whole lesson: they’ll be able to fill out the final column in the chart here, which asks them what they have learned. It’s at this point they will see tangible proof of their progress from the beginning of the session to the end, with a chart full of ideas that have developed over just one session. This part is a wonderfully quiet and calm way to end a session and give each learner pause for reflection; it also gives you a moments breath to prepare for the imminent bell and ensuing post-lesson chaos!

Top Tip: Use Sticky Notes!

Giving each learner a sticky note and letting them have a little square of space to write down the things they learned that lesson is a greatly satisfying practice, for both you and the learner. This is especially true when you’re able to see the comparison and progress when you compare it with the answers given in the first two columns. I matched the learners' sticky note and put them in the same order so I could see the progress at the end of the session, as below:


Image credit: author's own

Remember that you'll need to make sure each learner puts their name on the sticky note so the ideas don't get lost! You can also gather your learners' sticky notes from the three columns and log them in your file for that lesson, which is also really handy for parents' evenings and tracking progress.

We've discussed here some of the steps and benefits behind using a KWL chart with a group of learners. Try it - you might just find it's a fantastic form of ongoing and instant assessment for keeping you and your class on track!