Your research questions

The research question is a specific statement about the problem in which you are interested. Using the example about the student teachers and the teaching of history, some of the questions you might initially draft could look like the following:

  • how do student teachers find out about the school's approach to the teaching of history?
  • how much do they know about the other approaches to teaching history?
  • what is their major source of information about how to teach history in a primary school?

Here, as you can see, I have begun to think about their prior knowledge about history teaching which might be a source of the problem, i.e. the student teachers may come to the school with some firm views about how to teach history as a result of their teacher training. Or, it might be that the messages they get when they arrive at the school are not clear or useful for them to understand what the school is doing and why.

So, perhaps there are two questions, 1. how much they know about how to teach history before they get to the school, and 2. what support do they receive when they are at the school to help them understand the approach that the school has adopted.

This kind of writing should go into your notebook or journal in the first instance. You will be able to trace your thinking over time as your questions become sharper.

At this stage these questions are really in a form suitable for you, i.e. you know what you want to find out and that is expressed in the questions. The form the questions end up in at the time of interview is likely to be different.

An important step in formulating any question is to write a brief rationale for each one. This will help you check to see if this question fits the overall rationale you wrote for the problem. If you can't write a rationale, a justification for each question you want to ask then the question does not belong. Get rid of it!

So for the two questions above, I might argue as a rationale for each:

  • I want to know about the knowledge about how to teach history that they bring to the school. It may be that this is at odds with how they understand what the school's approach is.
  • I want to get an understanding of how and when student teachers learn about the school's approach to teaching history.

For every question you develop it is important that you write a rationale.

The next step is to think about the best way to ask your key question(s). You have to think about the people/person you are interviewing and their likely capacity to understand what it is you are asking.

It can often be a very good tactic to try and frame your initial question in such a way that the person you are interviewing has to "teach" you about what it is you are interested in. For instance, using the example of the student teacchers, I might use this form of question 1:

Imagine that as a result of your outstanding grades in your teacher preparation classes, particularly in relation to the teaching of history, that you are nominated by your lecturers to make a presentation to a group of local historians who have expressed an interest in how history is taught in primary schools. What would be the main points that you'd try and get across to them?

A question like that then allows you to ask a lot of follow up questions, as e.g. "That is a really interesting point, can you give me an example of what that might look like in a classroom?" Effectively, your interviewee is being taught by you about what he/she learned in her teacher training about the teaching of history.

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