Central Guiding Questions

Framing Central Questions

How do you help your students frame their overall guiding questions, the inquiry question that will connect their cycles of research? Please describe how you help action researchers with this part of the research process. You can share your description, activities you suggest, or ideas you have to help students formulate these questions to guide both action and inquiry. Please list your name next to your entry so so that we know who is contributing the ideas. I will start as an example-- Linda

Description and Examples:

Shared by Linda Purrington

A central question is generated from the research issue and frames the entire study. Providing criteria is one means of helping researchers frame good central guiding questions. Following is one example of breakthrough question criteria for generating a good central guiding question:

· " Reflect a spirit of inquiry and curiosity

· Assume positive intentions and are framed in a positive manner

· Use plural forms, signaling the intention of choice and options

· Use tentative language, conveying the intention of multiple right answers

· Are open ended rather than yes/no questions

· Are delivered with an approachable, invitational voice"

Source: Jungwirth, L. (2012, June 28). Reframing Questions for Breakthrough Thinking. Retrieved from: http://conveningconversations.com/2012/06/reframing-questions-for-breakthrough-thinking/


1. In light of our new learning, what are some means we might explore to increase high school seniors' knowledge of post-secondary options?

2. What are some ways that we might help increase the capacity of local visual arts educators to design and facilitate relevant professional learning opportunities for other visual arts educators?

3. Given what we now know, how might we better prepare teachers to more successfully transition and support students in early childhood settings?

What are some ideas, tools, and resources that you have used and might share for framing good central questions?

Finding your Guiding Question through a Value Search

Shared by Margaret Riel

While there are many strategies and practices for helping students frame their overarching research question, I have been inspired by the work of Jean McNiff and Jack Whitehead to have students reflect on their core values as a way to find their action research goal. These are activities that I have used in my teaching.

A. Thinking about Change

We all live by core values. Some of these are more personal and others are shared in our professional workplace. When looking for a way to get started with action research, many find it helpful for thinking through their most important values.

In your Action Research Blog, respond to the following questions:

  • What drives you?
  • What challenges you?
  • What keeps you up at night or appears as the most important issues when you think about going to work?
  • What are you deeply curious about?
  • How would you like to change?
  • What are the changes that you would be most proud of?
  • If you could be more of an expert in one area, what would that area be and why?

Template for responding to these question.

B. Examining your core values as strategy for finding your overall action research question:

Make a list of ten values that are important to you. Combine or rank order until you have five values. See if you can find the one to three that you think are most important and then think of a personal story that shows why these values are important to you, how you have lived them in the past, or sets the stage for how you want to live them in the future. Share in your learning circles or use the discuss button on this site to share a personal story. If you see a story written by someone else, take a few minutes to reflect on how you react to that value.

Template for value search.

c. In your research Blog, list a few possible questions or challenges that you want to explore...

Then I want you to transform your values into questions. For example, if you value equity, your questions might be:

How do I create a classroom climate where all students are able to learn in ways that engage them? Or if a core value was creative problem solving, you might ask: How can I create an a workplace culture where people find and solve problems without being told to do this? If social justice was the value, you might want to think about what could be done to reduce the rate of recidivism among prisoners.

Here are some reflective questions to help you find your overall guiding or central research question:

----How can I inspire people in our office to work more collaboratively and

efficiently on projects?

----What changes to my leadership approach might create a more involved

and engaged team?

----How can I share my passion for learning with my students?

----How could I better prepare nurses to provide the level of care that will heal

patients in both mind and spirit?

Template for Guiding Research Question.

Activities for Thinking About the Central Research Question

Shared by Donna Azodi

These activities are based in a principal preparation program that has a capstone project focus on using action research in a campus improvement process. As an aspiring school leader considering an action research study, it can be helpful to expand your frame of reference regarding possible issues or concerns across your campus. The following three activities are conducted by aspiring school leaders across a time frame of several weeks in preparation for developing their central research question:

Activity 1

Schedule a meeting with your campus mentor to discuss identifying possible topics for your action research project. Then . . .

1. Conduct an informal poll (i.e., email, survey or face to face) of your colleagues asking them to identify 2 to 3 areas of concern they feel need to be addressed on the campus.

2. Share the results of your poll with your campus mentor.

3. Based on what you learned about the needs you have identified from your informal poll and your discussions with your campus mentor, share your reflection focusing on your own beliefs and understanding of the learning needs that have been identified at this point.

Activity 2

You have initiated your process of understanding learning needs on your campus through your poll. Your next step will be to gain an understanding of how your school’s policies, programs and practices support student needs in multiple aspects of schooling. Through collaboration with your colleagues and administrators, you will study how social justice, equity, confidentiality, acceptance and respect between and among students and faculty are addressed on your campus. Using this information you can identify areas of strength and concern regarding your campus’ practices focused on student needs. Using the Campus Review of Organizational Practices Focused on Student Needs template, record your findings regarding how your school’s policies, programs and practices address and support student needs.

Think about how practices, programs or policies you have on your campus help to provide a level playing field for your students who have disabilities, live in poverty, are in need of additional scaffolding for learning progress, or from diverse cultural backgrounds. Some aspects on your campus that you may look to for information could include: Discipline policy, Student support practices, Mentoring programs, Counseling programs, Differentiated instruction, Opportunities for Student Voice, School Climate, Faculty Support and Retention, Parent and Community Outreach, or Professional Development.

  • What programs, practices and/or policies does your school have to ensure equity for all students regarding learning opportunities, social acceptance, and nutrition?
  • How does your school provide equity of access to educational support and involvement for families and caregivers of your students?
  • What programs, practices and/or policies does your school have in place to ensure confidentiality for students, teachers, and families?

After recording your findings, identify areas of strength and need from your review. Consider what you have learned from this review in conjunction with the results of your poll to identify a topic you would like to address through your action research study.

Link to Campus Review of Organizational Practices Focused on Student Needs and Areas of Strength and Needs templates.

Activity 3:

Now that you have selected a topic for your action research study, you will need to look below the surface of the issue or concern you have identified. This week you will involve a small group of stakeholders on your campus who are interested in your topic and conduct the 5 Why Process to identify the root cause of the topic you have selected. This 5-Why analysis method, developed by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries, is used to move beyond the surface or symptoms of a concern and understand the true root cause of this concern. The 5-Why analysis method incorporates the following discussion points:

What problem/concern have you identified?

Why does this/doesn’t this happen? (Stakeholders discuss this Why question until they come to a consensus.)

Why does this/doesn’t this happen? (Stakeholders repeat this process up to five times.)

Continue this process until you have probed deeper to the root cause using the Why question approach.

The 5-Why analysis method can help you to more fully describe the situation you want to investigate or influence. Mills (2014) suggests using a descriptive process to describe the situation you want to address by focusing on who, what, where, when and how as a way to help you clarify your focus on your action research topic. Using the information you have identified about the root cause, reflect on the situation you plan to investigate and discuss the critical components you plan to address.

Sharing the Central Question

Shared by Jennifer Robins

The central question for school librarians is: how can they better serve students? I had an opportunity to work with thirty-nine practicing school librarians (all certified teachers) working on their Missouri school library teaching certification. These students were given an option to use a survey to track overall improvement in their practice. Thirty-six of my thirty-nine students opted to used the survey as a way to answer this central question.

I provided students with a survey taken from a study of school libraries in Ohio. I simplified the Ohio survey, then told the students to adapt it for their schools. This is the survey the students used. Students administered their surveys at the beginning of the school year. During the school year they conducted 3 action research cycles of their own design and choosing . At the end of the school year they administered the survey again. This way they were able to tell if their 3 research cycles led to improvement in their practice. Twenty-nine of the thirty-six students who used the survey found that their was an improvement in their practice.

Topic Targeting Activities & Thinking About Change

Shared by Kathy Shafer

Early in the semester, my mathematics teachers complete three targeting assignments as outlined in Richard Sagor’s The Action Research Guidebook: a Four Step Process for Educators and School Teams (3rd Edition).

  • The first assignment is to write a fictitious letter to a peer that describes their most successful year (Sagor, 2011, pp. 13-16). This letter allows the teacher to reflect on what success looks like in their classroom.
  • The second assignment involves having a colleague interview him or her with a set of questions/prompts (Sagor, 2011, pp. 25-27). The purpose of the interview is to allow the teacher to articulate their instructional goals, topics to learn more about, and/or areas where they need improvement.
  • The third assignment contains two parts; keeping a reflective journal for two weeks followed by identifying themes across the entries (Sagor, 2011, pp. 20-24). The purpose of the reflective journal is to allow teachers to notice topics that arise from the day-to-day happenings in their classroom. These themes may or may not be ones that were identified in the successful year letter or the reflective interview.

Benefit for the Academic

An overarching benefit of the targeting assignments is that I am able to get to know my teachers. First and foremost, I learn what they are passionate about. Passion is critical to the long term success of any type of research study. As teachers complete the targeting assignments, I provide very little feedback— my role is to listen. However, I am able to steer teachers to topics that would be more reasonable for an action research study, suggest resources and/or literature, and encourage them to begin investigating a topic within their classroom as necessary. In what follows, I use examples from high school math teachers Joshua Giebel (15-16 cohort) and Caitlin Bedwell (16-17 cohort).

I won’t Investigate … Because ...

In some cases, teachers spend a lot of time discussing a topic of interest, but also realize there are one or more major limitations. For example, in the reflective journal summary, Josh spoke a lot about a growth mindset, which is a great topic, but one that would be difficult to investigate in a short time span. I was able to see that Josh was aware that assessing an individual student’s mindset, and then measuring a shift, would be challenging to quantify.

In many cases, these targeting assignments help teachers quickly rule out topics. For example, in the reflective interview, Caitlin stated that investigating the difference in graded versus non-graded homework would not be a viable topic. She also considered, but then ruled out, project-based learning, discovery-based learning, and a flipped classroom. Caitlin wrote, “As I sat with those ideas during the interview, I decided that my place in life right now, both personally and professionally, does not lend itself to working with those three ideas. I am intrigued by all of them, but I do not believe one of those would be the best for me tackle right now.”

Personal Journal Prompts - A Value Search

Throughout the methods course, each teacher maintains a personal journal. The entries from weeks 2 and 3 provide additional insight into topic development. In week 2, I list all of the prompts that Margaret uses with her students (see above) and ask teachers to respond to at least two of them. Examples from Josh’s and Caitlin’s journals follow.

Josh: What are you deeply curious about? Right now I am deeply curious about standards-based assessment. Really, I am curious about alternative methods for assessment. A few years back I got to hear Alfie Kohn speak at a conference and his ideas about getting rid of grades intrigued me at the time, but I wasn't in much of a position to focus my professional development on assessment because I was still working on simply developing meaningful tasks and assessment wasn't my biggest concern. Now that I have developed a larger collection of meaningful tasks, I am ready to shift my focus back to assessment. … I think there is a strong connection between grades, motivation, and continued learning and I hope to get a better understanding of how to provide students with grades without them feeling that they are "stuck" in that grade category, or even that the grade they got is a true reflection of their ability to learn the content.

Caitlin: How would you like to change? One of the things Margaret Riel said in the video [3. Finding Your Research Question] that struck me, was something along the lines of, do my values correspond to my practice. And I think a lot of my values do. But my desire to help students grow more independent and to walk with them on a journey, as opposed to just telling them what to do, is not reflected in my practice. I think I cling to a traditional way of teaching and interacting with students because it is easier and I don't have to risk myself as much. This is something I would like to change. I would like to be more willing to take risks in the classroom and with my students in hopes of building them up. Also in hopes that the classroom becomes more of a community, less focused on me and whatever "mathy" wisdom I wish to impart on them that day.


In my experience, the combination of targeting activities and personal journal entries allow a teacher time to fully recognize what they want to research for the following seven months. In many cases, teachers begin the course with something in mind, but realize that it is just not going to work, for any number of reasons, or doesn’t fit the parameters of action research. In the Framing Cycle Questions section, I will share the intense activity that moves my teachers from their selected topic to the final wording of their research question or purpose statement.