Fertile questions

An illuminated square containing an illuminated question mark set in a dark tunnel.

Photo by Emily Morter. Unsplash. License to use.

Fertile questions are questions that are deep, complex, and perfect for inquiry. Because they are rich, finding answers to them requires research and can take some time. Find out how to use these questions with your students.

Characteristics of fertile questions

Fertile questions have some or most of the following characteristics:

  • Open — they have no one, definitive answer but rather several different and possibly competing answers.
  • Undermining — they cast doubt on individual assumptions or ‘common sense’.
  • Rich — they require research and grappling with information and ideas.
  • Connected — they are relevant to the learners and the world in which they live, and particular disciplines and fields.
  • Charged — they have an ethical dimension with emotional, social and/or political implications.
  • Practical — they are researchable within the world of the student.

The fertile questions model was developed by Yoram Harpaz and Adam Lefstein.

Teaching and learning in a community of thinking (pdf, 325KB) has more about this model.

Examples of fertile questions

Here are some example questions from the curiosity card 'Māori bartering with Joseph Banks'.

  • Why did Tupaia make this picture?
  • What kind of encounter is this?
  • How do strangers become friends?
  • He tohatoha, he hokohoko rānei te mahi i roto i te pikitia?
Tupaia painting of a Maori trading a crayfish with Joseph Banks.
Image on card: Maori trading a crayfish with Joseph Banks, ca 1769 by Tupaia. Ref: Add MS 15508 f.12 British Library. Public domain.

Māori bartering with Joseph Banks curiosity card — with a link to the DigitalNZ story for supporting information.

Using fertile questions in the classroom

Use fertile questions at the beginning of an inquiry to inspire information seeking or after students have already developed some background knowledge.

You may need to ask subsidiary questions about the images on the cards to help your students explore and answer the fertile questions.

Subsidiary questions

Subsidiary questions can generate rich information, helping the students to develop knowledge, ideas, and opinions as they undertake their inquiry. Useful subsidiary questions might include:

  • Who and what can you see?
  • Who made this image or heritage item?
  • What type of image or heritage item is it?
  • How was this image or heritage item made?
  • When and where was it made?

Find out more

Watch these videos for more information and ideas about using fertile questions: