When I first started teaching, I taught Economics. In one of my 'A' Level classes -- the 'A' or 'Advanced' Level is the exam taken at 18 and is one of the keys to university entrance -- I said to the students that they could ask me anything they liked, and I would answer it.
A kind of transcript of part of my lesson
Here's what happened.
Student A: What's the rate of interest at the moment?
Me: Don't know.
Student B: How many people are unemployed in the UK?
Me: Don't know.
Student C: What's the trade deficit?
Me: Don't know.
Student D: You don't know much, do you?
Me: That's because you're asking me factual questions that you could find the answers to yourself -- bearing in mind, of course, that the actual figure will have changed by the time you've done so. Besides, I'm not a walking encyclopaedia.
Student E: Well, how can we cure unemployment without incurring inflation or a massive trade deficit?
Me: Do you think that if I knew the answer to that I'd be here teaching you lot?
And we all laughed.
Where's the IT?
That doesn't sound like it has much to do with IT, but it does. These days, students can find out things like the rate of interest in real time without even leaving their seats. That doesn't make the question itself any better.
So what is wrong with those sorts of questions?
First, they look factual. You can look up the answer, whether by a search engine (now) or in the financial pages of the newspapers (then) and obtain an answer. Facts may be a good basis for formulating a hypothesis and then carrying out some research, but they are not much use in themselves. You have to actually use them in some way.
Second, they aren't factual at all, but pseudo-factual. The rate of interest is changing every second. And what rate of interest anyway? The Central Bank rate? The lending rate? The borrowing rate?
Third, they are misleadingly precise. A figure of unemployment of, say, 3,218,462 is almost certainly inaccurate because by the time the figure was reported someone may have got a job, or more people may have lost theirs.
Fourth, any such "facts" are dependent on definitions, as hinted at by my comment about them being pseudo-factual. For example, if someone loses their job and doesn't bother to claim unemployment benefit, they are not officially unemployed.
When I first started teaching, finding out up-to-date factual information was much harder than it is now. But whether the process of finding something out is hard or easy, the question itself is still just as shallow or deep.
Having access to search engines and online databases means that we can ask students difficult questions in the knowledge that they won't need to spend so long hunting down 'facts" that they have little time left for exploring the real issues.
A brilliant resource
It may be nearly 20 years old now, but Jamie McKenzie's Questioning Toolkit is still better than any I've seen since. It's a generic set of types of questions that can be used in any area of the curriculum.
But again, the point of these questions is not so much to find "the" answer, but to engender deep discussion.