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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The 5 Features of Science Inquiry: What Questions Do You Have?

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

A few months ago, I wrote about the National Research Council's 5 features of science inquiry:

  • Learner Engages in Scientifically Oriented Questions
  • Learner Gives Priority to Evidence in Responding to Questions
  • Learner Formulates Explanations from Evidence
  • Learner Connects Explanations to Scientific Knowledge
  • Learner Communicates and Justifies Explanations

The focus of that article was on the use of evidence to create explanations. Although critical, it is not the only inquiry skill that students need. In a comment on that post, John Barell explained the importance of questioning to learning:

So much inquiry-based science seems entirely teacher-driven. Yes, it is very important to teach students about gathering evidence, perhaps in "buckets," but when do we challenge them to raise important questions about content we have designed, analyze those questions and conduct purposeful investigations?

We know from research that when students make choices about content they become more engaged and their achievement levels improve. (See Davies, 2010) When students raise their own good questions and can pursue answers and think critically ("How do we know?") about findings, we're going to have, it seems to me, much improved science and humanities learning experiences

Barell is correct. It is critically important that we help our students ask questions about the content in our courses. As the legendary coach, Lou Holtz said, "I only learn things when I ask questions."

A few years ago, I was asked to judge a large community science fair. The local convention center was filled with hundreds of projects completed by middle school students. Some of the projects were quite good. However, I also judged well over a dozen pendulum activities and quite a few that were simply research reports. I asked each team that I judged why they selected the project. Most of them said that it was either given to them by their teacher or that they selected it off of a list. I have heard similar stories from many science teachers - they are often frustrated that their students, when given the freedom, can not come up with anything that they are interested in. Tim and Stephanie Slater, science educators at the University of Wyoming, like to say, "Coming up with a question in a vacuum is impossible."

Learning to ask good questions is challenging and needs continual practice. Students should be encouraged to ask "big questions" on a regular basis. In addition, students need to be able to recognize which questions are scientific and which are not. Can the question be answered using evidence from the natural world? Is the question something that we can research using the web or other resources? Can the question be explored using materials that we have access too?

Strategies for Developing Questioning Skills

John Burk, a science teacher in Georgia, has collected well over 150 images that he uses as a rotating gallery on his computer (and projected) screen. He states that this approach has been one of his biggest "bang of the buck" strategies for getting his students engaged in science. The images naturally spark students to ask, "What's that?" Instead of answering, he responds with questions to help guide students towards an answer. He has expanded on this by providing his students with their own blogs to help them find their own questions (check it out here).

Tyler Rice, a science teacher in Washington, also helps students generate questions by providing students a context for their inquiry. He states:

I like to start by inspiring student curiosity with a current event, a demonstration of an intriguing phenomenon, a video clip, an image, or a visit to a location of interest. My focus in this early stage is on harnessing my students' creative thinking and helping them to generate as many questions as possible. We follow two simple rules about effective brainstorming: strive for quantity, and reserve judgment. I like to compile these initial questions into a class "Wonder Wall." We spend some time discussing which of their questions might inspire viable and engaging research. Next, they narrow their interests down to a few favorite questions and engage in "pre-search," which is where they do quick initial research about their potential questions to see if there is much relevant information available.  Finally, they submit a research proposal for my approval.

The "What Can You Do With This - Science" blog is a great resource for finding rich media to inspire your students to ask questions.

The Four Question Strategy developed by Hermann and Miranda is another useful approach for helping students develop questions that can be explored in the classroom. Similar to Rice's approach, the stage is first set by showing students interesting media, phenomena, or lab apparatus. Students are then guided by the following questions as they develop their own investigatable question.

1. What materials are readily available for conducting experiments on _________?
2. How do(es) __________ act?
3. How can you change the set of ________ materials to affect the action?
(Independent - change it!)
4. How can you measure or describe the response of __________ to the change?
(Dependent - It changed!)

Shelly Rudnick-Peterson, a science teacher in Wisconsin, recently tried using the Four Question Strategy in her chemistry classes to help students design their own laboratory investigation. She explains:

Students brainstorm factors that might affect what we are studying (for example - reaction rates).  We then determine which factors are testable given the materials that we have available (they get a list at the start of the process).  Then each group picks or is assigned one factor to test, and writes a procedure.  At the end of the process they write a lab report, but also share what they learned with the whole class.  I've done this as the jumping off point for two units (reaction rates and thermodynamics) and LOVE the results.  Students are engaged in what they are doing, and really seem to learn from each other.  We sometimes get odd or unexpected results - but this is just an opportunity to dig into concepts more deeply

Physicist and Nobel Laureate, Isidor Isaac Rabi, once stated, "My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. 'Izzy, she would say, did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist."

What are some of the strategies you use to help your students ask good questions?

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh
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