I have been trying to incorporate student questions into the work we are doing in science class, which seems like it should be a place where questions should dominate.
But it’s been difficult.
I have a whole raft of reasons why, during our recent unit on plate tectonics and the rock cycle, I did not ask students to generate questions but came at them with some of my own, instead. For example: How do I manage three sections of student questions? How can I get the children to engage with the concepts that assessments will require them to know when the questions that will drive our learning come from them, not the “curriculum?” How can I help the children learn to ask questions at all? Will they be any good?
Any one of these was enough to derail me.
Despite these worries, as my next unit on weather and climate was taking shape I decided that I shouldn’t let my fears/anxieties rule me. So, we started out our learning with the protocol suggested by The Right Question Institute and asked us some questions.
First, I thought of a focus statement that I figured would allow us to focus our inquiry on some of the key concepts about the atmosphere and how it creates different weather and climates. That was difficult, and I know I can do better next time, but here’s what I came up with:
It is sunny and warm today, but by Wednesday rain will fall from a cloudy sky.
Then, I set the kids loose to ask questions. Using the four rules outlined by The Right Question Institute, they generated a long list in a few minutes. After the initial brainstorming, we paused to determine if they were “open” or “closed” and then to change a few from closed to open, and open to closed. (Open questions require extended learning, research, or discussion to answer. Closed ones can be answered in a word or two.)
An interesting discussion came out of that process. Most groups created far more “open” questions than closed ones, and indicated that they thought open questions were “better” than closed ones. But as we talked, we came to see that closed questions might actually be at the root of the scientific method. And, besides, it’s nice to get a definitive answer sometimes!
While an open question like “Why can it rain one day and not the other?” might require an in depth look at what causes rain, and also what causes weather to be patchy across the landscape, scientific understanding is often built through a series of answers to “closed” questions like the following:
- Will it rain tomorrow?
- Does a north wind always follow rain?
- Does rain always follow a drop in air pressure?
(By the way, these are the questions that are starting to come up as we collect weather data for our town.1)
From answering questions like these (through observation and data gathering), we can develop the kind of general understandings that are at the heart of how new scientific knowledge is created. We begin to gather data and see patterns: Yes, our observation/data suggests this always happens. No, this does not always happen. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. But under all circumstance, each answer points us toward asking more questions and gathering more data.
After we played with changing the question form, I asked the children to prioritize the questions they had created, telling them that the questions they picked would help drive our unit of study. My criteria was open-ended: Choose five questions that you think are most important. Now narrow that to two. Have reasons for why you think they are important.
The students presented their choices and their rationale to the rest of the class.
The priority questions from the three classes ran the gamut, but showed a remarkable similarity, too.
Students thought important questions were related to dangers from weather, so there were questions like these: Will the river rise and flood? Will lightning strike? Why does lightning strike metal?
Or about the inconvenience of the rain: When will it rain, exactly? Will it rain all day?
There were also other questions like these: How can it rain one day and not the other? Why does it rain some places on the Earth but not other places? What causes it to rain? Where does the water come from?
We are using some of these later questions to structure the larger learning unit. But as Wednesday came and went (and the rain came and came) the students were able to answer some of the “convenience/inconvenience” questions, and I could see that they paid more attention to the weather because they wanted to answer their questions.
While the Upper Iowa River that runs through our town did not rise much, the students (and I) paid more attention to the way runoff changed the flow of the small creek that runs behind the school.2 For instance, on my way to the parking lot on Thursday afternoon, I paused to shoot a video of the creek. Would I have done that if the children had not asked a question about the river rising? Probably not.
Finally, because we spent two days on questions, and the children got to talk more, I got a better sense of what they do and do not know about the atmosphere. Their questions taught me some things. For instance, tomorrow we will take a little side-trip into what a gas is, so we can then talk about atmospheric pressure, because without knowing about air pressure, they won’t be able to more deeply understand fundamental concepts about wind and where clouds come from.
Would I have known that without taking time for questions? Again, probably not. And even if I did, it would have been much more difficult for me to situate the concepts in a context that would engage the students. I think the questions will help them see the connections better.
I am still worried about how to assess the student learning because the concepts we will learn are more wide-ranging (from states of matter and how gases act, to graphing, to air pressure, to what causes climates to differ) than they would be if I had done things in a more traditional way. But…it does feel good, and it is interesting so I guess we’ll have to figure out as we go what will be the end result of our learning.
An interesting process, this.
UPDATE: By the way, earth: an animated map of global weather conditions is a terrific tool to get kids wondering. I check it out several times a week. Mesmerizing.
- These questions would likely not have emerged if we had not had the opportunity to ask questions early in the unit. I can’t know that for sure, but I do see a difference in the willingness of the children to spontaneously ask questions like these. ↩
- One child even made some good connections back to the learning we did about sediments and erosion from our last learning unit! ↩