This week in class, we talked about investigable questions. Asking questions is a critical part of science. Wondering about the world and questioning the human experience has inspired many a scientist. Asking “why” will inspire the scientists of the future, as well. I believe that the old saying, “no such thing as a bad question,” has merit.

However, not all questions are created equal. In science education, we focus on a particular type of question – investigable questions. Asking questions is one of the Science and Engineering Practices defined by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Other practices include Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, and Engaging in Argument from Evidence, among other. All these practices reflect what scientists and engineers do, and are practices that students should engage in. The practices should feed into each other. Therefore, in order for questions to lead to investigations which produce data to analyze and interpret and evidence to use in argumentation, students must ask their questions in a certain way.

So, for educators, our question becomes, how do we get students to ask the kinds of questions that will lead to investigations? When this question was given to us to ponder this week, I expected it to be a challenge. I gave it a try in my student teaching placement. We have been learning about mixtures and separation techniques. On Monday, we looked at using chromatography to separate black ink. We did a basic demonstration with limited explanation, and then asked the students to come up with some questions to learn more.

As would be expected, the questions that they asked covered a wide range of topics and had varying levels of being investigable. We wrote the questions on the board and then reviewed them as a class, asking if it was something we could investigate. The students were very easily able to distinguish between those that we could investigate and those that we couldn’t. They identified those that were way too general and those that could be reworded into investigable questions. After our class discussion, the students broke into lab groups to design and carry out their own chromatography investigation.

I was surprised at how easily they were able to focus in on the questions that could lead to investigations. In talking with my cooperating teacher afterwards, she explained that they had spent quite a bit of time earlier in the year talking about designing experiments. The knew that which variables were dependent and independent, and they knew that they should only be varying one thing at a time.

I think the obvious answer to the question “how do we get students to investigate their own questions?” becomes through practice accompanied by explicit instruction. Collecting questions and evaluating as a class makes the questioning process visible for students. Teaching students how to design experiments leads to an understanding of the types of questions that these experiments can answer. Most importantly, though, I think we need to give students the opportunity to try.

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