Questioning is a critical part of the scientific process. The infographic below shows the scientific method as aligned with NGSS, specifically the Science and Engineering Practices. Notice that ‘questions’ are a critical piece of the (non-linear, adaptable) process.
When students genuine questions are used as the basis for an experiment, rather than predetermining the focus question, the whole investigation gains a level of authenticity that should increase engagement and eventual understanding by students.
But how can we elicit and then effectively utilize student’s questions? I think that there are a couple important aspects to this work:
- Student questions have to be elicited CONSTANTLY- In order to use student’s questions to drive investigations, you need to take time to get the raw material. This can be done in a variety of ways, from class discussions to daily assignments such as DNAs (Do Now Assignments) and Exit Tickets. I like the latter as a way of eliciting question as it gives you, the teacher, the opportunity to hear questions from ALL students, even those who may not speak up in class. I have also in the past given students time in small groups to generate questions that they post, either to a Padlet or to a physical space in the room via sticky notes. These questions can then be sorted and refined or tested.
- The skill of asking investigable questions must be practiced- Not every question is ‘testable’. Testable questions must have a variety of characteristics, including: Being interesting, being logistically testable, leading to a plan of action for investigation, and, for the sake of our work, the investigation must lead to some kind of content knowledge or increased understanding. This is a tall order! Many student questions start off far from here. However, many also start very close, and only require refinement in order to be testable questions. I therefore think its important to explicitly talk about what such a question looks like, and practice revising questions with your students. This should help refine the student’s skill in asking questions over time.
- The environment (and teacher) must be flexible to allow for genuine investigation-This final piece stipulates that using student questions as a basis for investigation has to be a priority of the teacher for it to actually happen within a classroom. This includes not only intellectual flexibility as to when and how certain content pieces will reveal themselves in the classroom, but also logistical flexibility and a willingness to support the students in designing and carrying out an investigation. Furthermore, the classroom culture needs to be such that students feel comfortable asking questions and taking reasonable cognitive risks. This takes clear culture-setting at the beginning of the year as well as throughout the year. Student ideas must ALWAYS be valued, and there must never be such a thing as a “stupid question”- just one that can be improved upon.
Science begins with a question. Scientists are constantly asking new questions as a basis for their investigations. If we want our classroom to truly embody science and engineering practices, it is critical that we allow our students to engage in this most central practice of science, and that it is used as a basis for classroom activities. I look forward to utilizing and refining this skill in my own teaching practice.