Why do sparklers produce sparks?
How can we make a sparkler produce more sparks?
What is the purpose of the match?
Asking questions motivates inquiry – we are naturally curious when we cannot readily explain a phenomenon. We may know that something happens (e.g. that a sparkler produces sparks), but we may not understand why that happens on a deeper level. This kind of “not knowing” is naturally motivating, as there is power in learning something that was once a mystery to us. And that is how I intend to construct knowledge in my science classroom.
Why ask questions at all? I don’t need to be the one to tell you that questions have different purposes. We ask questions when we don’t understand. We ask questions to elicit a response from others. We ask questions when we want to learn more. We even ask questions when we don’t believe others’ perspectives, opinions, or claims. But all questions stem from the same basic ideal – a desire to understand. To know.
Michael “Vsauce” Stevens puts together an amazing TEDx talk on Why do we ask questions. He is a master at framing interesting and engaging questions. At 3:20, he highlights the core of his video:
“The point is to bring people in with a great question, make them curious, and then once they’re there, accidentally teach them a whole bunch of things about the universe.”
A bit later on, he asks a question that many educators struggle with in their classrooms:
“How do I get people to care about these questions? Especially people who think that learning is boring?” (4:47)
Perhaps my favorite quotation comes from his description of the joys of teaching:
“to see the expression on someone’s face when they suddenly understand and are fascinated by something in the same way that you are is a phenomenal feeling. I’ve learned two things from this. First of all, people love a good explanation. They hunt them down. Even people who say they hate learning and hate books, and all that stuff, pfft, they love explanations. Second of all, if you look closely enough and you take the time, anything can be interesting to anyone because everything is related in some way to something they care about” (6:56).
Seriously, take the time to watch this video. I promise you it’ll be worth it.
What Kinds of Questions Should We Ask in a Science Classroom?
Science has an incredible amount of explanatory power. STEM fields in general do. As the STEM fields are led by observable phenomena, it is incredibly easy to find footholds in the physical world that students can grasp on to. Every time I reflect on this, I am reminded of the reason I fell in love with chemistry – physical and chemical properties offer immense explanatory power for the world around us. In finding and fostering connections between different phenomena guided by the basic physical and/or observable principles, we are better equipped to understand, observe, predict, explain, and question the world around us.
The amazing thing about the header to this section is: I can’t answer that question. There is no way I can claim something is a “good” or “bad” question. We can critique the form of questions (such as one-word answer questions vs. open-ended questions), but there is inherent value in every single question that someone might ask.
If you disagree with my latter point, I offer a charge. The next time a student, a friend, a parent, anyone asks you a question, ask yourself (or them, when appropriate) why. For what purpose? What are they trying to accomplish with their question? Stepping back to reflect on the questions we receive is a powerful experience – the role of “answerer” positions us as the keepers of knowledge, of action, of experience. Taking the time to think about the rationale behind others’ questions as well as taking the time to ask engaging, meaningful, and relatable questions of our students offers a powerfully motivating experience for them and for us.
An Added Bonus
As an added bonus from this week, my friend Emily and I attempted the steel wool fire wire reaction demo. It. Was. AWESOME! This brings me to an important caveat of asking questions – let students experience the answer for themselves. (Obviously we can’t accomplish that in a classroom with this demo, but when possible, give students the tools to find out for themselves.) People remember what they have accomplished from firsthand experience, not the secondhand explanations of the instructor.
(And, because I’m me, I had to overlay a completely relevant song over our video.)
*DISCLAIMER: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!