How can we bring student questioning into the learning experience?
As a teacher, I love it when my students ask questions. In my opinion, every question serves a purpose and there can be no “stupid” questions, though I agree that the form of a question makes some questions more probing than others. (If you are interested in formulating strong questions, I encourage you to read my post on Motivating My Teaching Through Asking Questions.) But empowering students to ask questions is only a piece of the picture – it takes careful planning and finesse to use those questions as fodder for the learning experience.
Why Do Students Ask Questions?
I mean, why do any of us ask questions? Of course, as with anything, it depends on the student. Some students ask questions because they genuinely don’t understand the material. Some students ask questions because they understand, but seek clarification. Some students ask questions because they want to understand the underlying concepts and themes of the material. Some students ask questions simply because they want their voice to be heard. None of these are inherently “bad”; if anything, the kinds of questions our students ask provides further insight for teachers into who their students are. Is my student the kind of student that simply wants to understand? Is my student a naturally inquisitive mind? Is my student one that does things to produce a laugh? (as they do when they ask the question, “Is water wet?”)
Regardless of the rationale, having an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions is one of the most important qualities I hope to foster as a teacher. With questions comes a vulnerability in “not knowing” – fostering a community of learners where we can not only ask questions of the teacher, but of each other as well, promotes a sense of collaboration that parallels how science (and learning) gets done in the real world.
A Bit of Context…
My unit focuses on atomic theory, including the timeline of how atomic theorists came up with a model of the atom, subatomic particles, the structure of an atom, etc. (Please read my post HERE if you are curious about the specific content I cover as well as how to frame that content according to the big ideas in and about science.)
I framed the context of this unit around the phenomenon of using static electricity to bend a stream of water. Students were given a balloon and a cup with a hole in the bottom and asked: “How can you make the water move without touching anything together?” It didn’t take them long to start rubbing the balloon on their hair and shouting, “Mr. K, LOOK, I did it!” You can observe what they came up with below:
How do electrostatic attractions help us to bend water?That's the exact question my students began thinking about today in class! Students were challenged to, without touching any objects together, use a balloon and a cup with a hole in the bottom to make a stream of water move. This was the end result. 7th graders are BRILLIANT!Pedagogically speaking, this was the first day of our new unit on Atomic Theory! Anchoring a unit in a specific phenomenon is a great way to get students engaged and interested while also drawing out observations, asking questions about why the phenomenon happens, and drawing initial models/creating initial explanations for why this happens. Discussing what makes a "good" scientific model and how our learning will connect back to this phenomenon will (1) contextualize our learning experiences and (2) provide a great means of analyzing and revising students' initial models as the unit progresses!
Posted by Mr. Kostka Science on Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Incorporating Student Questions
It’s not just about getting students to ask really good questions – we have to use those questions in designing our learning experiences. That can involve multiple methods, including answering questions on-the-spot, delaying the gratification of a question they will be able to answer on their own later in the unit, or derailing from the planned learning experience to answer a question that probes deeper than you anticipated. In any of these cases, using student questioning to drive learning and to dig deeper promote scientific inquiry and exploration.
I started my unit by introducing the bending water phenomenon. Before we drew our initial models to describe the underlying science, I had them write down a bunch of observations and questions about what they saw and why they saw it. Pictured to the right is the list of questions (as well as what they believe makes a “good” model) from two of my classes. Before we drew our final models, I had them review the questions they asked on day 1 and, independently, star/highlight/underline the questions about the phenomenon they believe they can answer now. This led to an amazing discussion afterward where students were answering their own questions!
The Process: Before this class, I made a “gotta-have” list of topics and concepts that I wanted students to include in their final models. This gotta-have list included the following questions:
- What is the purpose of rubbing the balloon? (Ans: so the balloon can pick up negative electrons and carry a charge.)
- What are the properties of water that cause this to happen? (Ans: since water is polar, it has one side that is positively charged (H) and one side that is negatively charged (O).)
- Why does the water bend toward the balloon? (Ans: because the balloon is negatively charged, it attracts the positive charges/positive side in the water molecule.)
As students highlighted/starred/underlined questions, I circulated around the room and took note of who starred the questions I anticipated answering. I made a mental note to call on those students, but also made a note to call on certain students who starred questions that I thought could lead us to developing more “aligned” questions. After these noticings, I called on certain students to tell me which question(s) they believed we could answer now as well as what they believe the answer is. As they explained, I listened. When they finished explaining, I did one of two things:
- I wrote down the exact question if it matched the “gotta-have” question I anticipated for them to include in their final discussions. I said, “This would be a great question to answer in your final explanations of this phenomenon!“
- I dug deeper if the question didn’t match one of my “gotta-have” questions. I asked, “How does that relate to or explain the phenomenon we saw in class?” Asking that question helped to anchor their explanation back in explaining the phenomenon we saw.
For Future Lessons
Reflecting back on my inclusion of student questions, I realize now that I could have given students this sheet much earlier on in the unit. Asking students to go through every day and highlight/star/underline questions as we went through the unit would have empowered them to reflect on the power of asking really good questions and the power that comes along with learning the answers to those questions. Doing it this way kept their questions separate from the learning experiences that helped them to explain what was going on; rather than building the understanding of why this occurs, waiting until the end to use their questions kept the modeling activity separate from the learning process. In future units, I hope to use their questions in service of explaining the phenomenon on a day-by-day basis!