Research supports that students are the most engaged with science sense-making when they investigate their own questions. But, how do we get that to happen? Below, I outline some of the difficulties I have had with this and consider ways I could have done things differently.
As an introduction, for teaching my air, water, and land unit to my environmental science classes, I selected an anchoring phenomenon that I thought involved many of the core ideas we would be covering. This anchoring phenomenon was that the people living downstream from the Kawah Ijen volcano in Indonesia were developing fluorosis. Through this phenomenon, I imagined we would explore the way that volcanoes were formed, how chemicals entered the air and water around the volcano, and how the air and water travelled to the people near the coast to enter their water and food supply and damage their health.
One of my difficulties was that, although the students were intrigued by the pictures I showed them of people who developed fluorosis, all of their questions were about volcanoes. This was great as we discussed how volcanoes are formed, but when I moved us towards figuring out how the fluoride from the volcano got to the people on the coast, they figured it was either in the water or the air, and that was enough for them. They didn’t have any questions that evaluated the rest of the phenomenon. We did end up doing a lesson in which we analyzed data from the water around the volcano and the air around the volcano to determine that the water had the highest level of fluoride. Before we started, I asked them what they would do to determine how the pollution was getting to the people. Most students wrote down that they would compare the water and the air, but few of the students were engaged with that activity because it wasn’t really their question.
I think this could have been improved my selecting a different investigation to look at pollution travels in water or air. I think it was too much to try to connect every little piece to the anchoring phenomenon. I had tried to connect everything to the anchoring phenomenon and was excited that there was actual data to look at, but I think I needed to figure out what would have interested the students. I think I needed to ask the students more general question to begin with to figure out what they would want to explore. Maybe something to do with the Genesee River or something local would have inspired more of their own natural questioning.
A second difficulty I have had is that the students do not seem to have much experience thinking about what they want to investigate and then expressing that. When we started exploring question ideas, they either didn’t want to ask anything or they kept asking whether what they wrote down was “right.” Although I introduced the activity by saying that there weren’t any right answers because we were exploring what they were wondering about, this wasn’t enough to really describe for them what we were doing. Some copied each other just to get something written down.
I think the students’ hesitation to jump into writing down all the questions they could think of could have been reduced if I better modeled what we were going to be doing. I assumed I could just give them a graphic organizer with the prompts “I wonder…” and “Questions I have:” and they would just scribble away. Not only did they not understand what those prompts meant, but they didn’t really know how to proceed once I explained the prompts. I think I could have modeled myself responding to the prompts. And, if I had included some off-the-wall responses, it would have helped to communicate that anything goes at that point.
A third difficulty I had was that the questions the students had were not investigative, and I didn’t push them to modify them to be so. Most of the questions they had were things like, “What make the volcano smoke?” and “Why is there lava?” I had predicted that at least some would ask the questions about how was the fluoride getting from the volcano to the people, and I had the data from papers ready to support that investigation, but none of the students generated questions along those lines. I hadn’t accurately anticipated what they would ask, and I wasn’t able to think quickly enough to figure out to guide them to thinking more deeply.
I think this issue could have been better addressed if I took the time after we generated questions to think about how each of the questions could be modified into an investigative questions. At home, I would have had the time to review the student ideas and reset my predictions about what they were interested in. Then, the next day, I could have restarted the conversation, introduced what makes an investigative question, and worked with the students towards developing questions we could actually pursue together.
Tomorrow, we are going to start the air part of our unit. I intend to use what I have learned above to scaffold the lesson in a way that enables the students to generate their own investigative questions that we can work on in the subsequent days.