Educators are ambitious! I think we spend a lot of time asking ourselves big questions (like the question in the title of this post) and giving big answers (like, “I designed this lesson where my students are going to ask some questions and then investigate them!”). In order for students to even begin investigating their own questions, they need to be able to ask investigable questions, and in order to ask investigable questions they need to feel motivated and feel safe, and in the same way we need to break down the things we want our students to do into smaller parts in order to help them learn those smaller parts (and eventually put it all together), sometimes we need to break down our big questions into smaller, more manageable questions.
How do we motivate our students?
There are so many ways we can make our classes more accessible to students and more engaging. Students are motivated by opportunities to take initiative, by opportunities for self-efficacy, and by problematization of content (Engle & Conant, 2002; Larson, 2000), and luckily, science learning as inquiry (which is kind of what we’re getting at with this whole question asking thing) serves to activate motivation, culture, and prior knowledge, often through roots in community engagement (Magnusson, Sulivan-Palincsar, & Templin, 2004). We ask questions about what we see and what we know, so valuing students’ questions shows them that their experiences, cultures, and communities have value in our classroom as well, and THAT is motivating. The more we can get students addressing questions they have AND addressing problems that are real to them, the more I think we will get them asking questions in our classrooms.
How do we get students asking investigable questions?
Well, first of all they need to be asking questions, period, before we can even make sure those questions are investigable. I went to a workshop last year at which I learned about the Right Question Institute‘s Question Formulation Technique (QFT). I loved what I learned about their framework for getting students to ask questions, but more than anything, what I learned from the workshop was that we need to spend large chunks of time with our students simply practicing asking questions. In the QFT, students spend time just coming up with as many questions as they can about an anchoring phenomenon without evaluating how relevant or investigable or “good” the questions are. Once that process is completed, the class evaluates questions, which can take many different forms. Different classes and different teachers will value different things, but this is where I think we can help our students understand the types of questions that exist and the types of questions that we can actually investigate. I think with practice, before we even get close to really becoming practiced investigators, we can become really skilled at asking different kinds of questions and seeing the value and the place for each different kind of question. During this process, we should also, as a class come up with a way to organize those questions, so that if we don’t have time for them in the moment, we can still value them. That might be a whole other blog post coming soon!
Now, how do we get students to investigate their own questions?
I think if we’ve gotten to this point, our students will be willing to practice doing it. Obviously, it won’t be perfect at first, but I think once we have buy-in, it’s a matter of logistics! How do we schedule this? How much time can we devote to it? How do we get the students the resources they need to investigate? How do we pick the perfect prompts to get students engaged in question-asking?
And things get even more complicated from there. We need to help students learn to direct those investigations, interpret results, be persistent, but we also cannot spend every single moment of every single class doing this work. There are other things we need to get done as well, and we need to be practical! Plus, this is a lifelong skill! Scientists whose lives are dedicated to research are still improving their abilities to ask and address their own investigable questions. We cannot expect students to be anywhere near perfect just yet. And overall, to do this work well, we’ll need to take our time, and we don’t have all of the time in the world! We have a lot of work still left to do to figure out how to answer our big question by answering all of the little questions. Hopefully over time, we can learn and grow alongside our students, figure out what works and figure out what doesn’t, and find a balance. Until then, let’s keep being ambitious!
Engle, R. A. & Conant, F. R. (2002). Guiding principles for fostering productive disciplinary engagement: Explaining an emergent argument in a community of learners classroom. Cognition and Instruction, 20(4), 399-483.
Larson, R. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist 55, 170-183.
Magnusson, S. J., Sullivan-Palincsar, A., & Templin, M. (2004). Community, culture, and conversation in inquiry based science instruction. In L. B. Flick & N. G. Lederman (Eds.), Scientific inquiry and nature of science: Implications for teaching, learning, and teacher education: Boston.