The Nature of Inquiry: Asking Good Questions


by Sara Krauskopf

“There are no bad questions.”  I hear educators say this all the time, but do we really mean it?   What is the nature of a “good question?”  How do we lead students through quality inquiry?  As someone trained in science education, I spent a great deal of time helping students develop “good” scientific questions.  When I formally began teaching with project-based learning (PBL), similar challenges emerged.  How do we help students develop and recognize good questions for inquiry and how do we facilitate them as they investigate the answer to that question?

Designing an inquiry project varies surprisingly little from subject to subject when you consider the skills and scaffolding needed for all of the steps of the process.  Obviously, investigating an inquiry into comparisons of insect diversity in different local habitats may require a different set of equipment and data analysis in comparison with a PBL project to start an after school program to keep students out of trouble if noone is at home. But the guidance and skills we would lead students through to design, plan and complete a true inquiry project in either case is very similar.  In this entry I will focus more on developing good questions, in the next installment we will look more to the process of answering the questions.

In science, a “good” scientific question is one that has never been asked before.  It should not be one you can look up the answer to online (What is the melting point of silver?); it should not (generally) be one that someone else has already researched (Do Sandhill Cranes mate for life?).  The question should be creative, yet explorable with realistic constraints.  Ideally, it can be answered through a series of focused experiments or observations.  Of course, as instructors we may still present students with a question with a known response because we want them to figure out how to find the pattern, or we recognize that they will understand the concept better if they run an experiment themselves and analyze the results (How does adding salt to water change the freezing point of the solution?). This is still inquiry and a valuable question to investigate.  It leads the students to discover new knowledge (to them) to discuss the scientific principles behind why something occurs.

Students in the field

The goal, however, of this narrowly-guided inquiry with a known outcome should be to lead students to more open-ended, original inquiries.  For example, after learning that salt water reduces the freezing point of water my students walked to Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin for some water quality testing in winter when the air temperature was below freezing (yes, I’m a bit crazy).  We happened to pick a dock near the outlet where a creek empties into the lake.  Students who had wandered over to the creek noticed that while most of the lake was frozen, the creek was not.  They began to wonder why the creek stayed open and why certain parts of the lake were not solid at this time.  The observation, subsequent questions and possible explanations originated from the students.  They suggested many possible explanations for this:  the water was moving quickly and therefore the molecules could not attract one another, get close enough and solidify; perhaps there was warmer groundwater seeping into this site; or maybe there were contaminants dissolved in the water that were keeping it from freezing.  Testing the validity of any of these ideas is good scientific inquiry.  It is unlikely anyone had tested the chemical composition of the water at that location on that day and an investigation of the water might reveal contamination with road salt, phosphorus, soil or other substances that would prevent freezing.  Did I set students up to ask these specific questions?  Not exactly, but I provided them with enough background knowledge to inquire about what they were seeing and ask good questions to seek new knowledge and understanding.

In my experience, teachers need to ask good questions to get students to ask good questions.  Providing a set of experiences, asking students to make observations of a situation that is somehow out of balance, or the presentation of a troubling scenario via video, guest speaker, or newspaper article are some of my favorite ways to lead students to write good questions for PBL or scientific inquiry.  If students perceive an injustice to a group of people or to a habitat it is easier for them to get involved and ask more questions.  Our students watched “Frogs: The Thin Green Line” from Nature on PBS about research into declining frog populations around the globe.  After seeing in the video that Minnesota students found frogs in a pond with three legs due to pesticide pollution, they wanted to learn more about the situation in Wisconsin.  Groups of students chose to research the status of frog populations in our local area, contacted researchers at the University of Wisconsin and read up on the situation here.

As a teacher at Badger Rock Middle School, we used essential questions to guide students over the course of a quarter or semester.  For example:  What type of waste does our community produce and where does it go?  How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?   Using that broad, overarching theme, we ran a series of guided field trips and investigations of recycling centers, landfills, compost methods, repurposing waste, e-waste and other topics.  At the end of the unit, students designed their own projects to reduce the amount of waste going to a landfill.  Because they were exposed to such a broad range of topics, they could develop many original ideas to address our unique situation.

Leading students through a “think, pair, share” brainstorming process brings out a plethora of ideas for student projects.  To accomplish this I will either present a scaffolded set of open-ended questions or create a Frayer model. This will help students summarize what they already know about a topic and sets them up to generate questions they still want answered or describe possible solutions to the problems they encountered during the first part of the unit.  The Frayer model divides the paper into four boxes with a central theme.  In one box I might ask them to list the locations we visited and activities we did in our waste unit, in another list all the types of waste generated in our community; in the third box, describe the weaknesses in the systems we investigated, and in the fourth, write down ideas they have to reduce waste going to a landfill in our community.   I always ask students to complete a Frayer model or answer brainstorm questions on their own first or in pairs rather than completing it as a group right away.  It takes more time to do a “think, pair, share”, but you get many more ideas and the activity becomes far more inclusive.   Students spend time writing on their own with no restrictions.  I assured them there were no wrong answers for final suggestion question, and for the most part, the ideas pour out without hesitation.

Frayer Model

Adapted from the Frayer Model of Concept Learning
Dr. Dorothy A. Frayer

The next hurdle was whittling down ideas.  Students shared ideas in a small group, round-robin style.  They were only allowed to listen or ask clarifying questions, not comment on the plausibility of any idea.  From there we asked them to choose an idea that they might want to tackle.  Each group chose their favorite two or three ideas and shared them with the larger group while I kept a running list on the board.  Again, no critiques were allowed during brainstorming, only clarifying questions.

At this point I asked the students to list and consider some constraints.  What is their time frame for conducting the project?  What types of resources will they have at their disposal (money, space, human capital, equipment, etc)?  Can they complete this activity at school?  If they want to leave campus, do they have an adult available who can help them?  This helps them decide if this is a “good question” to investigate.  They came to realize there are practical constraints that make for a good question.  Their job then was to frame the actual problem they wanted to solve.  A few sample questions our middle schoolers decided to investigate included:  How can we help students at our school put waste in the correct bins?,  What would it take to refurbish a computer to reduce e-waste?  How do we make new items with old clothes to repurpose the fabric?

As an educator, do you have to plan in advance to have good inquiry?  No! Be spontaneous.  Sometimes the best questions arise from the news, a student experience on the way to school or something discovered on the playground.  Are you abandoning your curriculum if you let students pursue this spur-of-the-moment question?  Perhaps.  But will students learn and retain more if you let them investigate what they find engaging? Yes. It’s important to find the right balance.  It is our job as educators to champion good questions, but also to help students focus on taking the time to uncover the answers to their inquiries.  We can let them investigate whatever they want, or we can narrow the focus and target their inquiries within topics of our choosing.  It depends on your comfort level as a facilitator how far “off the mark” you are willing to go.  Be honest with them about what makes a good question and what constraints guide your decisions, and that will help students guide their own.  Encourage curiosity and creativity and those “good questions” should start emerging in your classroom.

Suggested resources:

  • NSTA Statement on Scientific Inquiry  
  • Galileo network:  A good explanation of inquiry with classroom examples in many K-12 subjects
  • Unboxed” A journal containing reflections and project ideas primarily from teachers at High Tech High, the school featured in “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015

Guest Blogger: Matthew Scott

Matthew Scott

My name is Matthew Scott. I’m a teacher and writer from the UK. I currently live in the US and decided to explore some of the innovative work taking place here in education. This was mainly done in the hope of being able to take a few ideas home with me when I go back to Britain. Then I got carried away. This blog will chart that journey.

One: The Storm Before The Calm

I’d never driven through a tornado before. It was a Wednesday morning and I was on my way to Monona, Wisconsin, a town just over an hour west of where I live. My destination was the Project Based Learning Un-Conference organized by WISN and Project Foundry. It was a gathering of educators with varying degrees of expertise in the field of PBL. I’d been in touch via email with Sarah from WISN who had been extremely positive and helpful, but I was still nervous. You see, I’ve been in the US for a couple of years and (apart from volunteer work at a downtown Milwaukee city literacy center) haven’t set foot in a classroom for a while. My wife assured me I’d be fine – teaching was like riding a bike. Yes, I thought. Or driving a car. On the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Through a tornado…

Okay, perhaps this is a little over-dramatic. There was no twister that morning but the warnings were out and judging by the number of cars with hazards lining the highway or hiding under bridges, the likelihood of one touching down wasn’t altogether unreasonable. And my nervousness was extremely real. Apart from a vague outline, I had no real idea about PBL. It did actually feel a little like the first day at high school again.

I needn’t have worried. The Un-Conference was hosted by the wonderful people of MG21 Liberal Arts Charter School and as I pulled into the parking lot I was relieved to see the WISN and Project Foundry signage pointing me in the right direction (again, read the symbolism there as far as cliché will allow). After signing in, I headed into a large computer lab for the welcome speeches and breakdown of the sessions for the next few days. The room was already buzzing with conversation and it was clear that a lot of people knew each other or had come as part of teams. At that time I was still absolutely convinced I was the most clueless person there. Everyone had laptops – really nice ones. I had a legal pad and two pens in case one ran out of ink. But despite the diverse range of experience and experiences in the room, it was clear that this conference was designed with the goal of exploration in mind, and what’s the good of exploring if you already know exactly where you are going?

My own meandering began with a session on Advisory. It was run by the Valley New School from Appleton, WI and after circling-up for a few ice-breaking games, people began to explain why they were there and what they hoped to take out of the session. I will admit now that although I was taking in a great deal of information much of it swirled about like the weather on the way in that morning – the odd tree branch might flash by in the wind, something recognizable, but nothing for me to grab hold of with any confidence. This had nothing to do with the excellently led session and more that so much of the terminology and language – the basic jargon of US education – was so alien to me. Imagine a US educator visiting a similar event in Britain and having to work out what Key Stages, or Pupil Premium, or even GCSE meant before they’d even had a chance to think about the topic being discussed? Luckily, for one activity, I found myself partnered with Steven Rippe from WISN and, as I’m sure any of you who have spent any period of time in Steven’s company will attest, things suddenly got a whole lot cooler.

Having worked out what I was actually doing there, it was Steven who came up with what this whole blog is going to be about: It’s a project. ‘If your aim is to find out as much as you can about PBL, treat it as a project’ – that was his suggestion. Suddenly all the anxiety about not knowing anything became a driving force: I could just learn. Need-to-knows, making real-world connections, linking back to standards: all of this went from being the content of the learning to the actual process. I was going to do a project on finding out as much as I could about PBL and the product, tentatively, would be this blog.

So, this is the first post: an introduction. Forgive me for not going into detail about the rest of the terrific Un-Conference: the sessions on building a culture for PBL in a traditional school environment; how to integrate PBL into core subjects; examples from educators actually doing PBL in teacher-led settings, student-led settings and everything else in between; PLPs; assessment; Project Foundry; and the inspirational key note address from Joe Bower – no, all of these matters and more will, I’m sure, be discussed in more detail in later posts.

Nor am I going to write too much just now about the quick realization that although the jargon might be slightly different, this infamous shared language, which is often ironically said to separate us on either side of the Atlantic, actually speaks of exactly the same concerns, challenges and, most importantly, passion I hear when talking to teachers back home. Sometimes it’s buried deep beneath warranted frustrations but it’s still there.

For now I’m just saying hello.

Before I go though, I should mention that a week after the UnConference, I drove to the WISN office in Madison to discuss this whole adventure. The weather that day? Glorious sunshine.