The Nature of Inquiry: Asking Good Questions

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 sjkrauskopf@gmail.com

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015

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