Turning the Question

Guest blog by Dr. Michelle Hurst, Secondary Science Coordinator in Mansfield ISD.

One of our core practices in our department is inquiry. Each book or article offers its own version of a definition but I like the Smithsonian’s explanation the best: “Inquiry-based science adopts an investigative approach to teaching and learning where students are provided with opportunities to investigate a problem, search for possible solutions, make observations, ask questions, test out ideas, and think creatively.” In summary, more questions and less answers. More doing and less memorizing.  

I’ve been learning about inquiry since my college education courses. It is considered a universal best practice for science education (and most other subjects too), however, it often gets a low effect size  in meta-analysis for instructional strategies. Even then NSTA, the Smithsonian and the College Board all claim it as a gold standard when implemented properly.  Inquiry provides meaningful learning experiences that connect to long term memory rather than students that can temporarily regurgitate facts. Inquiry is one of those processes that is really good as a concept but much harder to pull off in the classroom effectively. The struggle is due to lots of reasons such as supplies, management and time.  However, I suggest that one of the biggest hurdles is that  teachers are reluctant to let go of the control. This is partly the system’s fault. There are  strict pacing guides and standardized tests to prepare for. These parameters don’t often provide the space and time for discovery. However even when it does, many educators are type A and still find it hard to let the kids loose with a concept and see where they end up. With so much teacher accountability it is hard to loosen the grip on the lesson and let students discover, own it and share-out all on their own, without intervening.  In this case, the teacher’s job then is to push them a little bit further and clear up any misconceptions that they are holding onto before they slip out your door. 

One of the other problems with inquiry and science is that it is dependent on students asking high quality questions.  Older students have stopped learning how to ask good questions. When my kids were young they constantly bombarded me with whys all day long.

Why are owls nocturnal? (which my son pronounced more like “not-turtles”- also a good question)

Why do I have to take a shower?

Why does that cloud look like a bear with a tutu on? 

Why does gum stick? (like to the bottom of my car floorboard)

But eventually after years of hearing moms and teachers and everyone else respond with answers like “Later. Because.” And “I don’t know.”

Eventually those “why” questions stop flowing.

By the time they reach high school you have to pry questions out of them and bribe them with candy and stickers all kinds of silly. Even then, they mostly don’t ask very good questions.

They still sound a lot like my 5 year old, asking questions that start with why.

Why questions are really hard to answer.

I can tell you how neurons fire. But not why.

I can calculate the speed of light. But not tell you why things get all crazy when you start moving that fast.I can tell you how far away the moon is, but not why it ended up there.

I can observe altruistic behaviors in animals, but not tell you why they protect each other, at least not with certainty.

Why is hard to calculate, observe and measure.

A decade ago, I attended some training put out through the Smithsonian institute and they taught us how to “turn the question”. Turning the questions means taking a why question and pulling out variables and finding things kids can actually investigate.

For example, if they ask “Why does water boil?” That is a tough question to investigate.

But, they could do some quick experiments to see at what temperature it boils, if hot water boils faster than cold water, if different liquids boil at different temperatures, if adding something to the water makes it boil faster, etc.

Pretty much the trick and thing the instructor said that I dutifully jotted down in my comp book and still remember a decade later was this: 

“How can the question be turned into a practical action?”

I tried it in my classroom. My students got better at writing questions that they could investigate or explore. 

However, this concept has helped me far beyond science labs. 
Why aren’t my students turning in homework? Turns into what some some things that  motivate students? 

Why aren’t students listening?  Turns into what is one thing I can try to engage more students?

Why do teachers hate professional development days? Turns into what are some changes I can make to ensure I am meeting teachers’ needs. 

Questions lead to learning, but good questions can lead to action and change. 


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