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Questioning Brought into Focus

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 14, 2009 | Observations by Larry

Lately the water-cooler conversation around the staff offices at LHS has focused on...focus questions. What is a focus question? And what makes a question a good focus question?

A little background. In the first half of this decade we mounted a major effort to design an assessment system to complement the modules for grades 3—6. That work, the Assessing Science Knowledge (ASK) project, revealed a dimension of the FOSS curriculum that needed attention. The objectives of the activities (lessons) were clear to us, the developers, but they were not always well communicated to our audience, teachers delivering the message and students receiving the message. The objectives were implicit in the larger context of the investigations, stated in the At-A-Glance chart for each investigation as Inquiry Questions, but they needed to be explicit in the flow of instruction.

After considerable rumination we decided on the focus question as our device for amplifying and communicating the objective of a lesson. It fit nicely with the philosophy of guided inquiry: use a question to ignite the imagination and suggest a path of activity. And it served to make explicit the expected outcome of the answer to the question.

Hence the questions from staff, particularly those who had assumed responsibility for articulating our science notebook philosophy and approach: what exactly is a focus question, and what makes for a good one?

A focus question is a concise expression of the objective of the lesson, presented as a question. In most cases, a part of a FOSS investigation (a lesson) is framed and guided by one idea, usually a concept or a major element of a concept. The focus question points the student in the direction of that concept or element. Also, the focus question is intended to create a desire "to find out" in students—to stimulate a little intellectual itch in student's mind and provoke the motivation to figure out the answer. By launching the lesson with a question, a student soon enough realizes that he or she is responsible for acquiring the data and generating the knowledge needed to cobble together an answer to the question.

The focus question is also an assistive device for teachers—it makes explicit to him or her what the student is supposed to learn. At a critical juncture in the instructional sequence (usually at or near the beginning), the focus question is presented to the class as a challenge, it is written on the board, and students transcribe it into their science notebooks. Once the focus question has been made public, the objective of the lesson is hanging in the air to be referred to and fussed over by both teacher and student as the lesson progresses. The teacher is continually reminded where the lesson is headed and can guide the instructional experience more thoughtfully.

A good focus question constrains and clarifies the options for moving forward. That is, the focus question limits the latitude teachers and students have for straying from the learning path (conceptual flow) and discourages the temptation to abbreviate, modify, or "enrich" the lesson. The focus question brings forward the most important part of the FOSS experience—it's not the activity itself, rather it's the intellectual products that are synthesized out of the activity. The focus question should not be trivial (how many legs do isopods have?) nor too large (what is an ecosystem?).

Good focus questions ask students to describe sequences, generate statements of causation, develop methodologies, create solutions, produce explanatory models, describe relationships, and so on. Questions can take a form that asks for a yes/no answer (are all salt solutions the same?), with the caveat that the "yes" or "no" must be followed up with "because..." An example is the popular claims-and-evidence form. In the main, a focus question is asking students to figure out something about the natural world through their own actions, discoveries, and reasoning (with guidance, interpretation, and input from the teacher) and communicate it.

As we re-imagine FOSS, the focus question is emerging as a kind of glue that gives the curriculum coherence. As formative assessment assumes a more prominent role in instruction, student work related to the focus question is gold. If the focus question successfully represents the learning objective, a student's answer to that question communicates the success with which that objective has been achieved. Based on student responses to the focus question, the teacher can take immediate action to remedy flaws in understanding or move on with confidence.

The focus question also assumes a central role in the student science notebook. The table of contents of the notebook is the series of focus questions. The focus questions considered together describe the conceptual flow of the curriculum. The answer to each successive question builds, in part, on the answers that preceded it and anticipates the next focus question. The rhythm of the inquiry into a science topic (FOSS module) is observable in the written record of student engagement: the staccato introduction of the focus question, followed by written evidence of the harmonic interplay of scientific observation, data processing, discourse, and reasoning, culminating in a crescendo of insight communicated in the answer to the question. The theme is played out again and again as each new focus question is entered into the notebook. (For more information about the FOSS approach to science notebooks, go to and click on Info for Teachers and Parents.)

So that's one dimension of the continual evolution of FOSS. It can be wrapped up in two sentences. A good focus question provides...focus. It helps the teacher keep her eye on the prize, helps the student bring purpose to the inquiry, and helps the curriculum developer design the experience with intention and vision. ?