FOSStering the Craft of Questioning

John Cafarella, FOSS Consultant
September 10, 2010 | Professional Development

Top image: Students share answers to questions generated in a FOSS Wood and Paper Module investigation.

Have you ever asked yourself, "How many questions do I ask in a day?" Then, "How many questions do I ask in my classroom during a day?" Extensive research indicates that the answer to both is "a lot." As Jos Elstgeest says in Primary Science...Taking the Plunge: How to Teach Primary Science More Effectively, "There are many kinds of questions and their varying effect on children is striking."*

Given good research-based science materials and content, questions are the engines that drive a lesson and using them well is a craft. Here are some general categories in the form of questions to help you with question placement during a lesson.

  • Which child did you ask? Answers will vary. Do you ask the child anxiously waving his or her hand around to respond, or the shy child who you're pretty sure knows the answer but needs some encouragement?
  • When do you ask it (place in the lesson, time of day, day of week)? We know afternoons are different from mornings, and all bets are off on a Friday afternoon in May.
  • What do you ask? Was it content based? Skill-based? Recall?
  • Why do you ask it? Summary point? Returning a student to task? Move on to the next step? Stir the pot?
  • How do you ask it? Teacher tone can affect the student's answer. Did they know a question was coming?
  • Where are you when you ask it? Standing next to a student or at the far end of the room so everyone can hear the answer?
  • How long will the answer take? How long do you wait for a response? How long does it take the student to provide the response? Do you interrupt to speed things along?

In the FOSS Overview Folio in each Teacher Guide, take a look at Encouraging Discourse. Keep in mind that questions are assessment, so you should also review the Assessing Progress section located in the Overview Folio. In the K—2 Teacher Guides you should look at classroom discussions in the Science for Young Children section of the Overview Folio. Best practice research indicates that good questions posed by the teacher can enhance discourse by contributing to the development of concepts and vocabulary. Good questions help students connect ideas among the sciences. Thoughtfully presented questions promote thinking and draw students into sharing observations, communicating ideas, and uncovering relationships. (Note: "Does everyone understand?" is not a thoughtfully presented question.)

Write out some questions when planning the lesson. You can even write them on a transparency for the overhead, the white or chalk board, or on a SMART Board™. Teachers seldom write down their questions while lesson planning; instead they tend to formulate them during the lesson. This practice can lead to vague questions that do not engage students in deep, high-quality thinking. Consequently things can turn ugly with unengaged learners who may misbehave out of confusion or boredom.

Sometimes when preparing a lesson, especially the first time you teach that lesson, your concerns are materials management, classroom management, timing, and pacing. You don't have time to script the questions, and you're not really sure what the questions may be. It´s nice to know that you'll find questions waiting for you, in italics, in the Guiding the Investigation section of a FOSS Investigation. FOSS questions include:

  • Open-ended Questions, which encourage creative speculative thinking;
  • Valuing Questions, which allow students to reflect on the subject based on their own value structure; and
  • Feeling Questions, which invite students to share their personal feelings about aspects of the topic investigated.

You may wish to look at the following types of questions and integrate them into the "lesson engine" with your goals in mind.

If you want to help students build confidence and rely on their own understanding, you might ask (expect longer wait times):

  • How did you reach that conclusion?
  • Can you make a model to show that?
  • FOSS Weather and Water Course—Is this the kind of weather you would expect to happen everywhere on Earth today? Explain your answer.

To help students learn to reason scientifically, you might ask:

  • Is that true for all cases? Explain
  • How would you prove that?
  • FOSS Levers and Pulleys Module—When you are trying to lift the lid off a can of paint, there is no metal cube to be lifted. Where is the load, and what direction is the load acting?

To assess student progress, you might ask:

  • Can you explain what you have done so far?
  • Why did you decide to use this method?
  • What evidence supports your conclusions?
  • Can you think of another method that might have worked?
  • FOSS Solids and Liquids Module—What if you needed to build a small bridge? Which solids would make a good bridge?

To engage all students and helping them make sense of science, you might ask:

  • What do you think about what ___ said?
  • Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • FOSS Food and Nutrition Module—Challenge students to design a method for testing the sugar content of liquids, such as sodas and fruit juices. Test the same citrus fruits used in the acid test.

If you wish to encourage student conjecture, you might ask:

  • What would happen if ___ ?
  • Do you see a pattern? Can you explain the pattern?
  • What decision do you think he/she should make?
  • FOSS Populations and Ecosystems Course—What adaptations do the organisms featured in the video have that help them to survive and reproduce?

Problem solving is essential and can be promoted by asking:

  • What do you need to find out?
  • What information do you have?
  • What strategies are you going to use?
  • What tools/materials will you need?
  • FOSS Mixtures and Solutions—How can these three mixtures be separated?

Sometimes students get "stuck," they don't know what to do next, things aren't working, and they are getting frustrated. Ask:

  • How would you describe the problem in your own words?
  • What do you know that is not stated in the problem?
  • Have you seen similar problems? What did you do with them?
  • Would it help to create a diagram or draw a picture?
  • Have you compared your work with anyone else?
  • FOSS—These types of questions can be used during Choosing Your Own Investigation.

Questions can lead to connecting ideas among applications or disciplines.

  • How does this relate to ___ ?
  • What ideas or procedures have we learned that were useful in solving the problem?
  • FOSS Earth Materials Module—Interdisciplinary Extensions, Investigation 1 — Math Extension Problem of the Week.

During reflection, the learning takes place and the memories are created. Reflection can be encouraged by asking:

  • Does your answer seem reasonable? Why or why not?
  • What if you had started with ___ rather than ___ ?
  • What have you learned or found out today? When did you learn it?
  • What are the "key points" or "big ideas"?
  • FOSS Insects Module—What do caterpillars need to live?

The most powerful learning occurs during reflection, whether thinking about the conversation, or a book you read, or a completed investigation.

That's a lot of questions. Should they all be asked every day? Yes they should, but only if you have eight hours for each lesson. If you live in the world where we are limited by time, you should select questions according to your goals and objectives. Teachers can script, write down some key questions and use them when appropriate. A good curriculum (like FOSS), provides teachers with many of these key questions.

Another lens for viewing questions is based on Bloom's taxonomy. Questioning "a la Bloom" clarifies questions and results. Level one focuses on knowledge questions (the most frequently asked), recalling facts, terms, basic concepts and definitions. There are also comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation questions. Other than knowledge, all are open-ended, and they reveal student thinking as well as those nasty little misconceptions that students hide so well.

The most common kind of classroom question, quick recall, (knowledge) elicits the lowest level of intellectual engagement. Examples are "What is the definition of mass?" and "What is the name of the ninth planet from the Sun?" (a trick question since the demotion of Pluto). Faced with such questions, students can either be "right" or "wrong," but you don't really know why they are right or wrong. To paraphrase Alexander Pope in "An Essay on Criticism," too much knowledge (questioning) can be a dangerous thing. Recall questions don't assess your students' comprehension and abilities to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. The following are some sample questions found in the FOSS investigations that illustrate questions that support the Bloom approach.

Knowledge/Comprehension: Student exhibits learned material by recalling facts, terms, basic concepts, and answers.

  • Magnetism and Electricity Module: Can the force of magnetism act through materials?

Comprehension: Student exhibits understanding of facts and ideas by organizing, comparing, translating, interpreting, giving descriptions, and stating main ideas.

  • Air and Weather Module: Do you see anything that tells you air is moving?

Application: Students solves problems by applying acquired knowledge, facts, techniques, and rules in a different way.

  • Variables Module: If you had a piece of fishing line could you get your plane to fly the entire length of the line?
  • Air and Weather Module: Does it take more or less wind to fly a kite than to move a bubble? Than to spin a pinwheel? Why?

Synthesis: Student compiles information in a different way by combining elements in a new pattern or proposing alternative solutions.

  • Chemical Interactions Course: If we wanted to study the gas in greater detail to find out, for instance, how much is produced by the reaction, what would you suggest we do?

Evaluation: Student presents and defends opinions by making judgments about information, validity of ideas, or quality of work based on a set of criteria.

  • Human Body Module: Which tasks were the most difficult? What made them hard?

To pace a class with questioning, we need to slow the rate of conversation to encourage discourse. Students must learn to sit quietly and give the questioned student time to reflect. They must also learn when to support another student with a suggestion or an answer.

To summarize, questions should be scripted. Put them in the lesson plan. Keep in mind using the right question at the right time. Questions encourage thinking and discourse. Questions are not a teacher to student one-way street. Questions should come from students, too. That includes questioning each other. Questions form the engine that keeps your lesson moving and focused. Questioning is a craft. You need to keep working at it to remain proficient.

*Elstgeest, Jos. Primary Science...Taking the Plunge: How to Teach Primary Science More Effectively, chapter 4 "The Right Question at the Right Time." Edited by Wynne Harlen. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational, 1985, pp. 36–46.