Making Better Observations and
Questions that Lead to Improved Inquiry Skills
Christine Meek, Graduate Student UCCS, Color...
situations that come up where the answer isn't
just right or wrong; true or false; “C” or “A.”
The world isn't black and w...
opposites or contrary. Are there any patterns
or does something seem to be missing? Ask
questions that start with “what if...
Figure 1 - Grading Rubric
Points 5 10 Extra
The student
wrote down 1
about each
Not all
Yes 1 point...
popular press and to engage in social
conversation about the validity of the
conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that...
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What is Inquiry article


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An article discussing the importance of students asking questions and learning to come up with answers on their own. Critical thinking skills.

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What is Inquiry article

  1. 1. Making Better Observations and Questions that Lead to Improved Inquiry Skills Christine Meek, Graduate Student UCCS, Colorado Springs, CO As educators, our job is to help our students grow into competent, contributing members of society. Our job is to guide them in their path to becoming adults that are able to make good decisions based on truth and to be able to decipher what is fact and what isn't. To do that, we must allow them to hone their natural ability to question things or help them re-learn the skills involved in observing and asking questions. Lately, we have been hearing a lot about science “inquiry” practices, but what does that really mean? Inquiry is an approach to learning that involves a process of exploring the natural or material world, that leads to asking questions and making discoveries in the search for new understandings (Exploritorium, 1998). Every question asked is a good one, but some questions are better than others. In order for students to produce quality inquiries, they need to be able to ask good questions. According to the National Science Education Standards, students should develop the ability to refine and refocus broad and ill- defined questions. (NRC, 1996) This article talks about how we can meet those standards and guide students to observe their surroundings, learn how to ask good questions and then lead them to how to discover the answer on their own. Children come into the world with no “prior knowledge” or experience. They are a blank slate; a tabula rasa. They need to explore the world around them in various ways to figure things out. If you give a 10 month old boy an object, he will pick it up, look at it, move it around in his chubby little hands, and then put it in his mouth. He is using all his senses to figure out what the object is and how it works. Then that child learns to talk. If you've ever met a 4 year old, you know that they ask questions incessantly. So now this boy is curious about everything and his newly acquired language now helps him to figure out the world around him. By the time his is 6, the number of questions starts to dwindle. This is partly due to the fact that he has more knowledge about the world around him and have a better ability to make connections to objects, events and ideas. It is also partly because he's been told to stop asking so many questions. Ten that boy is sent off to school where he can learn more and experience more. In school, students learn material so they can then be tested. What happens, more often than not, is the child finds out that, according to standardized tests, there is always a right answer. Typically, that answer is “C.” When they do ask questions in class that don't have to do with “C,” the teacher often tells them not be distracted and redirects them to the task at hand. After a while, they learn to stop asking questions and just memorize the information long enough to pass the test. After 13 years of learning the “right” information in school, they lose the ability to think critically, problem solve, and ask questions. By the time that child reaches adulthood, very few questions are asked on any given day. The Real World Unfortunately, the “real world” doesn't operate on “right” information. There are Better Questions Page 1 CURR 5502 – Dr. Malone 06/25/12
  2. 2. situations that come up where the answer isn't just right or wrong; true or false; “C” or “A.” The world isn't black and white. We live in a world of gray and we need to help students tap into their instinctive curiosity again. We need to help them remember how to ask questions and how to investigate the world around them to find answers. I'm not suggesting we give a 10th grade Chemistry student an object to hold, move around and then put into their mouth the way they did when they were 10 months old, but we can guide students to observe their surroundings, learn how to ask good questions and then lead them to how to discover the answer on their own. How do we do that? Image: Observations Before we can talk about how to teach our students to ask questions, we must first talk about how to observe. Questions come from being curious. Being curious comes from noticing something unusual or unfamiliar. To notice something unusual or unfamiliar one must be able to have observed it. Observations can happen with our eyes and other physical senses, but in science we also have many other tools we can use such as microscopes, spectrometers, thermometers, pH test kits, etc. Observing also happens more than the initial first glance. Scientists observe things over a period of time and take notes on their observations. Observations can take place over a period of moments, hours, days, months or even years. Scientists take notes but this is not limited to words and graphs. This can also include drawings, photos, sound bytes, or other relevant information. Before scientists are even able to ask a question, they must find something about which to question. They must be good observers of the world around them. Scientists see the world not as “what do I already know?” but rather “what don't I know and how can I find out more?” Image from Questions After a while, those observations can lead to questions, and those questions can lead to an investigation/experiment/inquiry. We need to teach students to really evaluate the world around them. Question everything they see. Yes, there are the obvious questions such as “What is this?” But let's push past the obvious and look for the unique and extreme. Let's get crazy. Forget about thinking outside the box and just get rid of that box! We can play devil's advocate and try to see things from another angle. Look for things that are Better Questions Page 2 CURR 5502 – Dr. Malone 06/25/12
  3. 3. opposites or contrary. Are there any patterns or does something seem to be missing? Ask questions that start with “what if.” (Grotzer) There are 2 types of questions when it comes to seeking information: fact and explanatory. A fact question involves an isolated piece of information that does not contain a casual component and an explanatory question involves a causal relation between objects and/or events. (Chouinard, 2007) An example of a fact question would be “What is the process of cell-division?” An example of an explanatory question is, “Why is it cooler in the morning than in the evening?” According to Bloom's taxonomy, there are 6 different levels of questions: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. (Bloom, 1956) Our goal as teachers is to help a student get from a level 1 type question to a deeper level. Below are examples of the types of questions in each level: • Level 1: Knowledge Example: “What is this” • Level 2: Comprehension Example: “Where would you use this?” • Level 3: Application Example: “What would happen if we removed this black piece?” • Level 4: Analysis Example: “How does this this object compare to a something we use in the kitchen today? • Level 5: Synthesis Example: “What could we do to find out what makes this work?” • Level 6: Evaluation Example: “How effective is this tool? How can we make it more effective?” The deeper the level, the better the question. A question evaluating an object is better than one about general knowledge. How do we know it's a better question? We know because when the student answers that question, (s)he has a better level of understanding. So how do we help students get to a deeper level? Lab Time The following activity will give students the practice they need to refine their observation skills as well as learn to ask more and better questions. Before starting this lab, there are a couple of things that need to be addressed. Students can feel that asking questions is a sign of weakness and stupidity and are reluctant to ask. Remember that, since becoming a student 6 or 7 years ago, many of them have tried to forget how to ask questions. Students can feel vulnerable when asking question. They need a classroom environment where they feel safe in taking the risk of asking questions. With this in mind, the first thing the teacher needs to do is to set solid rules about tolerable behavior during this inquiry time. The second thing that needs to be addressed is that students need to be introduced to the idea that there are different types and levels of questions so you may decide to give students a copy of Blooms Taxonomy Ideas (Fig. 2) before starting this lab. This activity takes as little as 15-20 minutes depending on how much time you give them for each step. When the students are done, have them share their observations and/or questions so they may inspire and lead other students to better observation and questioning skills. For students to get the most out of this activity, the lab can be repeated as often during the year as you see fit. When used repeatedly throughout the year, the difference in the ability to observe as well as the quality of questions asked between the beginning of the year and the end of the year is remarkable. You can use the grading rubric (Fig. 1) as an example when scoring this lab. Better Questions Page 3 CURR 5502 – Dr. Malone 06/25/12
  4. 4. Figure 1 - Grading Rubric Points 5 10 Extra The student wrote down 1 observation about each object. Not all 10 Yes 1 point for each extra observation 1 question was asked about each object Not all 10 Yes 1 point for each extra question How many questions were asked about a specific object <5 5-10 (the goal is 10) >10 1 point for each extra question Level of question (refer to Fig. 2) 1 point per level. Level 2 question gets 2 points, level 4 questions gets 4 points. Although this activity is geared toward a middle school level (grades 6 through 8), it is easily adapted to all grade levels. The main objective of this lab is to help students become better at asking good questions. Observing Items Begin this activity by giving each student 10 random items. You may have students share items, but they may not share their observations with each other yet. Examples of objects are: action figure, key chain, wine bottle opener, deck of cards, hammer, container of mints, or anything that could be typically found at the bottom of a mom's purse. Students also need observation tools such as a ruler/measuring tape, magnifying glass, microscope, scale and flashlight. Lastly, students need their science journal to write down each step. Implementation Students need to carefully observe each item. They may use their own senses (hands, eyes, nose) or a scientific instrument (magnifying glass, ruler). They need to write down at least 1 observations about each item and ask at least 1 question about each item. Then they need to pick 1 of the objects and write down as many things as they notice about it. Things they can observe are its color, shape, texture, smell, size, but also things like where they might find it, who might use it, and how old it is. Now they need to take that object and write down as many questions as they can think of. (Note: Students may feel like they need to write in complete sentences at first. Encourage them not to worry about this just yet. We want them to get into the habit of being able to observe and question quickly. As time progresses and they are more efficient at these skills, you may want to have them use complete sentences.) Current-Event Observations As mentioned above, you can repeat this lab throughout the year. However, you can mix it up a little bit by changing the object of observation. Rather than using “items” for the students to observe, you may have them read articles from periodicals such as Discover magazine, Popular Science or Scientific American. (Please keep in mind that these magazines are written with a readership of ages 30 and older. You may need to censor some advertisements in the back.) Have the student find and read an article that looks interesting to them. Then, have them observe or summarize 10 things in the article. Lastly, have them write down any questions that were raised while reading. This can include questions that had nothing to do with the article directly, but may have triggered an idea in their mind. By giving students current-event information in this lab, you are not only getting them to learn to ask better questions, you are helping them to become more scientifically literate. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the Better Questions Page 4 CURR 5502 – Dr. Malone 06/25/12
  5. 5. popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed (NRC, 1996, p. 22). Conclusion This is a simple, yet powerful lab that gives students the time and freedom to practice the skills necessary to tap into their natural curiosity and continue to be able to think critically and creatively problem solve their way through life. By learning to improve their observation and questioning skills, students are better prepared to dive into more content-rich, science-inquiry based labs. This lab helps students learn to ask the right questions in the right way so they can find the true answers they seek. References and Resources: Bloom B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc. Chouinard, Michelle M.(2007). Children's questions: A mechanism for cognitive development:II. Analysis of the CHILDES database. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Vol 72(1), Mar, 2007. pp. 14-44. Exploritorium (1998). quiry.html Grotzer, Tina. The Keys to Inquiry Section II: Big Messages to Communicate Around Learning from Experience, http://hea- xt.html National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC; National Academies Press. Better Questions Page 5 CURR 5502 – Dr. Malone 06/25/12