EXPLORATORIUM INSTITUTE FOR INQUIRY

Professional Development Tools for Inquiry-Based Science

Ice Balloons: Exploring the Role of Questioning in Inquiry

©1998 The Exploratorium

( Materials developed through a collaboration of the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry and Wynne Harlen.)

A fundamental part of exploring our physical and biological worlds in a scientific way is the process of raising and answering questions. The intriguing nature of the phenomena explored in this activity, Ice Balloons, leads investigators to naturally develop question upon question. The activity is designed to illuminate questioning as an integral part of inquiry process. Teachers and professional development specialists examine questioning by:

By developing questions, and also the criteria for questions most likely to lead to investigations, participants can use the Ice Balloon activity as an exemplar for developing an environment for raising investigable questions in the classroom. This model for questioning is designed to be transferable to other settings and content areas.

 

Aims

The questioning process lies at the heart of all scientific work, and is the driving force in inquiry. "Science is concerned with questions about the what, how, and why of objects and relationships. The most productive kind, from the point of view of learning science are those which enable children to realize that they can raise and answer [questions] for themselves."

There are at least two kinds of questions that can be examined in this type of activity:

In this activity we deal primarily with the former and we pay attention also to how the teacher can facilitate turning student questions into investigations. In exploring the process of raising and moving questions towards independent investigations teachers develop criteria for distinguishing investigable questions and begin to recognize and look for questions that are open-ended, more complex, take time to resolve, and can be steered towards inquiry.

 

The Value of Ice Balloons
The Ice Balloon activity provides an opportunity to look deeply at questions in the context of doing an activity. Also it provides a rich phenomenological environment for raising a wide variety of questions, some investigable and some not. Typically, participants are deeply interested in the activity, and are invested in posing a wide selection of questions. Motivation is high to continue on a path of investigation.

Although not all questions can or should be answered, a mechanism for selecting the most fruitful ones is useful. An important design issue in this activity is how to begin to distinguish the nature of investigable versus non-investigable questions. By examining investigable questions in order to determine their characteristics, this activity allows teachers to establish criteria for their recognition in future activities.

Ice balloons are intrinsically interesting, have great aesthetic appeal, and they invite a number of questions that move towards the "big ideas" of science. Independent investigations can examine density, temperature, characteristics of the states of water and many other content areas. Participants are asked to select one investigable question and follow up with a brief investigation.

Because of its versatility, the ice balloon activity can be used with a wide variety of ages from elementary school to professional development workshops. The same activity can help teachers to discover their students' ideas, identify their investigable questions, and help develop student ideas towards the big ideas of science. For professional developers, the activity can help teachers to more deeply understand the role of questioning in inquiry.

 

The Activity in Outline

Step 1 Setting the context
Leaders set the context for the activity. They revisit the value of questioning in science and inquiry and review the steps of the activity for participants.
(5 min.)

Step 2: Observing ice balloons and generating questions
Participants (in small groups of four) generate a number of questions about the ice balloons as they experiment in an open-ended way. They write these down on 3" x 5" cards.
(35 min.)

Step 3: Investigating a question
Each small group chooses one investigable question and conducts a mini- investigation. As they do so they begin to develop criteria for distinguishing investigable from non-investigable questions.
(45 minutes)

Break 15 min.

Step 4: Small groups list criteria for investigable questions
Each small group of 4 discusses criteria for recognizing investigable questions by examining their stack of questions generated in Step 2. They write these on a half sheet of poster paper. They also each take an example of an investigable question and a non-investigable question, and write them on separate sentence strips. The questions are posted for other groups to see.
(20 min.)

Step 5: Sharing criteria, selecting and turning non-investigable questions
Each small group of 4 shares their criteria, and their investigable and non-investigable questions with the large group. Following this, small groups of 4 reconvene to select one non-investigable question, and to 'turn' it into an investigable one.
(25 min.)

Step 6: Sharing out the 'turning '
In the large group, each group of 4 shares the question they 'turned' into an investigable one.
(10 min.)

Step 7: Large group discussion
The large group together reflects on the process of raising and turning questions, the value of criteria for investigable questions and the role of questioning in the classroom
(20 min.)

Step 8: Review of the value of questioning
Leaders review the value of the Ice Balloon/Questioning activity
(5 min.)

 

Time
3 hours

 

Materials
(per group of 3-4)

 

(for the whole class)

 

Preparation

Use sturdy balloons.

You will need to make sure the ice balloons are sufficiently frozen in advance, so be sure to prepare ahead of time (two days in a normal freezer), and leave them in the freezer until the last possible moment. When frozen, each balloon will look slightly different, but they should generally be about 5-6 inches long.

Fill each tub in advance with enough water for the balloons to float. Filling tubs can take a half hour.

Step 1: Setting the context (5 minutes)

Leaders set the context for the activity. They revisit the value of questioning in science and inquiry and review the steps of the activity for participants.

Step 2: Generating questions while investigating balloons (35 minutes)

Ask participants to form groups of 3 or 4. The task for each group is to generate a number of questions about the ice balloons as they experiment with them in an open-ended way. They should write their questions on the index cards, and store the cards on the table for further use. Give each group:

The rest of the materials---hammer, picks, thermometers, flashlights, etc.---should be available at a centrally located area so that participants can obtain them when they recognize the need.

The object of this step is to generate a number of questions about the Ice Balloon. Participants are asked to

--Make notes of what they do and of their questions. Each person should be responsible for writing down their own questions.

--Write one question per card, and remember to write clearly. Store the cards in a central place on the table for later use.

--This is a brainstorming process, so do not stop to edit questions. Write down all questions, even those that might be quickly answered

Step 3: Investigating a Question (45 minutes)

In this Step, participants begin to identify criteria for investigable questions in preparation for conversations to follow.

Using their stack of questions from Step 1, each small groups chooses one investigable question and begins to conduct an investigation to answer it using the available materials. By doing this, participants begin to develop criteria for distinguishing investigable from non-investigable questions, and they also have the opportunity to follow one particular question towards an answer.

Break (15 minutes)

Step 4: Small groups generate criteria for investigable questions and propose examples of investigable and non-investigable questions (20 minutes)

Each small group of 4 discusses and lists criteria for recognizing investigable questions by re-examining their stack of questions generated in Step 2 and by reflecting on why they chose one particular question to investigate in Step 3. The teams examine their own thinking about the kinds of question that leads towards investigation and should be ready to present their thinking to the other groups. They write these criteria on a half sheet of poster paper that is available for all to see.

They also take one example each of an investigable question and a non-investigable question, and write them on separate sentence strips. The questions are posted around the room for other groups. All investigable question are placed on one foam core board and non-investigable on another. In this ways all participants can reflect on the thinking of all the other groups' work.

Step 5: Sharing criteria, selecting and turning non-investigable questions (25 minutes)

Each small group of 4 shares their criteria, and their investigable and non-investigable questions with the large group.

Following this, small groups of 4 reconvene and choose one non-investigable question from the large list (they can choose their own or another's question) and they turn it into an investigable one.

Step 6: Sharing the 'turning ' (10 minutes)

In the large group, each group of 4 shares the question they 'turned' into an investigable one.

The value is to make explicit the thinking of each group. Since each group has generated a slightly different list of criteria, the entire group will begin to converge on a more common way of thinking about investigable questions.

Step 7: Large Group Discussion (20 minutes)

The large group together reflects on the process of turning questions, their criteria for investigable and the value of questioning.

The object of this whole group discussion is:

Participants begin to understand turning non-investigable into investigable questions by using the criteria the group has generated. As participants suggest criteria for investigable questions they discuss their relative value. A handout of the criteria suggested by the group should be made available the next day for future use.

Since questioning is at the heart of all scientific (and other) investigation, the ability to establish criteria for identifying fruitful questions and for transforming questions into viable experiments is crucial knowledge for teachers and professional developers. The bulk of the discussion can be dedicated to understanding the nature of investigable questions and their logical outcomes in investigation.

Before you begin the group discussion, ask a few groups of 4 to briefly --- about one minute each---present some of the major issues that arose during their discussions. Through this process, some of the common issues will arise naturally. Our experience has shown that some of the areas listed below will arise. It is always best if they arise from the participants themselves, but we provide some background below in case you want to seed the discussion.

Step 8: Review of the value of questioning (5 minutes)

Leaders review the value of the Ice Balloon/Questioning activity.

 

Discussion Points

Ways to use Ice Balloons

Ice balloons can be used as a professional development and classroom tool in a number of ways. Experimenters could move towards understanding questions regarding the relative properties of liquid water, water vapor and ice, or the temperature at which ice freezes. They could just as easily move towards the issues surrounding density, how does the ice float in the water, what is important about weight, surface area etc.?

Ice balloons also offer a rich mixture of the aesthetics and science of examining frozen water, blurring the line between what is art and what is science. The exploration can be as artistic as it is scientific, for example by centering on the nature of the spicules (frozen lines within the ice) in the balloons themselves, their shape, size and causation. Another direction would invite a more artistic interpretation of the ice balloons using food coloring, flashlights and other aids for enhancing the artistry of the balloons.

The ice balloon activity also invites the learner to tap into prior knowledge---about cold temperatures, ice, and freezing in general---in many interesting ways, since ice is a fairly commonplace substance, one we are all familiar with and have known since childhood. Participants of all ages can link their prior knowledge to the their explorations in a variety of ways and in a relatively unthreatening content area. People have stories about and histories with ice, and inviting a type of narrative exploration is another possible direction that encourages talking, reading and writing about the experience.

The Value of Questioning

By using questioning as a central focus we also highlight its value as a metacognitive tool; that is, knowing what you know and don't know. It is in the process of questioning that the learner becomes aware of things yet to be understood---areas that have central curiosity, as well as areas that are not well understood. The central role of questioning is also reflected by its key place in most state curricula and in national and international science education standards. The addendum explores questioning in more detail.

Professional Development

In terms of professional design, one can use the ice balloon activity in a variety of different ways to illustrate other areas. In this case we highlight the questioning process. One might have used the same activity to highlight assessment of learner's understanding of the process of science. Or to help students begin to plan an entire investigation that moves towards understanding some of the big ideas mentioned above.

Categorizing Children's Questions

Wynne Harlen (see reference list) has identified five types of questions that children ask:

Expanded information on these categories in included in Addendum 1, Categorizing Children's Questions.

Classroom Use

Ice balloons is an activity easily adapted for classroom use. The close dependence of questioning on curiosity means that the classroom where questions are stimulated must be one where there are plenty of opportunities for direct exploration of interesting materials. Materials and objects brought in by children have built-in interest, at least for those who collected them, and sharing this interest is very likely to spread it to others. As with materials brought in by the teacher with a particular view to creating interest in a topic to be studied, they need to be displayed so that it is obvious to the children that they are invited to touch, smell (where appropriate and safe), look carefully, find out, etc. In the same vein the expectation that children will ask question should be built up.

Figure 2, Creating a classroom ethos which values and encourages questions includes suggestions for maintaining a classroom ethos of questioning. These include positive reinforcement, ways to encourage questioning and helping children to identify more clearly what they want to know.

Figure 3, Examples of children's questions with Ice Balloons, includes questions asked by students while investigating ice balloons in 2 different classrooms, one in San Francisco and one in Marin County.

 


 

Investigating Ice Balloons Directions

Figure 1

 

Your task is to work with your team to investigate the ice balloon and find out as much as you can about how it behaves---in and out of water, and when you do different things to it. You can, for instance

Make notes of what you do and of your questions. Each person should be responsible for writing down their own questions.

Write one question per card, and remember to write clearly. Store the cards in a central place on the table for later use.

This is a brainstorming process, so do not stop to edit questions. Write down all of your questions, even those that might be quickly answered.

 


 

Creating a classroom ethos which values and encourages questions

Figure 2

 

Positive Reinforcement

Although it is the new or unusual which is normally a stimulus to curiosity, more familiar objects may be ones which are more productive in encouraging children to express questions for investigation, perhaps because they are likely to already have queries in their minds which can be released by the invitation to express them.

Another way of stimulating questions without constant recourse to things which the children will not have seen before, is to draw attention to important aspects by putting things together with very different properties. For instance, when investigating bouncing balls, what do children think of how a ball of plasticene 'bounces.' Questioning why the plasticene becomes flattened gives an important clue to why balls bounce back.

Setting aside time for children to describe what they have done is an important part of science experiences which can be used to encourage questions and make it legitimate for children to express questions and admit that there are things they don't know but want to know. It is best for the questions to come from the children rather than the teacher. So instead of the teacher interrogating the children, they should be invited to respond to 'What do you still want to know about....?'

More generally, the simple request 'What questions would you like to ask about....' can be regularly extended, either orally in writing, on work cards or sheets. Resisting the temptation, as a teacher, to do all the question raising is also a simple but important guideline. Raising questions is something children must learn to do for themselves, and this won't be encouraged if all the questions they pursue are raised for them.

 

Ways to encourage questioning

Have things in the classroom which stimulate curiosity.

 

 

Helping children to identify more clearly what they want to know and phrasing questions which can be answered by their own Inquiry

 


Examples of children's questions with Ice Balloons

Figure 3

 

Why do some ice balls have more lines (spikes, streaks, bubbles) than others?

What if we put the balloon in hot water? in cold water?

What if we poured a lot of salt on the ice?

Would putting the ice balloon under running water melt it faster than putting it in a tub of water?

Why is it harder on the outside and softer on the inside?

What are the white wormy things?

Does food coloring stick better to salt or sugar?

Why does the salt act like acid on the ice?

Does it freeze better in some freezers than others?

What would happen if we made the ice balloon out of something else, like milk?

What would happen if we covered the whole ice balloon with salt?

 

 


Materials developed through a collaboration of the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry and Wynne Harlen.


References

Harlen, W., Primary Science: Taking the Plunge. Heinemann, 1985, 116pp.

Harlen, W., Environmental Science in the Primary Curriculum (with J. Elstgeest) 1990 London: Paul Chapman Publishing 80pp.

Harlen, W., Progress in Primary Science: Workshop Materials for Teacher Education (with C. Macro, D. Malvern, K. Reed and M. Schilling) 1990, Routledge 200pp.

Harlen, W., Assessing Science in the Primary Classroom : Observing Activities (with S.Cavendish, M. Galton and L. Hargreaves) 1990 London: Paul Chapman Publishing 144pp.

Harlen, W., Assessing Science in the Primary Classroom: Written Tasks (with L. Hargreaves and M. Schilling) 1990 London: Paul Chapman Publishing 144pp.

Harlen, W., Assessing Science in the Primary Classroom: Practical Tasks (with T. Russell) 1990 London: Paul Chapman Publishing 144pp.

Harlen, W., UNESCO Source Book for Science in the Primary School (with Elstgeest) 1992; Paris: UNESCO 272 pp.

Harlen, W., Teaching and Learning Primary Science. Second revised edition. 1993 London: Paul Chapman Publishing 209pp.

Harlen, W., The Teaching of Science Second Revised Edition. London: David Fulton, 1996 206pp

 


 

Addendum 1

 

Categorizing Children's Questions

 

Comments Expressed as Questions

These are questions which children ask when they are intrigued or excited. The questions don't really need to be answered but there has to be some response which acknowledges the stimulus which gave rise to the question. For example, here is how an teacher handled a question from a six year old when she and a group of children were examining a birds' nest:

Child: How do they weave it?

Teacher: They're very clever...

Child: Birds are very clever with their beaks

Child: Nobody would ever think they were because they're so small

Teacher: Yes, it's wonderful isn't it? If we turn this right round and let you have a look at this side........

The child's question was used to maintain the close observation of the nest and a sense of wonder. She might have replied "Look carefully and see if you can tell how it is done?" but perhaps she judged that this was too early a stage in the exploration for focusing on one aspect. The teacher's response leaves open the possibility of returning to the subject in this vein if the child's interest is still there. Another way of putting this is that she judged the question to be a way of expressing wonder rather than a genuine query. The child might just as easily have said "look at how it is woven!"

Philosophical Questions

This is another category of questions to which the response has to be of the 'yes, isn't it interesting/intriguing' kind, sharing the wondering behind the question. 'Why do we have birds and all different things like that?' is such a question. Taken at face value the only answer is to say that there is no answer. However, not all children's questions are to be taken at face value; the motive for asking has also to be taken into account. Neither should we read too much into the exact words children use. They often phrase questions as 'why' questions, making them sound philosophical when the answer they are wanting is much more related to 'what makes it happen' rather than 'why does it happen.' When children's question seem philosophical the initial step is to ask them to explain their question. It may well then turn into a question in a different category, but if not it should be treated as an interesting question but one to which no-one can give a definite answer.

Requests for Simple Facts

These are questions which satisfy the urge to name, to know, to identify. The children looking at the bird's nest asked "Where did it come from?" "What kind of stuff is this that it's made of?" "How long do the eggs take to hatch?" These are questions to which there are simple factual answers which may help the children by contextualizing their experience and their ideas about the lives of birds. The teacher may know the answers and if so there is no point in withholding them. Requests for names of things fall into this category, as do definitions which arise in questions such as 'Is coal a kind of rock?' If work requires something to be named and no one knows the proper name at that moment then children can be invited to make up a name to use. 'Shiny cracked rock,' 'long thin stem with umbrella,' 'speedy short brown minibeast' can actually be more useful in talking about things observed in the field than their scientific or common names. Later the 'real' names can be gradually substituted.

Some requests for simple facts cannot be answered. A straight "I don't know" answer helps children to realize the kinds of questions that cannot have answers as well as that their teacher is a human and not a super-human being.

Questions Requiring Complex Answers

Apart from the brief requests for facts, most questions children ask can be answered at a variety of levels of complexity. Take "why is the sky blue?" for example. There are many level of 'explanation' from those based on the scattering of light of different wavelength to those relating to the absence of clouds. They seem the most difficult for teachers to answer but they are in fact the most useful questions for leading to investigations. Their apparent difficulty lies in the fact that many teachers do not know the answers and those who do will realize that children could not understand them. There is no need to be concerned, whichever group you fall into, because the worst thing to do for in either case is to attempt to answer these questions!

'Turning' questions into investigable ones is an important skill since it enables teachers to treat difficult questions seriously but without providing answers beyond children's understanding. It also indicates to children that they can go a long way to finding answers through their own investigation, thus underlining the implicit messages about the nature of scientific activity and their ability to answer questions by 'asking the objects.'

Questions Which Can Lead to Investigation by Children

Teachers looking for opportunities for children to explore and investigate will find these are the easiest questions to deal with. The main challenges in regard to these types of questions are

a) recognizing such questions for what they are

b) resisting the urge to give the answer because it may seem so evident (to the teacher but not the child)

c) remembering to store them, when they seem to come at the wrong time

Recognizing Investigable Questions

It is not often that a child expresses a question in an already investigable form; there is usually a degree of 'turning' to do and the 'variables scan' is a useful idea to keep in mind. The example of the snails' shell is a case in point. Here the question 'Why do snails have four rings on their shell?" was quite easily turned into "Do all snails have the same number of rings on their shells?" A slightly different approach is to turn a question from a 'why' question into a 'what would happen if' question. For instance, 'Why do you need to stretch the skin tight on a drum?" can become 'What would happen if the skin is not tight?"