Power of Questioning
the March/April 2000 issue (vol. 13, Issue 4) of Connect,
a publication of Synergy
Over the past
four years, as part of the Teacher Learning Group, I have been
exploring the role of questioning to advance inquiry skills in
my second-grade classroom. When I started doing inquiry in my classroom,
I allowed all questions the students asked to be investigated.
I found, however, that having children do investigations based
on all of their questions wasn't moving us toward the content,
or some of the process skills, that I wanted to teach.
Over the past
year, I have come to see that if I limit the questions to a manageable
number like five or six, students maintain ownership over what
they want to investigate, and we also move towards the content
I need to cover. This intermediate step has been very helpful in
getting me closer to my goal.
I use district-adopted
science kits in my classes. Before I start teaching a unit, I familiarize
myself with the concepts of the kit and how the activities can
support them. Over the years, however, I have moved away from teaching
the lessons from the kit as described in the manual, and towards
a combination of kit-learning experiences and more student-directed
When I use the
sound kit from Insights, for example, I begin by choosing lessons
that allow students to become familiar with the kit materials,
become curious, and raise questions. I purposefully choose kit
lessons that lend themselves well to exploration.
the children explore, I encourage them to ask questions about whatever
seems curious to them. Because students often have difficulty asking
questions, I support them in various ways. For example, I model
techniques and ask a lot of open-ended questions, such as: "Can
you tell me what you are trying to find out with this instrument?" or "Is
that what you expected to hear?" Eventually, the children get used
to hearing the kinds of questions that can lead to investigations.
I practice active
listening to the children's responses, since their questions often
come in the form of statements. Then it's up to me, the teacher,
to help turn their statements into investigation questions by asking
things like "Do you mean . . . ?" or "Is this what you are asking?" I
acknowledge and record all of their questions.
I always start
by modeling how to ask questions that can be investigated, and
eliminating or rewording those that can't be investigated easily.
By inviting students into the process of recognizing questions
that can be investigated, I find that I can help them to be better
questioners, do investigations based on their questions, and get
to the content I am responsible for teaching.
After our classroom
explorations with sound, the children generate a number of questions,
many of which overlap in how they relate to the concepts. I have
learned to constrain and refine these questions. I begin by grouping
similar questions. If students ask 12 or 15 questions about a particular
facet of sound, for instance, I do an intermediate step to collect
the questions according to the concepts I know I need to teach.
I work with the children to reword some of the questions, and also
give a lesson on how to sort questions into different groups.
By working with
the children we narrow those 12-15 mixed questions to about 4 or
5 more directed ones. This way, students still have ownership over
the questions they can choose and investigate. In addition, I know
I will be able to draw out the content and make it more meaningful,
and the discussions children have at the end of their investigations
are richer. Although they work on different questions, they discover
many of the same concepts because the questions overlap.
Using this process,
children become more self-reflective when they ask questions. They
know what questions are, which ones will lead them to doing tests,
which might be more like reference questions, and which can easily
be answered with a "yes" or a "no." They also get a feel for which
questions may be too big because we don't have the materials, or
which questions may seem too difficult unless we can change them
Once we have
the questions narrowed down, I give children their investigation
criteria, which include working with a partner or two, choosing
a question to investigate, and creating a plan and a materials
list. The students write down their questions and how they will
do their investigations, so they have a written form of what they
are going to do on that day. Each group has a question, a plan,
and a list of necessary materials.
Doing the investigation
Before I begin
an investigation, I train myself to look as I go through each group
for at least one thing that I can bring to the whole group during
discussion time. For example, I might find three common approaches
for discovering the same idea. I would make a mental note of this
observation and bring it up as a way to start the discussion: "Did
that happen in your group?"
I might say, or "Here's a technique that works well . . ."
do the investigation, I watch as demonstrations of particular concepts
emerge. I use those pieces to ask probing questions during class
discussions. I also use open-ended questions as a way to formatively
assess what the children know while they are working on their investigations.
This serves as a way for me to think about what I need to do for
each child to take his or her own next steps.
I did not always
realize the power of questioning. These days, I see myself as a
guide that helps the student's scaffold, reword, and constrain
their questions, to help move them towards knowing how to do independent
In a classroom
of twenty second-graders, abilities are all different and children
may not be able to understand the same things at the same times.
Now I am able to reformat kit lessons that support both children's
questions and the ability to move toward big ideas. I was not always
sure how to use these kit experiences to connect concepts about
sound for the children, but I predicted that questioning might
help me to find a better way.
I think it is
especially important to model for children their own reflection
and to listen to their statements and help turn them into questions.
I want my students to start to internalize this whole process and
to look at their work in a more critical way. That way, they'll
be able to think about their experiences and their learning, what
they know and what they need to know next.
Wendy Cheong teaches
2nd grade at Jefferson School, San Francisco Unified School District.
to post this issue of Connect granted by Synergy
Learning International, Inc.
San Francisco, CA 94123