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Hotchalk Global

news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Important Questions

When the weather turns warm and the kids next door become tired of what they are doing they turn to neighbors and begin to ask questions. The first question is “what are you doing?” Those who are not teachers would miss this opportunity to ask an expert what kinds of questions would be interesting to look into in science class.

I hate to admit that I miss the kids a bit in the summer. That makes me a teacher through and through. I love the time off from classes to think and dream and do different things. But, I do miss the interaction day to day with the kids from school. Their questions keep my mind active and challenged. I wonder if the incidence of age related memory loss is less in teachers than the rest of the population?

The neighbor kids are a good substitute this time of year as their Mom is about ready to send them to any camp, any school, and day long program just to have some peace. So, when they strike up a conversation with me as I weed my garden it is a good thing all the way around. Each year I ask the same questions.

  1. What did you learn in school this year that you do not want to ever forget?
  2. What great new skills did you pick up? (One neighbor learned how to use a yo yo…lots of science there)
  3. What kinds of questions do you hope you get to look into this year?

It is that last question that holds the most promise for helping my classes next year. I usually have to prime the pump with a question so the kids get thinking. Yesterday I asked “why do rainbows always form an arch? This led to some interesting variations of that same idea.

“Why do rainbows always have the same colors?”
“Do rainbows always have the same colors?”
“Why do airplanes leave trails like clouds in the sky?”
“Why can’t you have rainbows at night? Are they there and you just can’t see them?”

Knowing I am into a vein of great knowledge I jump on the fact that the dog is barking to see if they have any questions about that.

“Do all dogs bark and do they sound the same?”
“Can a Mom dog recognize the bark of one of her pups?”
“Why don’t cats bark?”

Of course this line of questions becomes boring to the kids long before I am finished listening. But, there will be more opportunities for asking these little experts what is interesting and puzzling to them later in the summer. I know they want to know where sweat comes from (a question from an earlier year), how birds know where south is, why hair grows mostly on our head, why only some sunsets are really colorful, what causes thunder, and even how a refrigerator works. Each of these questions would be a great chance to explore some inquiry based science.

Just taking one question gives new life to a classroom investigation. For example, how a refrigerator works leads to some thermodynamics and a few great experiments in pressure and temperature. A good place to start is at the “How Stuff Works Site”.

There are some excellent activities and labs at other sites.

There are also refrigerator science projects using the interesting characteristics of these devices to control variables.

A simple question about how my tomato plants grew so tall could involve a class garden, some good nutrition, perhaps some photosynthesis and even water studies. I am happy with a little nutrition that gets kids eating fresher food and learning how to investigate the calories and nutrients in the foods they eat. It always amazes me that all of that can start and sustain with a simple question.

The idea of starting science lessons with a question lives in the heart of inquiry based science. It actually goes much further. When a student is allowed to ask questions and seek answers the ownership of the work shifts from “my teacher wants me to find this out” to “I want to find out”. That is a powerful shift.

On the wall of my classroom was always a big list of questions. We never could get to all of them but it is often asking the questions that prepares our minds for deeper investigations and more scientific thinking. This year the question board will be on the classroom wiki and also in the class blog. These questions give me a snapshot of what the students are thinking about and noticing. That interest is a great piece of evidence that can and should guide the lessons I structure for the kids.

My neighbor tells me that by simply asking the questions I changed the focus of play for these 5th and 6th graders from games on the console to science. Today that involved the use of ice cube trays and an experiment on how to freeze popsicles the fastest. There is lots of science in that and kids investigating science related topics over the summer can only pay big dividends in the fall.

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