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I remember playing twenty questions in my classroom. I would select an animal, location, current event or science concept. The students would listen to the rules then begin asking me questions. As I answered the questions they would think through my answers and eliminate some possibilities and hone in on those that the evidence pointed to. They had to carefully think through their questions.
This is good thinking skills training. We often ask questions and guide kids towards a goal with confirmatory evidence. We seldom push them to look at the other side of the coin, what can I eliminate with the evidence. This game helps them do just that. It also helps them learn to ask concise and more specific questions. There is a great web site from Disney that is a good start for this as the site plays the part of the teacher for you.
There is a popular variant of the game called “animal, vegetable or mineral” in which the game host declares at the start which one of those three categories includes their item. The idea of getting kids to look at characteristics of animals and plants or science phenomenon is powerful. The adjectives that help scientists communicate subtle variations are often not part of a student’s vocabulary. Striations in rocks, magnitude in earthquakes, and even density can be foreign terms. What twenty questions does, is open the world of science terminology to the students as they find that using one question about the magnitude can zero in their search. There is a good glossary of terms at this site.
So, today I decided to try the 20 questions with my students online to see what they knew about a specific kind of reaction, decomposition.
We began the session with the information that I was thinking of a concept from the current unit of study (types of reactions). The first question was, is it a reaction involving a gas? Not a really good question as the answer has to be that it could be but does not have to be. The next student was more focused. She asked, “Are the reactants in this reaction more complex than the products?” Wow, this is really a pretty good question as the answer is yes and the arrows are beginning to point to decomposition. This student’s question tells me a lot about what she understands. She is focused not only on the title, decomposition but on what that means. She could have easily asked if the reaction was decomposition but she did not. When I asked her why she said she did not think she was allowed to use the names of the kinds of reactions. That led me to modify the game to include just that rule. Asking the students to describe rather than name was a huge leap forward.
In future games I will allow the students to use the terms but also ask them to explain what they mean by the term in the question. This should help give more specific evidence of understanding. This is a simple game with so much potential. Perhaps this is the “sponge” activity many will use for those crazy days just before spring break.