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Did you ask a good question today?

By Anne Stevenson

"Inquisitive minds are the safeguards of our democracy, now and forever." - John Barell

John Barell, in his book Developing More Curious Minds, tells stories of how the adults in his life nurtured curiosity: his mother, who at the close of a day always asked him not "What did you learn at school today?" but rather: "Did you ask a good question today?" His grandfather often began a sentence with the words: "Johnny, have you ever wondered..."

Barell states that the questions of young people are the attainment of the highest thinking skills; questions signal thought processing. As adults, listening to questions and thoughtfully responding and guiding young people to discover their own answers takes time and skill.

Asking questions and defining problems is, in fact, the first practice of the eight practices of science and engineering, as defined in A Framework for K-12 Science Education. The framework identifies the key scientific ideas and practices all students should learn by the end of high school. As adults who work with young people in a wide variety of settings, we can help build this practice, a critical component of scientific literacy.

Most importantly, model the asking of open-ended questions and wondering out loud. Foster an atmosphere in your program that honors the importance of posing questions. Make observations and pose "I wonder..." questions aloud.

Digging deeper, the framework offers progressions for each practice. Use it to consider how we can help young people engage in this practice, regardless of the content area.

In grades K-2, guide young people to:

  • Ask questions based on observations to find more information about the natural and/or designed world(s).
  • Ask and/or identify questions that can be answered by an investigation.
  • Define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.

With 3rd-5th graders:

  • Ask questions about what would happen if a variable is changed.
  • Identify scientific (testable) and non-scientific (non-testable) questions.
  • Ask questions that can be investigated and predict reasonable outcomes based on patterns, such as cause and effect relationships.

With 6th-8th graders:

  • Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, models, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.
  • Ask questions to determine relationships between independent and dependent variables and relationships in models.
  • Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of your program setting with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis.

For additional detail, as well as progressions for 9-12th grade, refer to the practice matrix.

While this is just a quick trek into the first of the eight practices, I hope you will be curious to discover more about building the practices into your programming! Try this: Think of a favorite project or activity in your setting (maybe it's the tried and true volcano experiment, a bridge-building challenge, a cooking activity, or an outdoor exploration). What are one or two ideas you have for encouraging young people to ask and explore their own questions? What's an "I wonder..." question you have about this project? What might you investigate?

I'd love to hear your ideas for implementing this first practice in your program!

Albert Einstein would remind us: "The important thing is not to stop questioning."

Anne Stevenson, Extension educator and Extension professor

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  1. I love this idea Anne! One of the things that I do as a parent is to ask my girls "What do you think will happen if..." I love the idea of adding the question "Have you ever wondered..." It seems even more opened ended than my question. I also love how it informally encourage independent thinking.
    When modifying curriculum I think that this technique could be used to frame the session while allowing the participants to share their knowledge, questions or thoughts about the activity.
    Thanks for the thoughts Anne. I'll put this idea in my toolbox!

  2. Mark,
    Thanks for starting the discussion and sharing the way you have used questioning!
    I agree that there are some great ways to look at curriculum and frame the activity better with questions. Your question of What do you think will happen if... can take the exploration to variables, to cause and effect, and many other places. Do you think it would be helpful to offer a list of some of the questions that volunteers could use as they guide the engineering design projects?
    Thanks for your post!


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