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Using Questions to Promote Inquiry

One important use of questioning is to facilitate student thinking about and discussion of science. Asking the right question at the right time can help a student clarify his or her thoughts, recognize a pattern, or overcome a conceptual hurdle. Appropriate questioning can help students understand science not just as a body of information to master but as a way of learning about the natural world. In addition, the questions a teacher asks can become models for students who are learning how to ask their own questions during scientific investigations.

To question effectively, teachers first have to decide which type of question to ask. Different questions have different functions, and certain situations call for different types of questions. Lower level questions ask students to recall and recognize information while higher level questions ask students to analyze information. Teachers draw from a range of questions, including those that ask students to focus or refocus, make comparisons, measure and count, make predictions, draw inferences, process information, apply knowledge to new situations, or to reflect. For example, What surprised you about your data from the simulation? Why do you think your data differs from another group's data?

Deciding which type of question to ask is just the beginning. How teachers phrase time, sequence, and follow-up questions also contributes to their effectiveness. For example, by giving students time to formulate their responses, teachers help them transform superficial comments into deeper answers. Asking a series of carefully structured questions and revisiting earlier questions can lead to new insights. Teachers' responses to the answers their questions provoke can both help students assess their own understanding and communicate the joy of doing science.

Using questions in science classrooms is an ongoing decision-making process. By understanding the function of different types of questions and their appropriateness in certain situations, as well as by making choices about the phrasing, timing, and sequencing of those questions, teachers can craft questions that become powerful tools for promoting inquiry.

(Adapted from WGBH Educational Programming, Science K-6: Investigating Classrooms [Boston, 2000]).