How to Encourage Inquiry

How to Encourage Inquiry

How to Use Questions in Daily Lessons

Before reading how to use questions in daily lessons, you need to understand the why — read my previous post “Questions” before continuing.

Meet the Child

Ask “what do you know about ____? Explain it to me.”

“Much current thinking in cognitive science and curriculum theory focuses on the notion of eliciting children’s conceptions and misconceptions about a topic before they begin to study it. For instance, if teachers want their classes to study evaporation, they should begin by eliciting examples of evaporation from the students and getting them to articulate what they think they know about evaporation. Ignoring this misconception will leave it intact in the child’s mind, and new learning will get layered on top of it without changing the underlying misconceptions.” Mapmaking for Children

Start with Real Books and Real Things

Susan Engel of Williams College did an experiment with two sets of teachers: one group was not given specific guidelines on how to teach a science class, while the other group was “subtly encouraged” to follow a worksheet. The first group of teachers tended to respond with interest and encouragement when students expressed their own ideas or asked questions. The second group said things like, “wait a minute; that’s not on the instructions.” From the results of this study, Engel concluded that “teachers are very susceptible to external influences; their understanding  of the goal of teaching directly affects how they respond when children spontaneously investigate.”

The materials we use (curriculum, textbooks, objects, etc) affect our students directly and indirectly by influencing how we interact with them. This couldn’t be more obvious than in how we address children’s questions.For example, in the article “ Children’s Questions: a Mechanism for Cognitive Development” the authors point out that “…the type of stimulus materials used has an impact on the questions children ask; children are less likely to ask deep conceptual questions when looking at drawings or replicas of objects than when looking at the real thing.” When it comes to teaching materials, less is more. When we simplify education, kids have to ask more and consequently, think more.

Simplifying education and focusing on inquiry skills isn’t a new concept; Charlotte Mason warned us about using textbooks and direct-instruction as the majority of our teaching material. She said,

 “Too much faith is commonly placed in oral lessons and lectures… ‘not exhilarating to any soul’; neither is it exhilarating to have every difficulty explained to weariness, or to have the explanation teased out of one by questions….Oral lessons have their occasional use, and when they are fitly given it is the children who ask the questions. Perhaps it is not wholesome or quite honest for a teacher to pose as a source of all knowledge and to give ‘lovely’ lessons. Such lessons are titillating for the moment, but they give children the minimum of mental labour, and the result is much the same as that left on older persons by the reading of a magazine. (School Education, pp. 226-227, emphasis added)

Pursued properly, a good question also can be an excellent vehicle with which to start a process of inquiry. Investigating an answer to a question need not require a laboratory, special equipment, or money. The goal of asking and answering a question is not necessarily to probe a completely untouched area of science (which is unrealistic for K–12). Rather, it should be a personal quest to resolve a curiosity and grapple with trying to understand the answer. Furthermore, researching one question often results in a further round of questions that dig deeper into a phenomenon.” (The Value of Asking Questions)

How to Teach Inquiry

The second type of thinking that is vital for learning is “divergent thinking.” This thinking requires the student to think of their own questions and generate new ideas. The best way I’ve found to nurture this thinking is by utilizing the Question Formula Technique from The Right Question Institute (RQI). 

This is just a summary of how I personally use technique in my homeschool, so I highly recommend you to visit the RQI website to understand how it works and see it in action. Even better, buy or borrow a copy of Make One Small Change for detailed  instructions and examples of implementing this technique in your home or classroom. 

  1. At the beginning of a lesson or topic, I write down a simple sentence or display a picture/object for the question focus. For example, you could use a statement like “Seeds travel” as the question focus, or display a variety of seeds from your nature collection.
  2. For the next five minutes, ask your child(ren) to brainstorm every question that comes to mind. There are only four simple rules: do not stop to discuss or answer the question, do not judge or evaluate, write down the question exactly as stated, and change any statement into a question. I usually write them down for my Form One age child, but older than that they should write down the questions themselves.
  3. For older children, ask them to label each question as open or closed (discuss the differences and pros and cons of both). Ask them to change a few questions, making them open- or closed. Discuss how the meaning is changed. . I was tempted to skip this step, but my five and seven year old sons really enjoyed this step. Try it out and adjust to your child’s abilities.  
  4. Finally, ask them to pick the  questions they want to pursue and find answers to. We write them on our blackboard, but you can also write them in your child’s goal booklet.These questions can be the starting point for essays, experiments, and further study. Future school lessons should focus on finding answers through observing the real thing or studying books. While we are reading a book or doing an object lesson, my boys will quickly tell me that their question is answered! This is an exciting moment for them. It is ok if you don’t always find the answer; sometimes an unanswered question is the catalyst for great discoveries. 

I can’t overstate this enough: do not jump in and give your child the answers. Let them interact with the books and things and create relationships with them; the best teaching is providing learning materials and then getting out of the way so children can ask their own questions, make observations,  and discover connections/patterns on their own. Help them find their own “treasures of knowledge.” If they seem uninterested or unsure what to look for, ask them questions to direct their attention: “what color would you call that bird’s eye?” “What do you notice?” “What does this story remind you of?” 

“For students, posing their own questions is a first step towards filling their knowledge gaps and resolving puzzlement. The process of asking questions allows them to articulate their current understanding of a topic, to make connections with other ideas, and also to become aware of what they do or do not know. In this regard, student‐generated questions are also an important aspect of both self‐ and peer‐assessment (Black, Harrison, Lee, & Marshall, 2002, p. 14). 

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