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The Inquiry, Inquiry: Students' Questions Now What?

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Part of constructivism is puzzling, pondering and questioning, so it is little wonder that questions are central to inquiry pedagogy. A common assumed expectation of inquiry learning is to elicit questions from students and then guide students to find the answers. This is something I have grappled with for years. In schools all over the world there are wonder walls full of questions. If you ask the teachers how they incorporated them into their inquiry they often struggle to give answers. Some can - don't get me wrong - but a significant percentage of us find this tricky. I struggle just the same. But what if we didn't have to help them find the answers? 

Students are often not interested in getting answers to their questions!

One of the most enlightening books I've read about this subject  is Primary Science Taking the Plunge by Shiela Jelly and others. If you attend the Institute for Inquiry this is a book they ask you to read. In chapter 4, Jelly (what a great name for a primary science author), suggests that there are many reasons children ask questions and it is not necessarily an answer they are looking for. According to Jelly, children  ask questions to show us they are interested, to get our attention, to display their intellect and to provoke us to think! Sometimes they want the answer but more often than not they are simply enjoying the act of inquiry rather than seeking the solution. Many students' questions we couldn't help them answer even if we wanted to!

Jelly goes on to explain that most of the questions children ask are unproductive: "Who made God?" "Why is the sky blue?" "How does a computer work?" Many of these questions we don't know the answers to ourselves. Others we could answer but our explanations would be far too complex and inaccessible for students. We could send them to Google, but there too they couldn't understand the answer."Who made God?" doesn't even have an answer!

Our role as inquiry teachers is to encourage the sort of thinking which facilitates our students to construct meaning. It seems to me that there is little point trying to answer these difficult questions or devising complex investigations to find answers which our students would struggle to get their heads around.

Turn questions and curiosity into something investigable!

Jelly suggests we to honor the students' interests "What an interesting question!" We don't try to answer it, instead we turn their questions, actions or statements into something investigable. So, if a child notes "Look at those snail's eyes!" we might reply. "Are you sure they are eyes? Can snails see? How could we test to find out?". If a child asks "Why are plants green?" we might reply "I'm not sure, - I think it has something to do with light. Are all parts of a plant green? What about the inside? Do you think plants would stay green if we fed them red things? How could we find out?" This idea of turning questions into something productive (which challenges a child to make choices and think) is hands on, practical, motivating and builds inquiry skills and dispositions. Inquiry cycles used as a planning tool over the course of a unit do not seem practical, or motivating, nor do they seem build inquiry skills and dispositions any more than just using the language would. 

Another Perspective: the THINQ Approach

For another perspective and method on generating and categorizing student questions check out the THINQ approach: Explore the THINQ blog posts below:

What do you think?

Christopher Frost

whole school Deputy Head

Tokyo International School

Twitter @frostchrissy

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