ARCHIVED—Building Question-Asking Capacity
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A question is not an inquiry. To build an inquiry-based project students need a substantial amount of knowledge in order to frame inquiry questions in a way that will be useful to them and others.
There is an inevitable tension between ordinary knowledge of the world and the sort of knowledge that goes with disciplined study says Shirley Turner. On the one hand, students don't really know something until they can express themselves using language and concepts that are familiar to them. On the other hand, the concepts and language they currently possess are probably not adequate to the job.
At the same time, there is a peer pressure that begins building in high school—particularly in grades 9 and 10—that says it's not cool to be in school. In some cases, this peer pressure can shut down kids from asking questions at all, says Turner. If they stop, they will also stop developing the communications skills they need to ask and share information with their teacher and their peers.
A key element to drawing out student questions is to build the base of information they have and then observe how they react to the things they are learning. For example, when Steven Van Zoost's class was recently studying a novel, he took a quote he admired from it and placed on his door. The quote read, "A society can have no success if its women are not educated." Curious to see how students responded, he asked them what they thought as they left the class one day.
All the girls unequivocally and unhesitatingly said the agreed. The boys all asked for further clarification before committing themselves to answer: What do you mean by success? How much education? That told him that there was something of interest to explore. In order to give the students some more background—some content to build their ideas around—he next assigned the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns because it dealt with women's role in Afghan society. (See, "Matching Personal Quests with Curriculum Objectives.")
To begin an inquiry, students also need to acquire the language and concepts to express questions in a way that will feed into a research project, says Turner. For example, one of her chemistry students—intrigued that margarine never seems to go bad—put some in his garden and found that bugs weren't interested in eating it. "Now, that has the potential to be an interesting inquiry," says Turner. "Why did that happen?" Moreover, what exactly happened?
Before proceeding with an inquiry that will be useful to them, the student needs to acquire more knowledge. They need to learn how to ask the question in a scientific way. Scientists don't talk about food going bad so much as they talk about chemical and biological processes that have or have not taken place. (See, "Talking the Talk the Way Real Scientists Do.")
Both Van Zoost and Turner agree that once teachers have connected a student's interests with the discipline they could simply stop there, because that alone is worth doing. But, of course, more can be done. Turner has devised learning practices that help students become more comfortable with using concepts and vocabulary appropriate to a discipline to express their curiosity. Van Zoost sometimes uses students' inquiries as a way to develop a student-led curriculum.