“Your questions are more important than your answers.”
– Fred Rogers
Science is more than a collection of facts and figures, but is a way of looking at the world and investigating what makes it work. The practice of science requires inquiry skills and the ability to understand and carry out the scientific process. Problem solving in this way, using a set of keen observational skills to gain a better understanding of the world, requires asking good questions. In fact, most scientific investigations begin with a question generated from experience. We may take it for granted that children will be able to easily ask the right questions to get the answers they need, but this is a skill that requires some cultivating. Question posing, a technique often used by classroom teachers, is essential to the process of scientific inquiry. This is such an important part of teaching that helping students learn to create good questions is required by the National Science Education Standards. Students need this skill, as it helps them to better understand the central role of questions in science, as well as to become better inquirers. Questions promote curiosity and a good question can generate many more. Helping children to ask good questions not only requires them to look more closely at the world around them, but gets them excited about finding the answers.
So what is a good question? A good question is one that can be investigated. It’s not a closed-ended question with a “yes” or “no” answer, but rather one that requires an explanation. A good question also needs to be narrow enough that it is answerable. While asking broad questions is a great way to generate excitement for a topic, narrowing the focus is helpful. Finally, good questions are related to natural phenomena; in fact, the best questions come after experiencing something interesting – a lightening strike, a chemical reaction, a flower blooming.
There are three types of good questions: definition, experimental and observational. Definition questions are questions with pre-determined answers, such as “what is a flower?” or “what is lightening?”. These answers have definitions associated with them and can be looked up in a resource. However, these are common questions that children ask and can serve to build up a child’s knowledge base about a topic. These type of questions often lead to the other types, as learning more often only serves to generate more questions. Experimental questions explore how things relate to each other and usually are answerable through experimentation. Observational questions do just that – use observation as a way to answer them. These types of questions help children to understand patterns in nature, animal behavior, phase changes, etc. All of these types of questions are in invitation to inquiry, helping children to develop a richer understanding of the world around them.
The ability to use and interpret knowledge critically and thoughtfully is important both in the classroom and in life. A good foundation of observation skills and the ability to ask the right questions will serve children both in science and in other subjects, such as language arts. After all, critical thinking is just as relevant to literature as it is to science and problem solving is not the sole purview of math. These skills may also spark a passion for life-long learning, creating future astronomers or gardeners. As a parent, teaching these skills to your child is important. However, it may seem daunting to think about teaching science skills, especially if you don’t have a strong science background yourself. Not to worry, it is much easier than it sounds! In fact, one of the best ways to work on the skill of asking good questions is simply spending time outside. Nature has so many changing elements and moving parts that it is sure to get any child excited about observing and asking questions. Whether it is the backyard or local green space, spending time outside will engage your family in the natural world.
However, while a nature hike is a fine way to get outside, it can sometimes feel like a forced march to kids, especially when they are not used to that activity. Being outside can also make children uncomfortable if it is rainy or cold, which makes them pretty unlikely to enjoy themselves or to learn very much. If this is new to your family, playing games, gardening, and walking the dog are just as effective to get everyone outside as intentionally planning time to practice science. Eventually a bird or some oddly-shaped clouds will catch someone’s eye and organically lead to observation and asking questions. If it is too cold to go outside, nature can be found indoors as well; making observations out the window or even just watching some seeds grow are simple activities that will have a big impact. Simply put, research shows that just being outside with your children will cause their cognitive abilities to bloom.
While nature is pretty engaging by itself, there are strategies that you can use to get your children excited about being outside and asking great questions. Even better, these strategies go to work in minutes!
1. Encourage observation: Observation is how people learn. It involves using the senses to gain a deeper understanding of the world; start sniffing, feeling and looking closely at everything around you. Pick things up and see what noises they make. Taste if you think its appropriate. As long as you use some common sense about safety, you will have a great time observing your way through your yard.
2. Be mad scientists: Help your child answer questions by taking the next step in the scientific process – an experiment! Experiments don’t have to take place in a lab; they can happen on your sidewalk or in your kitchen. If you child asks a question that can be answered by simple science modeling, go for it! See what happens when you crack an egg on the sidewalk or put out some crackers for the ants. These easy experiments are often so fun that you just might get excited about them, too!
3. Ask open-ended questions to encourage observation: Open-ended questions are wonderful tools that promote creative thought and spark curiosity. While a question like, “What color is this leaf” evokes a one-word answer, “Tell me about this leaf” encourages a child to observe and describe. There is no right or wrong answer and can often give parents a window into what their child is thinking. You will be amazed about how excited your child will get when you ask for their opinions and ideas.
4. Model good behavior: Your child will be much more inclined to get on the ground and look through his magnifying lens if you are doing the same. Older children in particular will take note if you ask them to do things that you have no interest in, so get dirty with your kids! While it may start off as modeling, you may soon find yourself pretty excited about what you find.
Remember, it’s the process not the product, so just have some fun outside and see what happens. You will be growing scientific minds right before your eyes!
To learn more about how we teach observation skills through nature at Phipps, check out this post.
Read more about the importance of observation here.
The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.