by Jude Curtain

The sun was shining. There was just a hint of fall in the September air. Twenty three fourth graders were hunched over their white dishpans, excitedly sorting through their samples of forest litter. So began a series of lessons designed to guide students in generating questions, creating investigations, and ultimately finding answers.

Lesson #1: Noticing Details
My experience has been that children need training to be good observers. My first lesson engaged students in examining a container of forest litter, sorting all the things they discovered in their samples, and recording each item in their science journals.

Lesson #2: Open vs. Closed Questions
We defined closed questions as those that had a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Open questions were those that required an explanatory answer. Examples of both types of questions were generated first by me, then by the students in a class discussion.

Lesson #3: Creating Questions About Our Forest Litter Samples
Applying what they had learned about open and closed questions, students began lists of forest litter questions for which they wanted to know the answer. After the lists were completed, students were asked to contribute their favorite question to the class. A partial list of favorite questions included the following:
• I wonder if roots of the same plant look the same when the plant grows in different areas?
• Do bugs prefer rotted wood?
• Why is rotted wood soft?
• Do worms prefer damp soil?
• How many different kinds of moss grow in our schoolyard?

Lesson #4:  Sorting Questions and Creating an Investigation
As a group, our class addressed each question, trying to determine how we could find the answer. It became apparent that there were basically three types of questions: questions you could answer by doing some book research; those you could answer by doing an experiment or investigation; and questions one could not easily answer. We discussed the point that, while all question were interesting, the ones we would focus on were questions answerable by investigation. Students thought that comparative questions would best suit our focus, while “why?” questions were least suited to being answered by investigation. As a class, students created an actual investigation designed to answer one of the favorite questions. Through the democratic process, we chose an investigation about whether earthworms prefer damp or dry soil.

Lesson #5: Conducting the Investigation
Working in six research teams, students devised a common method, conducted their investigation, then shared results for replication. Based on their results, students formed their own conclusions about their investigation.

Lesson #6: Expanding the Arena for Questioning
once the students had practice in the art of crafting an investigation on a given topic, the entire schoolyard was fair game for generating questions. Students went on a tour of the schoolyard, notebooks and pencils in hand, given the task of generating questions, emphasizing those questions which could be answered through investigation. Students were encouraged to vice their questions aloud, since that seemed to stimulate questions from other students.

Lesson #7: Creating a Second Investigation
Once again, students were asked to contribute their favorite questions. We discussed which ones could be answered by conducting an investigation and again, we selected one question and crafted another investigation as an entire class.

Lesson #8: Independent Practice: Creating an Investigation as an Assessment
As a way of assessing student achievement, students were asked to create their own investigation based on one of the questions that had been contributed. Their charge was to:
1. State the question
2. State the hypotheses, including the null hypothesis.
3. Make a prediction.
4. List the steps to their investigation.

The results were outstanding! Students definitely understood the process of creating an investigation. It was exciting to give students such an independent task and see them create appropriate questions on their own. The process of developing questioning techniques is a lengthy one, but my experience has been that this progression of lessons leads to students’ deeper understanding of the process of inquiry science.

Jude Curtain is a 4th grade teacher at Noxon Road School in Poughkeepsie, New York. This article first appeared in The Best of CLEARING, Volume V.