Key Considerations for Asking Questions as a
Field-Based Science Instruction
By Amos Pomp
We do not ask [questions] in a vacuum; what we ask, how, and when are all related.
– Bang et al., 2018
How can field-based science instructors be intentional with the questions we ask students?
As a graduate student and field-based environmental science instructor for 4th-6th graders in Washington State, I ask students questions all the time. Asking questions is an integral part of learning and doing science and is one of the Next Generation Science Standards science and engineering practices. I believe that the questions I pose as an instructor have the power to either disengage or engage student groups in their learning processes. Thus, considering which questions I ask, and when, is a significant and nuanced part of my teaching practice.
Instructor-posed questions are an important, multifaceted part of effective pedagogy. Instructors should ask their students various types of questions and celebrate various types of answers. Instructors may ask questions to elicit students’ prior knowledge, check their understanding, help them figure out where there are gaps in their ideas, and help uncover ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed (Reiser et al., 2017). Instructors may also ask questions to “help students figure out and refine their own questions” (ibid.).
The way in which instructors ask questions and elicit answers is also important. If I only encourage spoken answers to my questions, I may send an implicit message that I only value verbal and vocal participation in my learning environments. If I only praise the ways in which one student’s artwork connects to my prompt, I’m implying that I prioritize some sensemaking over others’. If I only accept scientific names of plants as correct, I’m indicating what kinds of knowledge I deem acceptable.
Reflecting on this non-exhaustive list of reasons for asking questions, as well as the potential implications of how I solicit answers, has led me to be more intentional with the questions I do ask and how I ask them. I don’t just think about what I am asking my students; I also think about why I am asking it—for what purpose. I think about whom I am asking it to or for and what kind of responses I am expecting from my group. How can I engage them in their own sensemaking and synthesis, creative thinking, and science and engineering processes? To help plan for each new group of students I teach, I’ve developed a framework for how I consider the pedagogical purpose of my questions.
Reflecting on My Own Experience
At the beginning of the school year, my grad cohort and I had many discussions about what teaching and learning look like. From our conversations, we agreed on two key points. The first is that to us, successful field-based science instruction looks like guiding students in their own thinking, observing, and investigating. Rather than responding to students’ questions with an easy answer of my own, one of the routines I adapted early on was asking them, “What do you think?” Even when posed informally, asking students what they think and encouraging a genuine answer is a pedagogical move to redistribute power and agency by encouraging them to gather evidence and explain their own reasoning and learning.
The second point we agreed on is that masterful instructors learn from and alongside their students in processes of collaborative sensemaking. At first, I found this process came naturally. Being new to field-based science education in the Pacific Northwest, it was easy for me to respond to a student’s pointing at something and asking what it was or what was happening without giving them an easy answer. “I’m not sure, have you seen something like it before?” I would say, or “tell me what you notice about it and what it’s doing. Can we come up with three possible answers to your question?” Asking these questions positioned my students as experts on their own experiences and encouraged us to work together to learn about our environment.
As the school year has progressed and I’ve became more knowledgeable about the ecosystem I’m teaching in, I’ve noticed two things happening. In moments where I am doing new activities or teaching lessons in new ways, my questions have remained open-ended and genuine, like the above examples.
In other cases, however, I have found myself struggling to maintain nuanced intentionality in my question asking. Sometimes I notice myself asking students answer-seeking, or “known-answer,” questions—questions to which I already know the answer I’m looking for—because I want the group to reach a specific understanding about a topic based on my own knowledge or some third-party definition (Bransford et al., 2000). Other times, I’ll ask the group a question about an activity we just did and receive mostly blank stares in response. In these instances, I am probably asking the wrong questions and discouraging the divergent thinking, diverse forms of engagement, and collaborative sensemaking and synthesis I’m looking for.
Upon reflection, I decided to create a tool to help me make sure I ask students pedagogical questions with the intention they deserve.
Instructor-Posed Questions: A Framework
When thinking about how to intentionally ask a question to a group of students, here are some key considerations I take into account.
Assessing the state of the group
Before asking my students a pedagogical question, I assess the state of the group. This assessment can happen during planning or in the moment. I think about where the students are or will be physically, as well as what is or will be going on, when I plan to ask the question. Perhaps they would still be riled up after an activity, or they might need a snack. Perhaps a group discussion would not add any value to what’s already happened or could possibly even detract from the experience. Perhaps the group needs to hear the question then move to another location before answering to have time to think and discuss casually on the way. If I want the group to engage in some sort of collaborative sense-making, I do my best to ensure that the group is in a place where most of the students will be able to engage in the process in some way.
Allowing for different forms of student engagement
When I plan to ask a group of students a question, I then think about how I want them to answer. I can ask them to answer in written/drawn form, whole-group share-out, in small groups or a partner, just in their own heads, or some other way. I make this decision based on patterns of what I’ve seen work best for similar groups in similar situations in the past.
Once I’ve decided how I want students to answer my question, I find it’s best to give instructions before asking the question. For example, I might say, “You’re going to answer this question in your journal, and you can write, draw, write a poem or song, or even create a dance or found-material sculpture.” Then I ask the question and repeat the ways that students can answer.
Clarifying the goal or purpose of my question
For this section I’ll use an example wherein my goal is for students to think and learn about the role of photosynthesis in a plant’s life and the role plants play in ecosystems.
With my goal in mind, I could ask, “What does photosynthesis mean?” However, I would likely hear one student’s regurgitating a definition from a textbook, which does not necessarily indicate true learning or understanding. Also, if I ask such didactic questions multiple times to the same group, I often end up calling on the same students repeatedly—missing out on quieter voices—because they are the ones comfortable with sharing in such a way.
I would also refrain from asking, “Who can tell me what photosynthesis means?” This wording implies that it’s time for someone to win favor by being the one who can. It’s a challenge to see who can show off their knowledge, and it doesn’t help a group of students explain how photosynthesis works or why it matters.
Additionally, I don’t want to ask my question if I’m looking for a specific answer. I have to be open to students’ explaining photosynthesis in new ways or talking about other ways that plants get energy and contribute to ecosystems.
Asking a question
Instead of the examples above, I could ask my students, “How do plants get energy?” or “How can we describe a plant’s relationship to the sun?” These explanatory questions engage students in more diverse scientific practices than just naming and defining a chemical reaction (Reiser et al., 2017). If I’m having trouble getting students to move toward photosynthesis, I could ask, “What do you think of when you hear the word photosynthesis?” which I still find to elicit more open-ended responses than the original example.
Something else to consider is that if, for example, I’m teaching a group of students who have never been to a harbor like the one I bring them to for a lesson, any questions I ask the group about what role plants might have in the harbor ecosystem will not carry as much meaning for them if they do not first have a shared, relational experience with plants at the harbor (Reiser et al., 2017). If I can first facilitate a time for them to explore and observe plants at the harbor, then asking them about their own thoughts and questions about plants at the harbor will have much more success. I can also ask questions in ways that allow students to bring in past experiences with other beaches or plants in other ecosystems.
I am also aware while teaching that common lines of questioning in schools are rooted in the discursive patterns of white, middle-class, European Americans. One way that I can expand my question-asking practice is encouraging learners to investigate the “likeness between things” to draw in students who engage in more metaphorical learning by exploring analogies with the question, “What is photosynthesis like?” (Bransford et al., 2000). Robin Wall Kimmerer agrees: “asking questions about relations illuminates answers that true-false questions may not” (Bang et al., 2018).
Finally, I could also ask questions that help students evaluate their own learning or the learning process, like “how did you contribute to the group in the photosynthesis investigation?” or “how did that activity go for you?” rather than ones that assess what they learned (Rogoff et al., 2018). I would ask these latter questions to prioritize my goal of exciting students about science learning over ensuring that they learn any specific “facts” or “knowledge.”
Deciding not to ask a question
Sometimes, I move through my framework and decide I don’t need to ask the group a question. Instead, I’ll tell the group some of my own thoughts on the matter, or I might just transition to something else entirely. An example of the latter is that if I’m more interested in having my students explore something other than how photosynthesis works, rather than asking them what they know about photosynthesis, I could simply say, “Photosynthesis, which, for those who might not remember, is how plants create their own energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.”
Asking questions in field-based science education is a nuanced practice. The way instructors ask questions reveals to students both explicitly and implicitly what forms of participation they value, whose knowledge they prioritize, and what kinds of learning they deem acceptable. With a bit of intentionality, however, instructor-posed questions are the key to engaging students in collaborative sensemaking and synthesis, divergent thinking, and science and engineering processes of their own.
My mentors, Renée Comesotti and Dr. Priya Pugh
Bang, M., Marin, A., & Medin, D. (2018). If Indigenous peoples stand with the sciences, will scientists stand with us? Daedalus, 147(2), 148-159.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn (Vol. 11). Washington, DC: National academy press.
Reiser, B. J., Brody, L., Novak, M., Tipton, K., & Adams, L. (2017). Asking questions. Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices (pp. 87-108). NSTA Press, National Science Teachers Association.
Rogoff, B., Callanan, M., Gutiérrez, K. D., & Erickson, F. (2016). The organization of informal learning. Review of Research in Education, 40(1), 356-401.