“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 5: Questions are Compasses

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

compassillustrationThe more things are spoken about,
The less of their truth remains . . . .

– Nanrei Kobori

O2ur words, leaves falling from trees, in their numbers can obscure the realities they describe. Writing a clear, succinct inquiry question is not an easy thing to do, but can become relatively easy with practice. We can only think as clearly as how well we use the language we think with, can only travel as far as our thoughts will carry us. Clean inquiry questions facilitate investigative designs; cluttered questions do not. Our job now is to use our recent outdoor experiences and our facility with language to write a clean, clear, succinct, inquiry question. That done, we can assess it.

If you took me up on my suggestion, this week you wrote at least four inquiry questions around what you observed during your casual observation, and attempted to assess them. We’re going to work with those and the two questions I asked and use what we know about them to query your questions. Then we’ll use one of them to design an investigation.

Hopefully, we’ll turn yours into questions that you could ask your students, and which would lead them to make the observations necessary to answer them. To do that, you simply need to make your questions clear enough that they tell you what to do to find an answer to them. Good questions are interesting to the asker, simple and straightforward, answerable and practical, and quantifiable (measurable).
(You may have noticed that I am using various criteria to describe and assess inquiry questions. If you ask around, you’ll find many ways to assess them, each reflecting a different aspect of inquiry. These assessments aren’t graven in stone. Get to know as many as you can, and you’ll find a handful will make great sense to you. Use them. In time, you’ll add others as they begin to make better sense. We’re all on a journey, traveling at our own pace, but moving toward the same destination.)

Pull out your inquiry questions. Choose one you’d most like to answer. This is the inquiry question we’ll start with. Let’s assess it. Your question should be interesting to you, simply stated, answerable by making observations, and doable. Notice that I’ve substituted doable for quantifiable. I’ve decided to mentally include quantifiable in observations. The main point is that questions have to have a sharp focus that creates a picture in your mind, that tells you what to do, and that you can actually do what it tells you. In your own mind, sort out three or four descriptors to use to assess your questions. I’ll use the four I stated earlier for the moment. Let’s use them one at a time to assess my two questions, then yours.

Interesting to you. You’re not likely to learn much from seeking an answer to a question which is uninteresting. Nor are you likely to invest enough in it to bring the necessary care and attention to detail that the work demands. If you’re a student, investigating the question may not drive you into your textbooks for needed information. Assign your question’s interest to you on a scale of 1-3, and write down, or at least think about your reason for this assessment.
(Something to think about: “How” and “why” questions – some questions are too large for a single inquiry. They may tell you what you want to know, but are too general to focus a single investigation upon. They usually have other questions ‘embedded’ within them. For instance, if you ask, “How do leaves on the bottom of a pond affect dissolved oxygen in the water,” you need to know where leaves are and are not, what the concentration of dissolved oxygen is where there are and aren’t leaves, what processes are entrained by leaves when they fall into the water, which of these processes use or produce oxygen, and so forth. Any one of these ‘embedded’ questions can be made the subject of an inquiry. Taken together, their answers may begin to answer the larger question.).

Simply Stated. If your question is complex, it may represent more than one question. Other questions are embedded within it, much like bricks in a sidewalk. ‘Why’ questions fall into this category. Asking why cottonwoods grow on stream banks does not suggest observations to make. Or, the question may contain so many components that it will be cumbersome to design an investigation around. For example, What determines how far from the water’s edge cottonwood trees grow, depth of the water, depth of the water table, growth rate of cottonwoods, soil types at various distances from the water’s edge, or the height of adult trees? The best questions are simple sentences like, “Where do birds perch,” or, “What kinds of macroinvertebrates inhabit rocky bottoms?” Again, assess your question on a scale of 1-3 and know your reason.

Answerable by Making Observations. You should be able to answer your question by observing its subject, and measuring or counting something about it. If your question is about what type of bottom macroinvertebrates ‘like,’ then you would have to ask them how they like rocks, mud, decaying leaves, and so forth. Would you be able to tally and count their responses? (You could ask about how many are present in each kind of bottom, and make an inference about preference.) Score your question and know why.

Doable. If your question involves the subject in the future, then you won’t be able to make an observation today. For instance, “How many of these salmon eggs will hatch in the spring?” is an inquiry question that you couldn’t make an observation upon today. If you need a room full of equipment to make the observation, or need to observe over a period of weeks, but only have one day, answering the question may not be doable. Assess your question and know why.

Add your scores and divide by 4. This number, your overall score, should be very close to 3. Now what? What does your assessment tell you about your inquiry question? Is it a good question for you to ask, or should you make some changes to it? If your Overall Score is less than 3, then go back to the question and modify it based on the assessment criterion that you scored lowest on. Or, you may have to abandon it for now.

Rework/rethink. If you edited your question, then re-write it. Make notes so that you won’t forget what you were thinking as you rewrote it. (This is a good thing to remember when your students are experiencing the same thing. These thoughts are important, and are generally lost if not preserved in writing.) If this question won’t work, go to one of the others you wrote, find one you think might work, and assess it. This may take time, but the learnings are invaluable.

Congratulations! You’ve just completed the most difficult part of the inquiry process. While it may not seem so, this is the piece that engages you (and your students) in active critical thinking. Pay attention to your students when they are framing inquiry questions. The difficulty they encounter and frustration they feel is what we all experience when we do more than simply memorize more facts. Like anything else we ask our brains to do, the process becomes easier with practice.

Here’s my assessment of my two questions.

Do Fox Sparrows spend more time in the upper or lower branches of trees?
• Interesting to me: 3. I’m intrigued by the idea of birds partitioning trees, so this is right down my alley.
• Simply stated: 2. A better sentence might be, Where in trees do Fox Sparrows spend most time? I’m ambivalent, though, because the question, as stated, tells me precisely where to look.
• Answerable by making observations: 3. I listen and look and write down where they are. Done deal.
• Doable: 3. I have an hour. I’ll do it.

So, I tweak my question and I’m ready. A nice outcome of this is that my question tells me what to do; how to design my investigation.

What causes Fox Sparrows to fly south in winter?
• Interesting to me: 3. I’ve always wondered why birds fly south.
• Simply stated: 2. I think it’s almost a succinct sentence. I might try tweaking it.
• Answerable by making observations: 1. I can’t think of all the things that cause birds to fly south in winter. I could probably come up with a short list, but I don’t know if I have the capacity to investigate them.
• Doable: 1. I don’t have the lab I’d need to do the behavioral and physiological studies, nor the time to make detailed field observations here and enroute south. I give up!

So, I have a question, but its assessment score is low. What does it tell me to do. Simple. I either drop it, or find one of the inquiry questions embedded in it to answer. I think I’m beginning to appreciate succinct questions.

I’ve got a question, the first one I wrote, and now I need to design an investigation to answer it. My question tells me what to do, so I’ll list the steps it will take in the order that I’ll do them. Pretty straightforward. From here on out, the job is relatively easy, I just complete the work, one step at a time. The next time we meet, we’ll write the investigation’s design, talk a little about collecting data, and what we do with the data once we’ve collected it. In the meanwhile, choose your best question and assess it. Sounds a little hoaky, but if you’ve never done this work, it will be time well spent.


This is the fifth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,  and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here.