Developing an Environment to Encourage Questioning

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is a Biology Teacher in San Diego County. He is working to understand how he can improve the student experience for all students at his high school. Follow him on Twitter at @CG_Bioteach


encourage questioningIn my continuing attempt to build a more personalized learning environment in my classroom, I am attempting to find better ways to create an environment which develops student wondering and questioning.

Reflecting back to the beginning of the school year, students found the abrupt shift from a more traditional classroom to a student-centered class quite stressful. One student began wearing a “Hello! My name is…” sticker with the statement, “I have the right to be lectured at!”

In hindsight, the stress was (of course!) due more to my lack of creating an environment that encouraged wondering and questioning than anything the students did do.  Therefore, next year I need to generate an environment in which students feel more comfortable to immerse themselves in challenges and then act upon their formulated inquiries. How can I accomplish this?  Here are my thoughts as I attempt to answer this question.

Provide Opportunities to Engage

I know that requiring students to develop questions in order to generate a more student centered learning pathway is a foreign idea.  In order to help students, I need to provide them with opportunities to engage with challenges that stimulate their minds to naturally question what is happening.  To achieve this most effectively, students need to engage in messy problems that are meaningful to them and yet have no one, clear answer.

Help Students Understand Engagement

I know that many successful students learned the “game of school” in which compliance is rewarded.  Therefore, students need to learn what it means to be engaged, self-directed learners. As the work of Allison Zmuda and Robyn Jackson indicates, we need to help students understand how to develop specific keys to engagement:

  • Clarity, what they are aiming to learn and achieve
  • Context, why their work is important
  • Culture, what audience is interested in their efforts and what they are learning
  • Challenge, how their efforts are helping them to reach identified goals (or not!)

Provide Feedback

Since students are unfamiliar with taking a hand in developing their own learning pathway, students need feedback from teachers, peers, and authentic audiences to understand what are productive efforts and what are unhelpful or even destructive efforts to build their questioning skills.

Giving Personalized Learning a Try

From these ideas, I decided to try something different to start the Genetics Unit. My hope was to develop a methodology which would engage students in formulating questions while building on small successes to increase their skill set and confidence. In this scenario, I set the content expectations and the task.

A guiding question asked, “To what extent can people use an understanding of genetics to affect the traits of a population of organisms?”

In order to attempt to answer this question, students collaborated to create a breeding plan to obtain dogs with a specified set of traits. They were provided a hypothetical, original breeding stock and information about resulting traits from the breeding of dogs with certain traits. Rather than listing directions, the instructions provided guidelines. The teams were only required to list the steps of their developed plan and justify why each step would lead them closer to the final goal using their understanding of genetics. While the set-up is almost exclusively teacher-driven, students recognize the clarity, the context, the hypothetical audience and will be able to examine their progress as they create their plan to achieve the expectations.

In order to help students begin asking questions, the first two traits followed a simple genetic pattern that they had learned in seventh grade and again in ninth or tenth grade. Quickly, students recognized the patterns and described how certain traits could be obtained. However, the third trait students were to take into account followed a more complex genetic pattern which students have never studied. This shift from a common pattern spurred students to begin asking questions:

  • “Why is this trait different?”
  • “What makes this trait different?”
  • “How would we test this trait to find out more?”
  • “What if we tried …?”

The questions led to students defining ways of testing ideas and collecting evidence to support or refute them. The struggle seen in the students became obvious. In years past I would have simply led them to potential answers; however, I now recognize that their engagement in the productive struggle resulted in deeper learning. When someone made a breakthrough, they intently listened to their peers’ learning. This form of feedback led them to new thoughts, new ideas and new tests. By the end of the two hour class, each team had come up with multiple solutions they believed could solve the problem of the third trait.

Overall, I was genuinely happy with the level of questioning and collaboration. The fact that they had to justify their steps also generated discussion that led to questioning. I repeatedly heard students asking why certain steps were necessary followed by an analysis of why they were or were not. The discussions, revolving around students’ questions, genuinely led them to a much deeper understanding than could ever have been obtained in a lecture or worksheet based classroom.

What methodology do you use to help students become better inquirers and self-directed learners? Please leave your ideas in the comments section below.

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