Questioning To Support Discovery Through Exploration

How can you help students make meaning during exploration? Questioning!

In an NGSS classroom, the goal is for students to discover the content though exploration.  (If you’re not sure what that means, check out these oldies Adopting NGSS Instructional Strategies, Tangible Explore Experiences For The NGSS, and Creating Ah Ha Moments With The 5E Model). But not all explorations are made equal.  There is a John Dewey quote I just love “We do not learn from experience we learn from reflecting on experience.”

When The Meaning Is Lost…

All too often, we engage our students in amazing activities and explorations.  Students complete the work, they have fun, they seem to be learning but when it comes down to it, they don’t walk away with any better understanding than when they started. 

On the other hand, sometimes we present our students with an exploration, and they don’t even know where to begin.  They don’t know what to do with the information provided.  They struggle. They get frustrated. Sometimes it ends in behavior issues, sometimes it ends in quitting.  Either way, no one learns anything here either.

In both examples, the problem is not necessarily in the experience.  The exploration may not be the issue.  Rather, the problem is in the way we have structured the reflection or perhaps, failed to structure the reflection.


Experiences Are Just The Beginning

The experiences we give our students are just a starting point.  Until students make the connections they need to make through a reflective process, they are just activities.  The reflection is what turns a fun lab into a true exploration experience.  The reflection is what leads to REAL learning.

So how can you help students reflect? Where do you begin? 


Questioning Strategies To Support Meaning-Making

I help my students reflect on what’s happening during explore experiences by providing guiding questions, making my own observations, and engaging students in discussions during and after the activity.

First, I provide all students with graphic organizers and analysis questions for every explore activity we do.  I ask students to make observations about what they see.  Sometimes, my request is open-ended.  “Record seven observations about patterns or trends you see in the data.” (I choose seven because it REALLY pushes students to take some risks and look DEEPER into the data they are analyzing!). Other times, I may give more direction: “Record three observations about the ways organisms interact.”  My goal here is to help students begin interacting with the experience (whether it’s a lab, an engineering project, a card sort, or data analysis). 

Then, I ask follow-up questions that help students to start making connections.  These questions are very specific to the content, so it is harder to give general examples. That said, I might ask something like, “If you were to zoom in on _____, what do you think you would see?” Initially, students may not have been thinking about what they are NOT seeing.  My guiding question starts that thought process. A follow up might be something like, “What do you know about temperature and water that might explain what you observed?”

Sometimes, I provide additional information in my analysis questions.  “Warm water is able to hold more salt.  As warm water accumulates salt, how might that affect the density?”  Sometimes this information is new, and sometimes it is a review of what students learned in previous investigations.  Either way, this information can support connection-making and also help students make predictions.  These predictions (or hypotheses even) can lead into additional investigations of students’ design.


Questioning With Hedging Language

I want to point out one thing when I develop my guiding questions, I use a lot of “hedging” language.  “What do you think MIGHT explain?” “What MIGHT happen?” “What COULD connect?”  I want my students to feel comfortable taking risks with their ideas, and using this type of language encourages a degree of “guessing” throwing out ideas that we can discuss.  Maybe their ideas are wrong, but that’s OK in the exploration phase! Through discussion – and even argumentation we can work toward correct understandings.  It’s important, at this point, for students to just engage with the content intellectually, and oftentimes, students are hesitant to do that for fear of failure.


Questioning During Discussion

I wrap up my exploration activities with discussions.  We talk about the questions they answered during the exploration, we reorganize data, we make new observations and connections.  This follow-up is where corrections can be made, relevant content and vocabulary can be introduced, and all of that meaning-making happens and is solidified.  It’s what takes students from the activity-fun to that final step of learning.


Where can you learn more about designing activities that support student exploration and discovery?

Support student discovery is a VITAL part of implementing the NGSS.  If you aren’t doing it, you simply aren’t using the standards as they were intended.  For that reason, we devote a LOT of time in our iExplore Academy professional development program to developing instructional sequences that carry students from exploration to learning.  If you’re looking for more support as you implement the NGSS, let us walk you through creating those cohesive unit storylines that tie your standards together, assessments that evaluate students on all three dimensions, and carefully crafted instruction that fosters student exploration and discovery of the Disciplinary Core Ideas. End the course with a completely self-designed NGSS-aligned unit storyline while earning a certificate of completion from iExploreScience!

If you’re not ready to enroll in our full professional development program, check out the free mini-course – Kickstart AHA: Intro To The NGSS – to get a handle on the basics.  Discover what the NGSS really looks like in the classroom – from changes to your content and the shift to storylines to your three dimensional activities and the integration of exploration and discovery.

Spark Subscription: A Recipe For Developing And Implementing Student Driven Storylines & Curricula

If you are anything like me, transitioning to the NGSS and student-driven storylines can be totally overwhelming.  Teaching is hard as it is – you’re busy keeping up with the “normal” lessons day to day and week to week, plus grading, meetings, IEPs, behavior management, so on and so forth. I get it. Who has the time or energy to figure out all that goes into these new standards and their impact on your curriculum, let alone what it means for your teaching!

Well, I’m happy to say there IS an easier way. You don’t HAVE to muddle through everything, and you definitely don’t have to do it alone!

Imagine feeling confident that the curriculum you designed is actually aligned to the standards, that your units incorporate the three dimensions and engage your students in Science and Engineering Practices that matter. Imagine classes full of students who take ownership of their learning, who thrive on “figuring it out” and “puzzling through it” and come to learn the content through discovery.  Imagine days where you DON’T have to stand in front of the class, battling for their attention, delivering boring lectures and notes, printing worksheet after worksheet, and wasting tons of time on review and reteaching — only to have your students fail to perform anyway. Imagine learning that sticks, and engaging activities (that you may already be doing!) but that lead to true understanding.  It’s not magic, and it doesn’t necessarily come easy, but it IS possible.  

Learn more at the Spark Subscription.