“How do I get my students to ask better questions?” I’d wonder to myself.
Imagine my chagrin when I realized that the answer, friends, is to, well… are you ready for this? I needed to actually teach them how to ask questions and then actually practice asking questions!
Oh. Yeah. Of course. If we never ever teach students to ask questions and never ever practice asking questions, they’re not going to be great at asking questions!
Enter a model of instruction known as Inquiry Training. It comes from Richard Suchman. I learned about it from my friend, Dr. Paige (whose dissertation I wrote about here).
Now, if the name “Inquiry Training” wasn’t enough of a hint, the main feature of this model is to, yep, train kids to inquire!
Start With A Puzzlement
If you’re reading through this series about models of instruction, you’ll start noting a pattern. We begin with a puzzlement — a curiosity-provoking image or movie or piece of information. This is where the idea for my Puzzlements mailer came from many years ago – gathering intriguing starting points for lessons.
So, the steps for an Inquiry Training lesson are:
- Begin by purposefully puzzling the students with an image/video/text.
- They ask yes/no questions.
- Eventually, my answers to those questions will lead to hypotheses.
- Then, hopefully, one of those hypotheses will be correct!
If you think of this as a more structured version of 20 Questions, you’re not far off.
Start With A Box
Now, Paige told me that she would use an item in a box as the puzzlement for her first time using Inquiry Training with students. Just put an object related to your lesson into a box. She demonstrated with a ruler, which would lead into a unit about measurement.
Now, the reason you want to start simple is that:
- Kids tend to be surprisingly bad at asking good yes/no questions.
- Kids want to jump to hypotheses or, more accurately, random guesses.
So, you need to demonstrate that some yes/no questions are more helpful than others.
No Wild Guessing
For example, “Is it an iguana!?!?!?!” is a very bad first question. While it is a yes/no question, it’s way too specific. It doesn’t give us any information other than that, no, it’s not an iguana.
In fact, this question is really a premature hypothesis. We have to teach kids not to randomly guess, but rather to use questions to narrow down the possibilities.
See, my students were always rewarded to get the right answer quickly, so they wanted to start trying to get the answer. With Inquiry Training, we’re learning to think in a different way. We want to ask helpful questions, not make random guesses.
Practice contrasting with limited vs helpful questions:
- “Is it an iguana?” vs “Is it a living thing?”
- “Is it a ninja sword?” vs “Is it sharp?”
- “Is it a Krispy Kreme donut?” vs “Is it food?”
Even if you’re doing this with older students, you’ll need to work on asking good questions. I found it fascinating that this was such a weakness with my classes. It tells you a lot about what we’ve taught kids to value at school, right?
Write the Questions and Answers Down
You (or an assistant) will need to jot down students’ questions as well as the yes/no. This should be visible to all students. Otherwise, you’ll keep getting repeat questions.
Here’s a sample sequence
- Not a living thing
- Is a tool
- Is not metal
- Not sharp
- It is plastic
This helps give kids “think breaks” too. Sometimes, when they’re stuck, they need to pause, take a deep breath, and just look at the findings for a moment. Then, a-ha, someone will take the questions in a new direction.
Ready for Hypotheses?
Once you, as the facilitator, start to sense that kids are getting close, you can open the door for hypotheses.
Ok, students, if you think you have an idea about what’s going on here, we can now share your hypotheses.
Kids can frame it like this, “I think it’s a compass.”
Then, do not confirm or deny the hypothesis yet! Just write it down. Ask if there are other hypotheses.
Eventually, you can reveal that, yes, Gina’s hypothesis was correct. The item in the box was a ruler!
Debrief The Questions
Now, I’d recommend reviewing the question sequence, which you wrote down on the board. I love to ask things like:
- “Which question had the biggest impact and moved us towards the right hypothesis?”
- “Which question led us astray the most?”
- “Which question now seems the silliest?”
This helps reinforce the purpose of an Inquiry Training lesson: to get better at thinking through yes/no questions. If you do this several times, kids will get better at asking questions. It works!
Video as Puzzlements
Inquiry Training works great with videos as the puzzlement. Be careful to remove any narration (just mute the video) and restrict what students get to see. You don’t want them to have too much information or you’ll douse their curiosity.
Imagine pausing this video right at 1 minute 5 seconds.
Go through the yes/no questions. Get potential hypotheses. Then, play the final part of the video. So powerful!
This technique is perfect for science demonstrations. You can show a surprising/puzzling moment in a science video. Pause at the right moment. Run the Inquiry Training exercise. Show the rest of the video.
As the facilitator, you will need to practice finding the best moments to show and when to pause. This will make a dramatic difference in how mysterious the puzzlement is. Not enough information and kids won’t really care. Too much information and they won’t need to be curious. It takes practice!
A Single Image
You can run an Inquiry Training lesson with a single image as well. I grabbed this graph from Dan Meyer and tried it with kids/adults. I also hid the label at the top of the graph, which gives away a key piece of information away. It’s fascinating to see the kinds of yes/no questions people begin to ask as they try to make sense of this graph.
A Gold Medal Olympic Ice Hockey game took place on Feb 28th. The spikes line up with the end of the three periods and the overtime. Yes, these are bathroom breaks.
A Piece of Text: History
You can use a paragraph of text as your puzzlement. I actually think this can be the most powerful, especially for historic events or literature, where we don’t necessarily have images or video.
One night, as many as 130 men dressed up in costumes and secretly boarded three ships. Three hours later, they had emptied 342 chests of cargo into the water. That wasted cargo would have been worth $1,700,000 today. Some celebrated these men as heroes.
What yes/no questions might you ask to begin making sense of this paragraph? Now, perhaps this situation is obvious to you, but imagine that you are a child facing this paragraph without knowing what’s going on. You only have yes/no questions. Where would you begin? It gets your brain sweating, right?
Now the goal isn’t necessarily for students to “guess the answer,” but rather to get them engaged and eager for more information. A lesson about The Boston Tea party which follows this exercise will feel quite different from a typical, “Now I will tell you about The Boston Tea Party” lesson.
You could write a mysterious paragraph setting up a unit or lesson about:
- The dust bowl and the movement west
- The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
- Mike Yell did the Trail of Tears for us
A Piece of Text: Literature
Are you preparing to read To Kill A Mockingbird? What if you opened with this paragraph and ran an Inquiry Training exercise:
“If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time… it’s because he wants to stay inside.”
What yes/no questions would you ask when faced with this situation with no prior knowledge of the text? Again, it’s not about “guessing the answer”, it’s about learning to ask the right questions to make some sense of an ambiguous situation. I’m not going to give away the plot, but I am going to get kids eagerly waiting to find out what the heck a Boo Radley is and why it’s shut up in a house!
Working with young kids? My pal Paige used this page from Knuffle Bunny to get kids excited to find out what the heck’s going on!?
Students asked yes/no questions to try to resolve some of the mystery. Then they read the book.
⚠️ Students Need To Know Enough To Ask Good Questions
Now, you may have to match the content with students’ background knowledge. This clip of grapes sparking from 4:35 – 4:40 is fascinating, but young students will lack the background knowledge needed to ask good questions. Then this ends up being just an “oh, cool video” experience. Which isn’t what we’re going for!
But, if you teach AP Physics, maybe it would be appropriate in that setting. Balance the mystery with students’ ability to make sense of the mystery.
And that’s it for Inquiry Training! Not something I’d use every day or even every week, but it might just be the perfect fit for a particular lesson’s needs.
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