Nurturing Questions in our Science Classrooms

Asking questions facilitates us to think about what we observe and why things happen the way they do
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Prof Wahiddindin Malik Ex Vice Chancellor of the University of Kashmir while writing for Inquiry Journal published by Government College of Education Srinagar said that Science has no high priests which cannot be questioned.

What would be desired highly undesirable in Science is the unquestioned acceptance of things as they are. Science prefers hard facts to the dearest illusions of scientists. To be accepted all new ideas must survive rigorous standards of evidence.

Scientific knowledge is never at a standstill, it is a dynamic and ongoing process. In the world of today where knowledge is being multiplied exponentially, science education will not be able to justify itself by remaining merely contented with the objective of imparting a certain quantum of scientific knowledge, however large be the quantum.

Since the rate at which knowledge in science today gets obsolete is very high, it is essential that the emphasis of science education should be on the development of abilities and dispositions of mind rather than merely transfer of dead subject matter. Research in Science Education should be urgently addressed to the problem of promoting questioning culture in our science classrooms.

Alexander Fleming was working in the laboratory. He was doing an experiment for which he had to grow bacteria. One day in his lab, he noticed something that probably did not make him very happy. Some of his petri dishes, in which he was growing what he needed, had mold growing on them.

The mold had killed the bacteria, so his experiment ruined. What do you think most people would have done with those moldy dishes? I suspect many scientists would have thrown them away. Luckily, Alexander Fleming did not do that. He wanted to know why the bacteria had died. Was there something about that mold that killed them? Now he had a new problem to investigate.

The things Alexander Fleming learned from his moldy petri dishes led to the development of penicillin, an antibiotic that has saved many, many lives. Alexander Fleming did not just complain about things he did not understand; he tried to understand them; and he thought of more than one problem he could investigate.

Alexander Fleming asked at least three questions. He asked, "What happened in these petri dishes? What is growing here?" "Why did the bacteria die?" and "How did the mold kill the bacteria?" "What," "why," and "how" are three important words that many scientists use when they are asking questions.

What, why, and how questions help us think about what we observe and why things happen the way they do. Recently I was invited as a resource person in a workshop for training science teachers working at high school level.

I started with the Archimedes principle which states “The upward buoyant force that is exerted on a body immersed in a fluid, whether partially or fully submerged, is equal to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces and acts in the upward direction at the center of mass of the displaced fluid”. There were thirty science teachers from different schools who were deputed for training.

I requested the participants to come forward and demonstrate the Archimedes Principle, beyond definition no one in the hall had properly comprehended Archimedes principle. The lecture extended for about two hours but I had not received enough questions from the participants. During my MPhil studies I worked on the theme “Teaching of Science and Mathematics at High School Level”.

I keenly observed what is actually happening in the science classrooms, science teaching is subservient to examination system, students are passive listeners and do not display courage to ask what, why and how of a phenomenon.

The culture of questioning is missing in our science classrooms. Prof Yasphal visited University of Kashmir on April 13 2004. He delivered a golden jubilee lecture on the theme “Reinventing Education for tomorrow”. Later he interacted with many school children in the Gandhi Bhawan of the University .

The students were asked to frame questions on science phenomenon. Prof Yashpal analyzed those questions and found most of the questions were teacher-tailored designed as per the prescribed science curriculum and lacked originality, fluency and elaboration, the three indices of creative questioning.

Late Prof A.R Rather in his research monograph on “Creativity and Dropout” had also observed that science students and teachers do not ask divergent questions which are key for promoting creativity in the science classroom. 

Here I discuss some classroom strategies which will be of great aid to science teachers for nurturing Questioning Culture in our science classrooms: First, plan the purposes of your questioning Many times, you may ask questions to determine whether students understand the content being discussed.

However, questioning that focuses primarily on checking for understanding can lead students to believe every question is a quiz with the purpose of producing a single correct answer. In such an atmosphere, it is difficult to induce students to risk offering original ideas or opinions when they are desired. 

One purpose that can be particularly damaging to student creativity and learning is the use of questioning as a weapon. Regardless of the provocation, it is important not to use questions to bully or shame students.

Although questions can appropriately be used to draw an inattentive student back into the conversation, it is important to do so in a way that maximizes the chances that the student can respond appropriately. Students who have been humiliated by pointed questioning are not likely to have a positive learning experience, nor are those who witnessed the humiliation.

Such strategies are extremely detrimental to the atmosphere of acceptance and risk taking that supports creativity. Second, consider the pacing of your questions.

The use of wait time, a brief pause between the question and the response-typically 3 a 5 second has been associated with increased student responses, more complex responses, and greater willingness to respond.

If we hope to prompt diverse or original responses, it is only reasonable to give students some time to think of them.  Third, consider the distribution of your questions. Creative thinking is important for all students. Neither our society nor the global community can afford citizens who do not think and solve problems.

Consequently, it is important that the questions prompting creative thinking are distributed equitably to all students. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Many teaches distribute  questions unequally, calling on boys more than girls, high achievers more than low achievers, majority students more than minority students, or students on one side of the room more than those on the other. 

One advantage of random questioning-that is, asking a question and then randomly selecting a student to respond rather than choosing volunteers-is the message it sends about high expectations for all students. If teachers usually call on volunteers, students reason- ably assume that if they do not volunteer, they are free of the responsibility to respond and need not necessarily concentrate on the lesson. 

In addition to distributing questions equitably, make sure that you use probing and prompting responses equally for all students. Sometimes a student's initial response is unclear or incomplete.

If only highly able or highly creative students are prompted for further responses, other students may come to believe they need not be concerned with questions that demand creative thought.

Ask a colleague to observe your questioning technique. You might ask the observer to keep track of percentage of convergent and divergent questions you use. If the observer knows your class well, you might want him or her to note the number of high and low achievers you question. See what patterns of questioning you are using.

Fourth, remember that there is a difference between questioning and discussion. Both questioning and discussion are important strategies. In questioning, most of the interaction is between the students and the teacher.

In a discussion, students talk both to the teacher and to each other. The teacher may ask a stimulus question, but the bulk of the responses and additional questions come from the students. 

 Content teaching provides many rich opportunities for encouraging creativity in students. The type of content we teach and the methods we use for doing so send messages to students about the types of learners and thinkers we expect them to be.

Content and lessons that expect students to question as well as answer, investigate as well as comprehend, and identify problems as well as solve them allow students to learn important content while exercising their creativity-surely an unbeatable combination.

My dear students on this National Science Day let us take an oath:

We will be

Ø  inquisitive about things and events around us;

Ø  Have the courage to question dogmas and practices;

Ø  Ask what, how and why and find out answers by critically observing, experimenting, consulting, discussing and reasoning.

Ø  Record honestly our observations and experimental results in our laboratory and outside it.

Ø  Repeat experiments carefully and systematically if required but do not manipulate/cook our results under any circumstances.

Ø  Be guided by fact, reason and logic; do not be biased in one way or the other.

Ø  Aspire to make new discoveries and inventions by sustained hard work and unpunctuated faith on Almighty Lord.

Note: I dedicate this piece to my parents who made my journey from a sapling to a shady chinar possible.

Dr Showkat Rashid Wani, Senior Coordinator, Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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