Letting students ask the questions — and answer them
For this high school science teacher, learning science means doing science. A look at an inquiry-based earth and environmental science classroom.
“The challenge is to create within the traditional school building, during the traditional school day, with the traditional textbook and paucity of materials, a series of experiences that involve students doing real science, not pretend science.”
— Denis Dubay
For Denis Dubay, an earth and environmental science teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, “doing real science” means inquiry — asking questions and figuring out the answers. He defines inquiry science as a model of teaching and learning in which “students discover some of the concepts — or most of the concepts, I hope. Rather than simply reading something or being told in a lecture, ‘this is air pollution and this is how it works,’ they have to discover it on their own.” That’s what real scientists do, and Dubay wants his students to do the same, to learn not just from the work of scientists, but by doing the work of scientists. By doing real science, he says, students learn scientific concepts more effectively and remember them longer.
But how do you turn a high school classroom into a laboratory for real science? Dubay says that successful teaching and learning using the inquiry model requires both teachers and students to be flexible and to be comfortable with lots of questions — and, often, with not knowing the answers. Dubay provides guidance along the way, building on the knowledge that students bring to the classroom. But he allows students to build on prior knowledge or concepts through their own experience, working with real-world data and other materials. The assignments he gives are open-ended, so, he says, “you don’t give them all the answers, or its not obvious what answers you want them to find, or they don’t know for sure what you want them to find.”
At least, Dubay, says, “that’s the theory.” He acknowledges that it works better sometimes than others and works better for some students than for others. But at all times, his goal is to move students away from the traditional model in which they just sit in the classroom listening. “If students have to work with material, if they have a reading they have to answer questions about — things that force them to get into the material — they have to dig around. They struggle a little bit and discover it’s okay to ask questions.” And that, more than any single concept, is what students ought to learn from doing science.
The importance of questions
Learning to ask good questions is essential for students learning science, but especially in an inquiry classroom. In Dubay’s classroom, students “have to figure out how to ask the right questions. They have to ask a lot of questions, because I’m not giving them the answers.” He knows that asking questions in class can be loaded with risk for students. No student wants to appear stupid, and fear of revealing that they don’t know or understand something can silence students in front of both peers and teachers. “I think maybe in more traditional settings asking questions is a sign that ‘I don’t understand it and maybe I’m not as smart’ as other students.” It can be equally risky for students to show interest in a topic. “Heaven forbid that they express interest in something going on in the classroom!”
To allay their fears, Dubay admits to students that he doesn’t always know the answers to the questions they ask. Admitting ignorance can be as risky for teachers as it is for students, especially to teachers accustomed to being the source of knowledge in a classroom. But in addition to helping students to understand that it’s okay to ask questions, it’s also a way to make the students answer their own questions. “You have to be willing to say you don’t know when a student asks you a question,” Dubay says. “I have a hard time saying no, so if one of the students asks me a question, I have to catch myself, because I’ll give them the answer. Even if I know, I’ll say, ‘I don’t know. You’ve got to figure that out. And when you find out, I want to know!’” Teachers need to become comfortable not having all the answers, he adds. “It’s not a sign of your weakness as a teacher that you don’t know the answer. And even if you knew the answer, you wouldn’t want to tell them, so it’s almost better not to know.”
To encourage students to ask questions, Dubay designs his units with inquiry as the focus. Inquiry, he acknowledges, requires a shift away from more traditional forms of pedagogy. “Sometimes I’ll put an activity together that will require them to do some research. And as I’m putting it together, there are a lot of different directions to go with it. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘maybe I need to work out this and that detail so they know where to go.’ And other times I’ll think, ‘no, let them figure that out.’ I try to just frame the question so they’re given some guidance on where to go, but don’t give them any of the answers. I let them struggle with it.”
Dubay begins a unit by giving students the opportunity to ask open-ended questions. He’ll introduce a concept, section, or unit by asking students to consider the essential questions about the topic. “These are the big questions, not the objective questions with yes or no answers. In fact, the more central the question, the less definitive the answer is to it, or the more unknowns that are still out there floating around about this question.” These essential questions become the organizing concepts for a unit.
Dubay then pushes students to frame questions that are testable. “Sometimes I’ll ask students, ‘What hypothesis can you come up with to explain this observation?’” He pushes them to develop a scientific hypothesis, one that can be systematically tested. Students must be able to identify the independent variable that they can control, as well as dependent variables that they can measure. “That will tell you if the independent variable had the effect you thought it was going to have. If you can’t vary that independent variable, or you can’t control it, or you can’t measure the dependent variable, you don’t have a scientific hypothesis, so its not going to help you figure out what’s going on.’”
Content in the inquiry classroom
Lecture still plays a role in an inquiry classroom, to introduce students to concepts and to summarize units. Dubay admits that “it should probably play more of a role” in his classroom. “Last year and the year before, I don’t think I lectured enough. I would give them the activity and say go for it. But they need a little bit of an introduction to it, and they need a little bit of a wrap up at the end to pull it together, and I’m trying to do a better job of that this year.”
To pique students’ interest, Dubay uses storytelling to introduce new concepts. These stories often emerge from Dubay’s own curiosity and inquiry about a topic. The story of how the tropopause was named is one such story he used in his Advanced Placement class.
We were studying the atmosphere, and there are different layers to the atmosphere. There’s the troposphere, tropopause — the layer in between the troposphere and stratosphere — and the stratosphere. And I always wondered, why is tropopause called the tropopause? When you start looking at it, you realize that as you go up on in the atmosphere temperature decreases. As you go higher, when you get to the tropopause, it switches, and as you go through the stratosphere, temperature increases with altitude. Why did they call it the tropopause — the layer between these two layers - the tropo- pause? Well, one reason is probably because when they first started sending balloons up and recording temperatures, all of a suddenly they noticed the temperature stopped decreasing. It paused, so it’s the tropopause.
Dubay began with a question of his own: Why is the tropopause called the tropopause? He conducted a web search to find the name of the scientist credited with discovering the tropopause. In his search, Dubay learned that this man was the first scientist to send balloons high enough to get beyond the troposphere and into the stratosphere. The scientist noticed the change in the fact that the temperature stopped decreasing and called this new region the tropopause. “To tell stories like that gets students’ attention and it makes a lesson more interesting,” Dubay says. How something came about is not all dry facts. I tell stories probably as much as outlining concepts from the book. That’ll be half of my lecture time.”
Some of Dubay’s stories come from the scientific magazines he reads over lunch. Dubay subscribes to Science News, Science, Scientific American, Discovery, and American Scientist, and while there never seems to be enough time to read them all, he tries to skim them and stay current on events in the scientific community. Dubay recommends the weekly Science News. “If you read that every week, almost inevitably you’ll find, within a month, one or two stores about whatever topic you’re talking about in class.” The science magazines were especially useful during Dubay’s first years of teaching, when he was looking for content beyond the textbook. “I’d look for articles and talk about how that was related to what we were doing — I’d take ten minutes and just read it.” He doesn’t do this as often as he used to, but he still tries to work in current science events occasionally. “They usually get real quiet when I do that, and always have.”
Learning about science that’s happening nowengages students; it makes the concepts they’re learning relevant to them. A recent honors class pursuing a lab on particulate matter were engaged by an article in Science News about a scientist studying the concentration of antibiotics that occurred in the particulate matter in hog farms and in the buildings where the hogs were being raised. The article described the health effects involved and explained antibiotic resistance, and students were attentive to this real-world example of what they were learning. “This is a noisy group sometimes when I want to talk to them,” Dubay says. “But when I started talking about the study they were real quiet.”
Another fruitful source of information is the Internet. Dubay has six computers in his classroom and uses them to encourage student research. “Technology and students are getting more sophisticated,” he explains. “A couple of years ago it was really frustrating to give them an assignment because they’d come back after five minutes and say, ‘I can’t find it.’ And that would be the end of it. It’s not that the information is there now and wasn’t there then — it was there then too. But students didn’t have the sophistication with the search tools and didn’t go any further and look at the third and fourth page of results. Persistence matters!”
Opportunities for inquiry also come from less likely sources. Dubay turned a conversation with a neighbor into an opportunity for extra credit work when the neighbor cautioned him that refilling plastic water bottles was a potentially dangerous practice. “He said, ‘You know, you don’t want to reuse those plastic bottles because they have carcinogens. And if they get exposed to the sun they start to break down and that’s not good for you.’” Dubay was a little skeptical. “For one reason, because I’d been using it so much I didn’t want to believe it! So I thought, ‘I’ve got to look that up!’ Then I thought, ‘I’m not going to look that up. I’ll make it an extra credit opportunity.’”
Dubay told students about the encounter with the neighbor and then asked the students if it was something he should be worried about. He asked students to post answers and sources of information on the class website. “And I found out more about plastic bottles! It’s okay to buy the milk, the water, in a plastic bottle and maybe reuse it once or twice, but don’t set it in the sun! Then throw the bottle away. The ones you can reuse are the ones with numbers 4, 5, 6, or 7. If it just has a 1, that’s probably the one that’s quickest to break down.”
Managing the inquiry classroom
Dubay speculates that many teachers don’t use inquiry because it’s easier to follow the textbook. “If that’s what they ‘grew up in teaching doing’ it’s going to be hard to change,” he says. But when teaching earth and environmental science, Dubay admits frustration with the current selection of textbooks for the discipline, which focus on either earth science or environmental science. Alternative sources of content and the advantages of technology, however, provide Dubay with greater flexibility. “If you gave me six more computers, you could keep the textbooks, I wouldn’t need them at all. It’d be nice to have them, but I could get away without them.”
For teachers considering inquiry and active teaching and learning, Dubay cautions that “you can’t expect silence.” The activity inherent in the inquiry classroom can be unsettling for some teachers. With an inquiry model, the teacher is not regularly in front of the room controlling a group of students who are all doing the same thing at the same time. When students are pursuing answers to their questions, “you’ve got thirty students scattered around the room. In my case, because I have six computers, I try to have at least two different activities going on all the time. Because I can only get — at best — twelve students on the computers, I have eighteen students that can’t use computers, so there’s something else they’re doing. So that gets to be kind of a hectic room.”
Managing all that activity, keeping the students productive without directing them, can be challenging. “You’re not at the front of the classroom lecturing, giving students the answers,” he says. “You’re circling around trying to answer questions. But if they don’t ask questions, you’re kind of standing there, and you can look around and see what they’re doing…You can do that a few times, but you look around the room and have to step back because you don’t want to bug somebody and be too obnoxious asking them all the time and being a distraction, because it is a distraction.”
The teacher who is willing to meet these challenges, though, is rewarded with students who are more engaged in the material and understand scientific concepts more thoroughly. “I think on balance, if you can do it, its better to have them do the discovery. They’re going to learn it better, remember it longer.”