Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
How to Write Deep and Meaningful Inquiry Questions
Introducing Driving Questions for Inquiry Activities:
Last week's blog post was about making detailed observations to inspire inquiry investigations. These observations lead to driving questions.
But what is an inquiry question? How is it different than any other kind of question? How do you write questions that lead to a deep and meaningful inquiry learning experience? Keep reading!
Check out some inquiry-based learning resources from Experiential Learning Depot, including an introductory to experimental design resource that helps transition students to self-led inquiry investigations.
Let's Walk Through an Example:
A couple of days ago my children and I were walking around our neighborhood observing the fall colors. My son noticed a bald eagle flying above us. It eventually perched in our neighbor's tree directly next to another eagle. Right at that moment we watched a battle ensue between the eagles and then heard a thump! Upon inspection we saw that the eagles had been fighting over (what we believe was) a rat.
One of the eagles flew away, while the other continued to sit in that same tree, likely waiting for us to leave so that it could snag the rat that we were standing next to. Eventually the eagle flew away, and when we came back to our neighbors yard hours later, the rat was still there. The eagle never came back to get it.
Those that observed the interaction started spouting off questions. My four-year-old said she felt sad for the rat, and my son's response was "don't eagles need to eat?" This opened the door for an inquiry investigation about the food chain and predator/prey relationships.
My son also asked why the eagles were fighting. Simply put, they were fighting over food, but this surface question could easily turn into a deeper exploration into intraspecific competition and population dynamics.
I wondered if our presence cost the eagle its meal. If we hadn't been standing there would the eagle have returned for the rat? This question could be refined into a more detailed driving question about animal behaviors, the influence of humans on local ecosystems, whether humans should interfere with natural phenomena, and how that interference may affect the natural balance of the ecosystem.
Arriving at the Big Questions:
This post is about asking those big questions that lead to big investigations. So how do students write those questions? Some questions are better than others when it comes to asking effective inquiry questions. Let's go over a few...
1) Is an eagle a predator?
"Is" - This question only gets at the surface of the concept. The student can easily answer the question with one Google search and the experience is over.
2) Do eagles eat rats?
"Do" - Same idea. Do eagles eat rats? Yes. Investigation over.
3) What do eagles eat?
"What" - This sort of question, ones that begins with "what", "who", and "when", can be answered easily with little room for interpretation. You discover that eagles eat rats, rabbits, other birds, and road kill. But the why isn't addressed, which makes the question pretty basic.
4) How did the eagle get that rat?
"How" - You do a little research about the hunting techniques of an eagle, and maybe even dig into its evolutionary history. Asking "how" goes slightly deeper than "what" or "where", but is still not quite what we want.
5) Why does the eagle want to eat the rat?
"Why" - This "why" question encompasses all of the questions asked before it. This question would take time to answer. It gets into the interconnectedness of life on earth, the food chain, animal behaviors, the eagle's evolutionary history, and so on.
6) Should humans interfere with the predator/prey relationship?
"Should/would" - This "should" question is more philosophical, but it gets at a deeper exploration of how species are connected, niche, adaptations, symbiotic relationships, the complexities of predator and prey relationships, coevolution, and yes, the role that humans play in the natural world.
This question is specifically directed toward the effect that humans might have on the natural balance of the ecosystem, if they were to protect a rabbit from the talons of an eagle, for example. This question requires critical thinking and analysis, an understanding of the predator/prey relationship, ecological communities and populations, evolutionary history, and an examination of the scientific research that is already out there as well as the varying perspectives among community members and experts. This is a great inquiry question.
Try This Exercise with Your Students:
Encourage these deeper questions by having students go through this exercise. Have them make a simple observation, such as "The leaves on the tree are turning yellow." Then they can begin to ask questions starting with basic "what", "who", and "when", then move onto "how" and "why", and finally ask those rich questions starting with "should" or "would" that can become the driving question to a comprehensive inquiry exploration.
I have put together an easy to use template for this exercise that can be copied and assigned to students digitally. You can find it in my free resource library accessible to subscribers. After you have signed up for my mailing list you will receive an email from me with the password to this library as well as a project-based learning assessment e-portfolio.
Applying Questions to Specific Learning Experiences:
Not long ago I wrote a post about teaching methods that embrace and promote inquiry. Project-based learning and scientific inquiry experiments were two of several mentioned. I'm going to stick with these two methods here.
How to Write a Project-Based Learning Driving Question:
The backbone of a project-based learning experience is the driving question. You could simply ask students to research a specific topic, but a driving question offers purpose. PBL driving questions include a who, an action, and identifies the purpose of the experience or the audience that is impacted by the experience.
1. How could my class educate the local community about, and include the community in preventing human interference with local wildlife?
The big difference between this driving question and simply researching the topic of eagles as a local predator, is in the purpose. The purpose is to bring the community together to work toward a common interest, which is protecting local wildlife.
Check out Experiential Learning Depot's guided project-based learning resources here.
How to Write a Testable Question for an Scientific Inquiry Investigation:
Scientific inquiry investigations are my favorite! I'm a science teacher, so yes, I may be biased. But experimentation does not have to be limited to science. Sometimes the best way to investigate an idea is to test it. Students can test concepts in psychology, sociology, consumerism, economics, cooking, and more.
Experiments require a testable question. Questions are developed with cause and affect in mind. How does this affect that.
For example, "What is the effect of the presence of humans on the likelihood of an eagle returning to its prey?"
I am in the process of putting together an introduction to experimental design resource. This resource includes a step-by-step guide for student-designed experiments, including writing testable questions. Students then design and conduct their own experiments on the theme of consumer products. I will be launching this resource in the next couple of days! Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT to get an alert when it has been published.
Asking questions is inquiry. I hope this has been helpful in paving the way for purposeful student-asked inquiry questions that launch outstanding inquiry experiences. Reach out anytime with questions.
In what ways do your students find the questioning process challenging? What are some successes or favorite inquiry questions you have heard in your time as an educator? Share your stories!
Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.