Questioning, wondering, exploring, engaging; trying to make sense of the world. This is science. Real hands-on learning; learning through trial and error, hypothesising, reflecting, documenting…seeking answers.
When I was first training to be a teacher we learnt about higher order and lower order questioning. Higher order questioning left room for the child to answer thoughtfully; reflecting on their thoughts and experiences.
In contrast, lower order questioning simply required a yes/no answer or were typically ‘what’ questions intended to elicit a factual response without requiring the child to think too deeply about a concept or experience.
So for example, when a child is painting you could ask:
“What colour is this?” (lower order questioning)
“I noticed your paper is becoming thin here, why do you think that happened?” (higher order questioning)
Developing effective questioning techniques can really help your child engage in rich child-led inquiry which is based on reflection. The questions we ask our children can help to drive them deeper into their interests or can turn their interests into a superficial inquiry of facts and figures. It’s all in how we ask them.
I’ve been itching to get started working through Building Structures with Young Children. This book explores scientific concepts through hands-on discovery. What I really like about this book though is the emphasis on higher-order questioning to encourage children to think deeply about their work.
The book suggests you start with open explorations of building materials; strewing them throughout play areas and incorporating blocks into other types of play.
This initial open exploration phase is really important. This time gives us insights into our children’s thought processes. Just like with other inquiry work (or project work), if we allow for open exploration and allow it to guide our planning process, we are able to tailor our planning to meet our child’s interests.
Last week, after 3-4 weeks of intentional strewing, observing and documenting, I set out a building challenge: Can you build a tower? How high can you go?
It took no time at all for Jack to try and read the question… How high can you go? He accepted the challenge immediately.
Over the next week I took photos and sketched their towers. Sarah’s towers toppled after two or three blocks. Rather than offering suggestions, or lower-order questioning, I try to engage Sarah with some higher-order questions which encourage her to think more deeply:
“Tell me about the tower you built?” “Why do you think it fell down?”
“Which blocks did you choose to build with?” “Why did you choose those blocks?”
We also look at photos of previous structures, using more higher-order questioning:
“Why do you think this tower didn’t fall down?” “What made this tower strong?”
“Tell me about this tower?” “What happened when you added that block?”
In this way, Sarah is talking through her building decisions, making predictions and trialling new ways of building.
Jack took a different, more calculated approach.
How high can you go? The tallest tower he could build?
He thought about it for while. He stared into the block basket; thinking, then chose two types of blocks.
He first tried building with the thick Jenga blocks standing up…but this fell before Jack was done building. He thought again and changed his design; this time with the Jenga blocks laying flat.
“I noticed that in your first tower you had the Jenga blocks standing up. But in this tower you did something differently.”
“The blocks were too tall standing up. They couldn’t balance so they fell down. Now they are flat. They can’t fall now. I can build up and up.” ~ Jack
Jack and Sarah are learning about balance and stability. They are hypothesising, experimenting, analysing, drawing conclusions and applying that knowledge; they are undergoing the entire scientific process through exploration and reflection.
By using higher-order questioning, Jack and Sarah are encouraged to articulate their thoughts, to problem-solve and to work through different solutions.
If you want to incorporate this kind of scientific exploration, there are a few things which I have found really useful:
Asking higher-order questions
Use words like:
- Why do you think?
- I noticed that…
- How did you…?
- What do you think will happen if you…?
- Tell me about…
Voice recording app
I find I can’t be present and focussed if I am jotting down observations. So I use a voice recording app on my phone to record our conversations.
These recordings also help me to reflect on my questioning. It can be hard to not ask ‘yes/no’ or leading questions. So these recordings have been invaluable.
I can see which questions added to a rich discussion, which ones were leading – trying to pry out an answer that I wanted, and which ones simply shut the conversation down.
I try to snap quickly so as not to interrupt the kids’ work. The photos are not only helpful reflection tools for me (I can document their process), they are more so, incredible learning tools for the kids.
I show the kids photos of their previous structures for them to discuss and reflect upon. They then use these reflections to inform their building.
Clipboard & fine-tipped markers
I have these near the blocks to encourage Jack and Sarah to represent their towers graphically. This helps them to look closely; observing details and again, reflect upon their building process.
We use these drawings along with the photos in future inquiries.
This kind of scientific inquiry isn’t something which is covered in a week or a month and then moved on to something else. Open exploration, reflection, application; it’s a deep, cyclical process of learning.
The initial open exploration phase could take weeks, the building stage could take months – each time building on each other through a continual process of observation and experimentation.
Next week I will add some more materials to the building inquiry; maybe some measuring materials like a tape measure and some geometry sets for drawing lines.
We’ll also use the photos from this week to explore design ideas and talk more about balance and stability. I’m looking forward to seeing how their designs evolve.
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