Questioning strategies to deepen scientific thinking

By Shelley Stromholt - May 2011


Oliveira, A. (2010). Improving teacher questioning in science inquiry discussions through professional development. Journal of Research in Science Teaching47(4), 422–453.

While inquiry-based science education is a useful instructional approach, the complex interactions required to carry it out successfully are often oversimplified, leaving educators unprepared for the enactment of inquiry science lessons. Through professional development, teachers analyzed classification systems of questions in light of their own classroom experiences. They were then able to use questions to create more opportunities for students’ higher level thinking, longer and more sophisticated responses, and self-evaluation in the inquiry process. This study can inform ISE educators about strategic questioning systems that can be used to engage a variety of audiences in science.

This article discusses the results of one day in a two-week summer institute for 15 K-6 teachers from eight schools in a single district. Data collection included video and transcripts of the teachers in their own classrooms before, during, and after the institute training. Teachers were exposed to expert instruction about categories of questioning strategies, an inquiry immersion session, and then a collaborative assessment session, where they reflected on the facilitator’s questioning strategies in the immersion session. Using video data of their own classrooms, teachers then watched and critiqued their own inquiry-based practices. The authors used a generative coding process to identify themes in the data. In addition, the analysis of the classroom video data reflected the student centeredness of the inquiry activities.

In this study, teachers engaged in analysis of and reflection on questioning strategies in order to improve their understandings of the social and cognitive functions of questioning. Based on the premise that questioning is multifunctional in that it serves both cognitive and social goals, teachers were encouraged to see themselves as both promoting higher cognitive levels and also facilitating the construction of social identities and relationships. For example, teachers watched video of inquiry-based instruction and were asked to propose possible reasons for the questions asked in the video. Teachers reflected on how a single question could both serve to assess student understanding and encourage them to interact with each other. This reflects the goals of inquiry as both cognitive and social, as students both learn scientific cognitive skills, such as comparison, and take on identities as collaborators and experts in science.

The following recommendations can be made for ISE:

• To promote both cognitive and social outcomes, educators can use referential questions prefaced with second person and indefinite pronominal forms (“what do you think . . . ?” and “does anybody know . . . ?”) to encourage student articulation of thoughts and ideas.
• Clarification requests and confirmation checks encourage students to transform information into a more sophisticated form by requiring students either to elaborate on or repeat information previously given in order to clarify (e.g., ‘‘What do you mean?’’ ‘‘What?’).
• Posing questions with hedges can create a nonthreatening learning environment where it is okay to take a risk and be wrong (e.g., ‘‘how many people do you think we need to make ten people?’’ instead of ‘‘how many people do we need to make ten people?’’).
• Opportunities for structured reflection on teaching practice can allow educators to improve their questioning strategies, leading to deeper scientific thinking for their audiences.