Chalkboard with Question Mark

Asking Questions

July 14, 2018 4 Comments

The first Science and Engineering Practice focuses on asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering). Questions drive the scientific process, while definition the problem that needs to be solved drives the engineering process.  Because of the essential nature of both of this practice, I believe that it  the most important of the science and engineering practices.  For the purpose of this post, I am going to focus on asking questions.

SEP Asking Questions

Students should be given the opportunity in your classroom to ask questions about the following:

  • In response to a phenomenon
  • About a model or theory
  • Findings, observations and data from an investigation.

You should spend time in your classroom teaching students how to ask questions.

The Progression

Early Elementary: Kindergarten to Second Grade

The Next Generation Science standards in grades kindergarten through second grade focus heavily on observable, day-to-day phenomena.

My daughter is in this age bracket.  She makes countless observations throughout the day and I am constantly asked “Why does that happen?” or “What would happen if…”.  Students in this age group are unabashedly curious.

For this grade band, the emphasis should be on focusing their questions.  Students should ask questions based on what they observe in your classroom or in the natural world.  They should be able to identify questions that can be investigated.


Upper Elementary: Third to Fifth Grade

In grades three to five, students should start to understand the role of questions in the scientific process.  They should be able to identify variables and start asking what would happen if a variable was changed.  Students should distinguish between scientific (testable) and non-scientific (non-testable) questions.

At this point, students should also start to make predictions about the answers to their questions.

Thumbnail Asking Questions

This activity is for grades 3-5 and is available on my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

Middle School – Sixth to Eight Grade

There is a significant shift in curiosity that begins in middle school.  Last year, I really wanted to emphasize the practice of asking questions.  For the first several assignments,  I added the question, “Do you have any additional questions about this activity?” Overwhelmingly, students responded with “no”.  I shifted the question to “Is there anything else you are curious about?”  Again, most students responded with “no”.

Students in this grade level need to be explicitly taught to ask questions and given prompts.   Students should be able to ask questions:

  • that arise from observation of phenomena.
  • about unexpected results.
  • about evidence or the premise of an argument.
  • to determine the relationship between the independent and dependent variable.
  • to refine a model.
  • that can be investigated within the classroom.

Middl School Asking Questions Thumbnail

This activity is aligned to NGSS standards for middle school and is available on my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

High School- Ninth to Twelfth Grade

In high school students should refine their questions.  There is some overlap from middle school.

Students should asking questions:

  • that arise from observing phenomena.
  • to clarify or seek additional information.
  • about relationships between concepts and variables.
  • to refine a model an explanation or engineering problem.
  • to determine if a question is testable and relevant.
  • that can be investigated in the classroom.
  • that challenge the premise of an argument or the interpretation of data.


Ways to Make Questions an Area of a Focus

Designate a space in your classroom for questions.

This year, I plan to add a piece of poster board with some post-its in a designated space in my classroom to give students a space to answer questions.  While I am a little skeptical that this space will always be use correctly (I have a lot of “artwork” in my classroom!”), I plan to put it in a location that I can monitor.   Other teachers use an easel in a designated location.

When I make my spot, I will be sure to update this.

Make time for questions.

Make time for explicit instruction on how to ask scientific questions at their designated grade level.  You can consult the Science and Engineering Practices for more info for your grade band, or see the product that I have created in my TPT store.  (There are links to grade level content in the grade-specific sections above.)

After you have taught your students how to ask questions, you will also have to allocate instructional time for them to ask questions.  And, they will likely need some practice.

Organize and display questions related to phenomena.

After you have introduced your class to a phenomenon, give them post-its and ask them to write down questions about the phenomenon.  You can group the questions using larger post its and display them on a wall throughout the unit and use the questions to drive instruction.

(P.S. You can anticipate student questions to drive your instruction and add a lesson here or there as needed.  Many teachers are under the impression that you need to wait to plan your unit until you have those student questions and that isn't necessarily the case.  Collaborate with peers to anticipate questions!)

Incorporate gallery walks.

After students have completed a task (made a model, written an argument using evidence) use a gallery walk to display student work.  They can leave critiques and questions about a student's work using more post-its (I use a TON of post-its!) or another method.

How do you incorporate questions into your instruction?

Erin Sadler

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  • Brooke July 19, 2018 at 7:29 pm

    Great article! The natural progression students go through in terms of questioning is really interesting.

    • Erin Sadler July 19, 2018 at 7:31 pm

      It really is interesting. The framework does a great job of showing clear progressions in just about every aspect of the NGSS.

  • Stephanie July 21, 2018 at 2:57 am

    Great information! Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Erin Sadler July 21, 2018 at 10:36 am


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