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Inquiry Learning and Questioning Strategies: Letting Students Discover the Answers

September 19, 2017

By: Lee Davidson is the Associate Dean for the School of Education for Accreditation and Assessment and Chair, Teaching, Learning, & Curriculum Department, Andrews University.

In my last blog I talked about my sister and brother attempting to keep milkshakes cool by putting them in a hot closet and having a fan blow on them. I would like to explore this a little further and look at how to make this into a teaching experience.  I don’t remember what my parents said, and our dad was a science teacher.  But this situation could lead to asking some questions that would probe existing knowledge and prompt further learning: Why do you think the milkshakes didn’t stay cold?  Does a fan always cool something off? What could we do to see if a fan cools? What effect does moisture have on the cooling effect of a fan?  Can you think of some things we could experiment with to see what is the best way to keep something cool?

Of course I would not ask all of these questions in a row, but they are examples of open-ended questions that could be asked and could lead to some simple experiments that are appropriate even for those in lower elementary grades.

As part of personal professional development, teachers of science can learn more about questioning techniques. I like materials from the Right Question Institute (, which offers excellent resources on asking questions.

We often think that teachers need to ask the right questions, but the Right Question Institute emphasizes that we need to teach our students to learn to ask the right questions.  I have used the Right Question Institute’s method a number of times with groups of people of all ages, and once they realize they are free to ask the questions they really have, it is amazing what they can do.  In fact, I often start seminars now by going through this process and having participants write the three questions they most want answered on a 3x5 card.  Their responses then guide me as I make my presentation over the next several hours or days.

Inquiry learning is about putting the students in the driver’s seat more often, letting them ask questions and work to discover the answers. It is avoiding saying “wrong” when a student answers a question, but instead guiding the student to ask more questions that will lead closer to the real truth.

The process may seem slower than simply correcting an incorrect response, and it is, but the knowledge gained is likely to stick with them much longer, and thus the time spent is well worth it. If you watched the videos that were referenced in my previous blog ( and ), you saw that many graduates from prestigious universities still don’t understand the basic ideas of science, although I am sure they made good grades in science. Our goal as teachers should be to make sure our students really do have correct scientific knowledge that is useful to them, not just to make sure our students are able to do well on tests.

As teachers of science—actually, teachers of any subject—we must continue to learn ways not of teaching better, but of helping our students to learn better.   Be careful how you interpret that statement, however, because I am not saying that the way we teach is not important.