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Why the “Why?” Question Is a Good Thing for Student Learning

August 26, 2019

By: Kendall Hunt RPD with contributions from the writing team of By Design Science grades 1-8

This summer, parents with kids at home probably rediscovered the number of times per day their children can ask a variation of “why?” Most parents begin answering with the best intentions, but after the five hundredth “why,” even the most patient parent can perhaps be excused for exclaiming, “Because I said so!”

The “why” question can be persistent and occasionally perplexing, enough to drive parents and teachers over the edge. But its presence is actually a positive thing for student learning and engagement, and it’s when it disappears that educators should start to worry.

According to a frequently cited Newsweek article, “The Creativity Crisis,” preschool children ask an average of 100 questions a day, but that number plummets by middle school. The focus of education shifts to answering, not asking; proving, not investigating. And when students do ask questions, it’s typically in response to a teacher’s prompt or guidance about what the “logical question” might be in this situation.

Inquiry learning flips that model on its head. The customized ByDesign Science curriculum is firmly based on inquiry learning and student questioning strategies. According to Lee Davidson, associate dean for the School of Education of Andrews University,

     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.

Davidson explains that in inquiry learning, students “are free to ask the questions they really have” about a subject, rather than trying to ask the questions that they think the teacher wants them to ask or give the answer that they think the teacher wants to hear. This leads to much higher rates of student engagement and eager participation. After all, if it’s a question that really did occur to you, rather than one that was given to you on a sheet of paper or spoon-fed to you by a teacher, don’t you think you’d be more interested in discovering the answer? You’d be discovering it because you wanted to know it, not because you wanted to be able to prove that you knew it. And chances are, you’d remember the answer better in the long run because it was something that mattered to you, not something that mattered to your teacher or your textbook.

In the ByDesign Science curriculum, the unit materials can be customized and individualized to cater to the questions students want to explore. The open inquiry at the beginning of each unit allows students to investigate any topic that relates to that unit, letting them ask the questions they have about the chapter’s content, even if that question isn’t explicitly covered in the textbook. For example, in the introduction to Unit 1: Life Science of the Grade 1 curriculum, teachers can ask students, “What can you learn about animals by studying animal tracks?” Students then develop a list of questions about animals and their tracks, and the teacher should “challenge students to find answers to the question that most interests them.”

The ByDesign Science curriculum gives students a jumping-off point from which to ask the questions they truly want to know the answer to, and their learning is more fruitful because of it. This fall, check out the ByDesign Science customized curriculum, and reignite your students’ enthusiasm for asking “why?”

How have you seen the “why?” question transform your class discussions?