Lesson Trial – Question Formulation Technique

NOTE: This lesson trail is an assignment for the Teaching 2.0 Master of Science in Education program at University of Wisconsin – Oskosh. Specifically, this is an assignment for ED715: Current Trends in Curriculum and Instruction – Inquiry & Problem Solving taught by Eric Brunsell. This is the second in a series of 3 mandatory lesson trials for this course, in which we must apply learnings from our coursework to our classroom instruction and reflect on the results.

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Narrator: “Cut to a windowless meeting room in a small office in an aging office park somewhere in the U.S.A. Our intrepid hero is engaged in his latest job interview. The office smells of old carpets, new plastic furniture, and middle management.”

Interviewer: “So, do you have any questions for us?”

Intrepid Hero: “Oh… ummm…well….uhhhh…. not right now, I guess…”

Interviewer: “Okay, thanks for coming in. We’ll be in touch.”

Narrator: “Later, our intrepid hero wakes in a cold sweat in the middle of the night…”

Intrepid Hero (crying out to noone in particular): “Why didn’t I ask about training and benefits and opportunities for advancement and other responsibilities and COMPENSATION?!&%$#!???”

Narrator: “We’ve all experienced the painful discomfort of question block. Don’t let this happen to you ever again. Use the QFT and be prepared for anything.”

Chimes ring; cue cheezy outro music.

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Background

We’ve all experienced situations like this. Little did I realize when I first began asking my students to generate questions to guide their inquiry that this was how many of them feel. I blamed laziness, sleepiness, disengagement, and lack or curiosity for the struggles that many students experienced when pressed to ask questions. In reality, many of my students have not developed this critical skill. Without the ability to ask really good questions, inquiry never gets off the ground!

This is where protocols like the Question Formulation Technique (Rothstein and Santana, 2011) can help to move students forward and get the inquiry going.

Make Just One Change (Rothstein and Santana, 2011) is the book that breaks down this technique in detail. Their process, the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is essentially a structured brainstorming process that focuses on generating questions. Without delving into detail (or copyrighted material), I’ll just summarize the gist of the process thusly: 1) teacher shares the rules for the QFT with the students; 2) teacher introduces the question focus, a statement designed to inspire questions about a topic; 3) students generate, hone and prioritize their questions; 4) use questions as desired.

The questions that students were able to generate will serve as a question bank from which they may choose a driving question to guide their research for an inquiry-based project.

Lesson Trial

After introducing the QFT rules and facilitating a brief discussion of the rules, I introduced the question focus: “Evolution affects our daily lives.” Students immediately began generating questions, some more quickly than others. To those groups who were really struggling, I handed a small sheet with question starters to help them get the ball rolling.

After 8 minutes of question generation, students labeled the questions as closed- or open-ended (after a brief explanation of what those terms mean). Finally, the students selected their top 3 questions for research from their list and presented their priority questions to the class.

Results

Groups generated an average of approximately 15 questions with a low of 8 and a high of approximately 30. Many of these were re-statements of the question focus or of each others’ questions.

My 3 biology classes generated a total of 45 priority questions (15 groups; 3 questions per group). Of these 45, 14 were duplicates of other questions already on the list. Thus, they generated a list of 31 unique questions to prompt their research.

My colleagues (Ken Olden and Tom Sheppard) and I separated these questions into 3 categories: unanswerable questions, low-depth questions, and high-depth questions. There were 8 unanswerable questions (example: what would happen if there was no evolution?), 5 low-depth questions (example: why are certain things colorful?), and 7 high-depth questions (example: how is evolution affecting animal diversity?).

Reflection

The QFT helped my students to generate a significant list of questions to help guide their research for this project. While some of these are not usable as they are, we will give students the opportunity to modify any of the questions they generated to make them more suitable for research. They may also choose a question that is not on this list but we will encourage them to start with those, rather than starting from scratch. They will then create a project proposal to submit to their teachers for approval before beginning their project. The goal of this step is to prevent them from choosing unproductive questions that will leave them frustrated, not to control their learning.

Besides being a useful tool to teach students the skill of question generation and to kick off an inquiry project, the QFT served another crucial purpose: formative assessment. I was able to identify many student misconceptions during the GFT process that I have been addressing in my classroom since then. For example, there seemed to be a misconception in many students that there would be no evolution if Darwin had not “discovered evolution.”

I do question whether or not the Question Focus (“Evolution affects our daily lives”) was too broad or not provocative enough. In future attempts with the QFT I plan to experiment with more specific and/or provocative statements.

References

Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Make just one change: teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.

Lesson Trial – Argument Writing

NOTE: This lesson trail is an assignment for the Teaching 2.0 Master of Science in Education program at University of Wisconsin – Oskosh. Specifically, this is an assignment for ED715: Current Trends in Curriculum and Instruction – Inquiry & Problem Solving taught by Eric Brunsell. This is the first in a series of 3 mandatory lesson trials for this course, in which we must apply learnings from our coursework to our classroom instruction and reflect on the results.

Lesson Trial – Argument Writing

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Background

Inquiry can be broken down into three key areas: questioning, investigation, and argumentation. Without any one of these three legs, inquiry loses its power.

Good questions are at the heart of inquiry – I hope that goes without saying. There is no inquiry without genuine questions.

Questioning has to be followed up with investigation – seeking answers to questions. This could take the form of scientific experiments, deep research, interviews, etc. No matter the type of investigation, if this step is neglected, the questions are meaningless and the answers are pure fluff.

Finally, we come to the leg that makes inquiry social and human – the argument. Great investigations based on interesting questions hold only so much power without this critical step.

Exposing one’s work to criticism – to share, to get feedback, to educate others – is the step that makes inquiry soar. With students, this may be the hardest step – and the most important.

In Teaching Argument Writing (Hillocks, 2011), the author lays out a powerful case for the importance of crafting strong arguments. He follows his argument with a clear method for teaching students to do so. My lesson trial was based upon this method.

Lesson Trial

My students had just completed a 3 day lab investigation with the common nematode, C. elegans. The investigation was a comparison of wild type C. elegans and a genetic mutant variety. The mutant C. elegans had the ability to maintain a normal level of activity when exposed to a salty environment, whereas the wild type had to essentially freeze in place for 24 hours in order to adapt to the salt.

To make a long story short, my students had ample data and needed to make a conclusion.

To start the argument writing process, I prompted my students with the question, “Which type of C. elegans was better, the mutant or the wild type, and why?” Because of the ambiguity of the answer (one could argue the merits of each side), students were forced to pick a side and use data to back up their argument.

Normally, this is the point where I have to pester students over and over again to use data in their conclusions and to explain how their data supprts their conclusion.

My students were already in groups of 3 or 4 for their lab work, so I asked them to work with that group. To begin, I had them get a whiteboard (I have several poster sized whiteboards made from shower board) and draw this graphic organizer:

Argumentation_diagram

Once they had done that, I asked them to pick a side as a group and write their claim (their answer to my question) in the top section.

Next, after a brief discussion about evidence, I asked them to gather evidence to support their claim. They could use their lab notes, our class data (posted in a spreadsheet projected for all to see), or some data tables that I had provided them earlier in the lab. These data tables contained data from experiments previously done on C. elegans in labs.

The next step was probably the hardest, and required a bit more discussion and explanation.

For each piece of evidence they listed, I asked them to come up with reasoning to connect the evidence to their claim. To do this, they had to come up with common sense or scientific ways to explain how each piece of evidence supported their claim.

Finally, I asked each individual to write a conclusion in paragraph form. To do this, they used the whiteboard their group had generated and turned their claim, evidence and reasoning into a paragraph or two.

Results

While the reasoning was weak at times, these were very solid conclusions.

Usually a good portion of my students make claims entirely based on vague quality statements about lab data (e.g., “because the temperature went up”, or “because the pH changed a lot”, etc.).

However, over 90% of the conclusions I collected in this lesson trial contained specific data to support their claim.

Not only do too few students use data consistently in conclusions but those who do often just throw it in there and expect the data to speak for itself (e.g., “the temperature was 90 deg. C”, or “the pH rose from 7 to 11″, etc.). There is often little or not explanation of HOW the chosen data supports the claim.

In this lesson trial, approximately 70% of my students had reasoning that clearly connected their data to their claim. As mentioned before, some of the reasoning was very weak or vague. That being said, I rarely get ANY reasoning from students in a first draft of a conclusion.

Reflection

Overall, this process was very effective. I have tried many things in the past to teach students to write good conclusions. I have provided models of various levels of quality, detailed rubrics, feedback and revision protocols, and more. However, none of those processes has been as efficient as this one at getting students into the ballpark of a quality conclusion.

This process could easily be modified to culminate in paired discussions, a whole class discussion, or full-fledged lab report writing. It could also be a great lead in to deeper inquiry – they could find the weak points in their claim and “go back to the drawing board” to gather more data.

References

Hillocks, G. (2011). Teaching argument writing, grades 6-12: supporting claims with relevant evidence and clear reasoning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Special thanks to Dr. Maureen Munn and Dr. Jeff Shaver from the University of Washington Genome Sciences Educational Outreach Program for providing the C. elegans lab and all associated materials. It was awesome!

Morgan Freeman “Your argument is invalid” Image courtesy of Pop Hangover: http://www.pophangover.com/2012/01/24/your-argument-is-invalid/