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Science - The right questions

resources | Published in TES magazine on 9 December, 2011 | By: James Williams

With a good scientific enquiry, you've won half the battle already

Devising good scientific questions does not come easily to pupils. As with all skills, it needs practice. Start by trying to identify questions that are scientific and those that are not. For example, if we wanted to investigate carrots we could ask:

Does light affect the growth rate of a carrot?

Do different soils produce different colours of carrot?

Does the age of a carrot affect its taste?

Each question is testable. We can grow carrots and eat/compare them. The problem arises when we are trying to measure taste. Different people will have different ideas about what is a "good" taste. In short, not all the questions above are scientific.

Good scientific questions have certain general characteristics. First, they can be answered through research or experimentation. "Do heavier things fall faster than lighter things?" is a good scientific question because you can make a prediction and devise a way of testing it. But even this has problems - for example, testing in air means that we have to think about air resistance. It reflects a problem that science always has to deal with: variables.

Second, they build on what is already known. School science does not involve entirely new ideas, concepts or knowledge. More often than not, pupils devise questions on topics they are studying, so make sure they have sufficient background research to come up with new questions.

Third, they can be tested by experiment. Scientific experiments consist of observing, measuring or obtaining data in a real situation. A good scientific question will enable data to be collected that can be synthesised, analysed, described and presented graphically or as a written narrative.

Finally, they prompt other good scientific questions. In science, there are few questions that do not lead to others. This is a positive characteristic, not a negative one. Even simple investigations, such as looking at the pollution of a local pond, can lead to questions - for example, "What is the source of the pollution?"

Good questions result in improved understanding. Reasonable questions can generate information, but there will be little to no improved understanding. And poor questions generate poor or misleading information. The aim of the game is to encourage pupils to know a good scientific question when they see one.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at Sussex University. His latest book is 'How Science Works: teaching and learning in the science classroom' (Continuum, £19.99)

WHAT ELSE?

Resources

For a chemistry lesson on pollution try a presentation and activity shared by Tinimoo.

Alan_Monaghan has shared a project outline for water and human conflict - use it to start a discussion with your pupils.

For a biology investigation into air quality, try a starter and extension activity from mad.scientist that is getting rave reviews.

In the forums

Read a discussion in the science forum about the use of hinge questions as an assessment tool.

All resources and forum links at www.tes.co.uk/resources013.


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